Nov. 15, 2016
by Jon Cooper | The Good Word
There’s no second chance when it comes to making a good first impression.
Georgia Tech baseball’s freshmen class took that mindset to heart and out to the field, using the recently completed White vs. Gold World Series as its personal proving ground.
They made their point, as the 12 freshmen on the roster — 14 if you count redshirt freshmen — all seemed to make a mark. That made a positive mark on head coach Danny Hall.
“All told we had a good fall,” said Hall. “I feel good about those guys. We got to see what the freshmen can do and see where our upperclassmen are and we can now point to opening day in February.”
While the team looks forward, the youngsters left a lot at which to look back.
The top hitter on the victorious Gold squad (infielder/RHP Austin Wilhite, .500) and four of the top six on White (shortstop/RHP Xzavion Curry, .500, catcher Kyle McCann, .300, outfielder/LHP Nick Wilhite, .250, and shortstop Parker McCoy, .200) were all true freshmen. On the mound, freshmen also excelled, as eight of them pitched and pitched effectively (seven of them pitched to a 0.00 ERA).
As the White & Gold wound down the question changed to how the Jackets would find the innings to fill all the quality arms.
Notables included lefties Jay Shadday and Connor Thomas, big (6-5, 210) righty Garrett Gooden, and Curry, a versatile talent, whose best everyday position is shortstop and who excelled in the outfield, and at the plate, where he led the White team with a .500 average. Just how to use Curry may be the biggest and most pleasant problem Hall faces heading into the season.
“If we started today Xzavion Curry is definitely one of our best pitchers,” Hall said. “The trick with him is going to be how we’re going to use him because he’s also a very good infielder, he’s a very good athlete. We’d like to try to use him as a two-way guy but we really need him to pitch. I was very pleased with him.”
Hall, whose plan of pushing Fall Practice back so as to allow his pitchers more time to get their arms ready, was pleased with senior pitchers, righty Zac Ryan, who threw 5.0 shutout innings, allowing four hits, striking out five without issuing a walk in his one start, and lefty Ben Parr, who gutted out four innings (3 ER, 4 H, 6 Ks, 2 BB) in his.
“Zac threw the ball really well this fall. That was very encouraging,” said Hall. “Ben Parr got sick the week of the World Series, so I don’t think he was 100 percent but he threw the ball really well this fall. That’s two seniors that we’ve counted on a lot in the past and we’ll definitely count on them as we move forward.”
The Jackets’ staff should be even stronger if redshirt freshman righty Jonathan Hughes, sophomore Tristin English, who earned ACC All-Freshman honors at first base, and redshirt senior lefty Jonathan King complete comebacks from injuries.
“Tristin’s definitely going to go back to pitching as long as he’s healthy and he’s throwing bullpens and seems to be progressing, but he’s also our best hitter,” said Hall. “To this point those guys have all done well in their throwing programs and I’m very optimistic they’ll be 100 percent and ready to go in February.”
Another potential issue for the Jackets coming into the fall was replacing Connor Justus at shortstop. Freshmen answered the call there as well, with McCoy and versatile Austin Wilhite, who also can play second where he’d likely spell incumbent Wade Bailey, and third, where he could allow projected starter Trevor Craport a day off, both played well. Curry, Austin’s East Cobb Yankees teammate, and Bailey showed they could be there as well.
“Parker McCoy played really well there,” said Hall. “He got hurt towards the end of the fall but I think he could play shortstop. He’s a left-handed hitter, good instincts for the game.”
Another candidate is Hall’s son, Carter Hall, who was unable to participate in fall practice due to a foot injury — he expects to be active by February.
English and senior Coleman Poje, who hit .300 in the fall, likely will handle first.
The Jackets outfield looks in good shape heading into February, with junior Kel Johnson (.417, team-highs in hits, runs, homers, slugging and total bases), senior Ryan Peurifoy and sophomore Brandt Stallings. Senior Keenan Innis also made a strong case for time.
Hall was pleased to see Johnson more closely resembling his freshman form.
“The big thing with Kel is since he hurt his ankle as a freshman I don’t think his ankle ever fully recovered but he has fully recovered this fall,” he said. “He’s running well, he’s moving much better than he did. He hit a couple of home runs late in the fall and seems to be finding his swing again.”
Hall likes the entire outfield.
“I feel like we have really good depth in our outfield,” Hall said. “I’ve said it before, Brandt Stallings has as much power as anybody I’ve ever seen. He was hurt some this fall but finished the fall on a good note, and Peurifoy had as good a fall as any of our guys. He was really confident at the plate, and he has tremendous defensive skill. The guy who surprised me a little bit this fall — I don’t think he hit a home run in a game — but Keenan Innis is hitting the ball out of the ball park much more regularly than he used to.”
Sophomore catcher Joey Bart had his struggles at the plate during the fall (.091), but last season’s ACC All-Freshman will be No. 1 behind the plate come February, although, he, too, will have a freshman pushing him in McCann, who batted .300, with all three of his hits going for extra bases (two doubles and White’s only homer). McCann’s .800 slugging average led White and was third overall behind only Johnson (1.083) and Austin Wilhite (.833). His three extra-base hits trailed only Johnson’s four.
“Joey Bart will do the bulk of the catching but his back-up in Kyle McCann finished the fall swinging the bat really well,” said Hall. “He’s left-handed, he’s got power and he can kind of change the game with his power in a hurry.”
The Jackets appear to have plenty of rainmakers, something Hall was glad to not have to face during the White vs. Gold World Series.
“We didn’t miss a day, the weather was unbelievable the whole month,” he said. “I thought the games were competitive for the most part and we came out of it injury-free, which is always a plus.
“We do need some rain,” he said, adding with a laugh. “I told somebody the other day, `Now it can rain all it wants. Fall baseball is over.’ Hopefully we get some rain and end the drought.”
There’s no drought when it comes to the Jackets’ talent pool.
“It’s a good mix of older guys and younger guys,” he said. “I feel really good about it.”