Youth Being Served

March 17, 2011

By Matt Winkeljohn
Sting Daily

– It is still early, but you have to say you’re surprised. Even Danny Hall admits as much, and he recruited the whopping 17 freshmen who make up half – literally half — of Georgia Tech’s baseball roster.

As the Yellow Jackets prepare to play N.C. State today, Saturday and Sunday in the second ACC series of the season, Tech is rolling. The Jackets are 14-4, 3-0 in the ACC. They’ve won nine straight games after early-season sputtering and tinkering.

With the top batting average (.326) in the league, the No. 2 ERA (2.06) and players scattered all over the league leaders’ charts, the going has been good – better than anyone had a right to predict, even for a team ranked No. 21 nationally.

Who leads the ACC in hitting? Why, that would be Tech centerfielder Kyle Wren, who is hitting .444 with an on-base percentage of .500.

He’s a freshman.

First baseman/outfielder Daniel Palka is among league leaders with five home runs and 19 RBI while hitting .352.

He’s a freshman.

Zane Smith is catching quite well, and hitting .344.

He’s a freshman.

It doesn’t matter whom you recruit, and whether or not they were highly drafted coming out of high school only to opt for college instead . . . it is not supposed to go like this.

“I thought we would pitch well. I wasn’t sure what we would hit like,” Hall said. “I would still say that I am a little surprised with the way we’d hit because I knew that was where we have most of our young guys and sometimes the hitting takes a while to catch up to the type of pitching we face in college.”

Wren, the son of Braves general manager Frank, has been sublime.

“I don’t think you can project any freshman, no matter who they are, to hit .400 and knock in as many runs (16) as he has (in the leadoff spot). He’s a surprise to me,” the coach explained. “I knew he was a fine player and a great competitor, but it’s truly amazing.

“At practice, he’s not going to impress you very much, but when the lights go on he is a totally different animal. He’s a guy that likes to compete and be in the middle of it. Would we have been able to predict that? No way.”

It’s not as if no Tech returning players are in the mix.

Junior Mark Pope, who will pitch this evening (7 p.m.), is 4-0, and his ERA of 0.29 leads the league.

There have been just two complete games, and two shutouts thrown by any ACC pitchers; Pope has authored both – the past two Fridays.

That has helped in more ways than the obvious.

“I think definitely,” Hall said. “They feed off each other, and Pope goes out and does what he does and somebody else wants to get into the act. The old saying winning is contagious, and I think hitting is, and I think pitching is.”

Sophomore outfielder Brandon Thomas is No. 8 in batting in the ACC, hitting .387, and junior designated hitter/first baseman Jake Davies is No. 12 at .367. Junior third baseman Matt Skole is tied for third in the ACC with three home runs.

Then there is junior Jacob Esch, the Jackets’ second baseman the better part of the previous two seasons, and again at the start of this.

Hall moved him to shortstop a couple weeks into the season to take pressure off freshman shortstop Mott Hyde, who’d made a couple very costly errors that contributed significantly to losses as the Jackets began the season 5-4.

Hyde hasn’t been with Hall for long, but long enough for the coach to sense that Hyde wasn’t himself. He was playing as if under pressure, and he was applying it to himself. So Hall relieved it, and moved him to second base.

The Jackets haven’t lost since.

“It ended up, I think, allowing Mott to relax a little bit and it’s worked out good for both of them,” Hall said. “And Esch has just played phenomenal at shortstop.”

He’s also hitting .356.

There is more. All three Tech weekend starters have ERAs under 2.00, as Jed Bradley (2-0, 1.85) and Buck Farmer (2-1, 1.96) work on Saturdays and Sundays.

Another interesting weekend awaits in Russ Chandler Stadium.

“I thought going into the year . . . I thought that N.C. State might be a sleeper team to win our league or finish near the top because they return almost their entire team,” Hall said. “Last year, they were the most physical team we played.

“The guy that is going to throw Friday [Mazzoni; 1-1, 3.29 ERA] is one of the best pitchers we saw last year, and will be a high, high draft pick. Maybe haven’t quite played as good as they’re capable of playing, but they’re a good team.”

I may be able to attend my first game this weekend. I’ll form opinions on the new bat rules then. In the meantime, if you’ve been out to the park, let me know what you think. stingdaily@gmail.com.

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