Feb. 8, 2018
By Wiley Ballard
Growing pains are a rite of passage and baseball pitchers are no exception.
After starting 28 of 30 ACC games with a freshman or sophomore on the mound, head coach Danny Hall hopes that the lumps from a year ago can turn an inexperienced rotation into a wily, veteran crew.
By tossing 82.2 innings in 2017, Xzavion Curry became the first rookie to lead Tech in innings pitched since Kris Wilson in 1995. The right-hander added a team-best 74 strikeouts across his 15 starts which included 13 series openers. The former Mays High School Raider utilized a lethal fastball/curveball combination but plans to incorporate his change up more often as a sophomore. With an explosive 5-foot-10, 183-pound frame, Curry returns as Georgia Tech’s ace in 2018 with a few objectives in mind.
“My goals are to finish with a record over .500, lower my walk rate from last year and be amongst the top pitchers in the ACC,” stated Curry.
Jake Lee found success as both a reliever and a starter a year ago. After a handful of impressive appearances out of the bullpen (highlighted by a dominant six innings against No. 2 Louisville), Lee earned a slot in the weekend rotation. The Brooks, Ga. native responded with multiple quality starts including a complete game win at Duke. The 5-foot-11, 175-pound righthander’s greatest strength is his control. Across 51.2 innings he walked just 19 and did not throw a single wild pitch. With nearly 100 innings under his belt, Lee knows his swiss army knife skill set is valuable to the staff.
“I feel just as comfortable starting as I do if I were relieving,” declares the junior. “But it’s nice to know the role you’re going to have rather than it being a roll of a dice every week. I’m more comfortable with the consistency that I think I might see this season.”
As a true freshman in 2016, Jonathan Hughes lived up to his high billing with a 2.45 ERA across his first five starts. Unfortunately his first five starts would be his only five starts in 2016 after an injury sidelined him for the remainder of the year. Last season, Hughes never found his rhythm and made only one appearance in the second half. Now entering his redshirt-sophomore campaign, the former second round pick looks like his old self with a fastball sitting above 90 mph. His key to success will be filling up the zone after free passes plagued him last year.
Connor Thomas may be the Yellow Jackets’ most viable left-handed starter. The Omega, Ga. product made his collegiate debut on a major league stage appearing in relief against Georgia at SunTrust Park last season. He logged just 10.1 innings a year ago, but showed promise this summer in the Coastal Plains League where he punched out 50 hitters in less than 40 innings.
On behalf of the returners, Curry believes “anybody they decide to throw up on there on any given day can handle any situation our coaches put them in. I feel like we made a big improvement on our pitching staff from last year. Everybody’s improved in all areas.”
Joining the four returners above are three big-bodied freshmen who have intensified the race for starting assignments.
At 6-foot-6 and 228 pounds, Brant Hurter is Tech’s tallest pitcher since 2010. Perfect Game named the Woodstock High School ace as the state’s No. 2 left-handed pitching prospect in the 2017 class. The first-team all-state selection went 9-3 with a 1.22 ERA and 120 strikeouts while leading the Wolverines to their deepest postseason run in school history last year.
Hugh Chapman brings equally exciting potential from the right side. The rookie was a two-sport star at Holy Innocents’ Episcopal School lettering in basketball and baseball. Perfect Game ranked Chapman as the state’s second-best right-hander in his class. The 6-foot-3, 213-pound freshman led the Bears to a region title and a state semifinal appearance.
Blue Ridge, Ga.’s Will Shirah rounds out the freshmen trio. An early enrollee, Shirah graduated one semester early from Fannin County High School to join the Yellow Jackets for the 2018 season. Perfect Game listed the 6-foot-2, 195-pound hurler as the state’s No. 4 southpaw in his 2018 recruiting class. Despite playing only three years of high school baseball, Shirah earned all-region honors three times and led his team in batting average twice as a switch-hitter.
When all is said and done, Lee believes a successful season for the Yellow Jacket starting rotation boils down to one simple thing.
“We need to stay within ourselves. We can’t give up `freebies’ such as walks, hit-by-pitches or even stolen bases. If we focus on throwing strikes and keeping our team in a situation to win the game we’ll have done our job.”