Feb. 2, 2015
DIGGIN’ IN PREVIEW SCHEDULE:
Outfielders: Monday, Feb. 2: Story | Podcast
Infielders: Thursday, Feb. 5: Story | Podcast
Catchers: Friday, Feb. 6: Story | Podcast
Bullpen: Monday, Feb. 9: Story | Podcast
Starting Pitchers: Wednesday, Feb. 11: Story | Podcast
By Jon Cooper
Expect Georgia Tech’s outfield to have a new look in 2015.
We’re talking about the outfield at Russ Chandler Stadium, which will have new padding on the outfield walls. It’s going to create a really nice look.
As far as the guys protecting that wall and the grass in front of it, expect that to look familiar, and also create a really nice look.
The Yellow Jackets return their entire starting outfield from 2014 — senior Daniel Spingola, junior Matt Gonzalez, and sophomore Ryan Peurifoy. They also bring back sophomore Keenan Innis and redshirt sophomore Cole Miller, who are eager to get field time, and, throwing his hat in the ring, is freshman Kel Johnson.
“All those guys are back, plus you throw Kel Johnson in there. It’s a good problem to have,” said head coach Danny Hall. “It will work itself out. They’ll push each other and compete and it’s going to make us a better team.”
“There’s definitely a ton of competition,” agreed Spingola, who is expected to anchor the outfield and again bat at the top of the order. “I think right now it’s definitely the best defensively and seemingly offensively with Ryan Peurifoy in right, Keenan in left maybe. Obviously, Kel has been hitting the ball really well. I’m sure he’ll get some time in the outfield, too. Maybe `Gonzo,’ you never know what he’s doing. But he’s definitely proved he can play the position really well.”
A second-team All-ACC pick, Spingola (3 homers, 36 RBI, 45 runs in 64 games, 62 starts, 15-for-16 in stolen bases), chose to come back for his senior season despite being drafted in the 24th round by the Chicago Cubs of the 2014 June Draft. He led the ACC in hits (82) and triples (8) and batted .336 in conference play, while fielding an immaculate .979 (three errors in 143 chances), with three outfield assists. He found a perfect complement and foil in Peurifoy (.296, 11 RBI, 19 runs in 50 games, 44 starts), who fielded at a .980 clip, committing only two errors in 92 attempts, while chalking up seven outfield assists.
“We’ve always had a good relationship, joking, messing around with each other but all-in-all we’re pretty competitive people and we have sometimes similar mindsets,” said Spingola of Peurifoy. “He’s a very athletic outfielder and does things very well for us. Some things I don’t do well he does well and vice versa. So I think we push each other to improve our games.”
Peurifoy certainly doesn’t hesitate to push back.
“Daniel and I are best friends. We think of ourselves as equal except we obviously tell each other that we’re better than the other,” said Peurifoy with a laugh. “But we also think of ourselves as similar guys. We are very good at ranging, tracking balls, running down balls. He’s got great range, so he can track balls in left-center, right-center gaps. I always try to mess with him about who can catch balls further. We go at each other a lot. We have a good time. We have very good camaraderie in the outfield.”
Peurifoy has also declared himself a challenger to Gonzalez as far as outfield assists (Gonzalez had nine last season, ranking fourth-most nationally). It’s all part of a general team competition.
“It’s a competition all the way around,” said Peurifoy. “We compete in running, we compete in lifting, we compete in making good throws, hitting cut-off men, hitting back-side, hitting where we’re expected to hit the ball in BP. Just little competitions throughout practice that we have among ourselves. Trying to be the better one and then we also lift each other up in practice.”
Ironically, Gonzalez’s versatility may mean he won’t be around left too much to defend his OFA title, which opens the door for Innis (.248, 25 hits, 10 RBIs, 15 runs in 40 games, 23 starts) and the rookie Johnson. The speedster Innis fit right in as a freshman defensively, fielding .961, with four assists against only two errors in 49 chances. His speed and sure hands add even greater outfield coverage, while he also has the mentality to bat at the top of the order.
A 1-2 punch of Spingola and Innis or Innis and Spingola could set the table nicely. Spingola is fine with either version.
“He’s got a leadoff-hitter mentality at the plate. He’s a pretty tough out. Sees a lot of pitches, works the count,” said Spingola of Innis. “He’s a good, solid outfielder, with good speed. I definitely see him as a player that can flourish if given the opportunity, just like I did last year, same scenario, maybe. I can see that this year from him.”
An intriguing corner outfield prospect is power-hitting freshman Kel Johnson, who batted .700 (7-for-10) in the White-Gold Series. While he’s considered something of a work in progress defensively, he’s improving every day and learning from with the smooth-fielding veterans around him.
How to use him could provide another conundrum for Hall.
“That causes a lot of dilemmas, honestly,” said Hall. “In my mind, he is one of the best hitters we have. I think he’s an elite hitter down the road. He’s got to continue to really work hard on his defense and I think, as a coach, do you just want to stick him out there and hope that gets better? Do you play somebody that’s a better defensive player than him and DH him? It’s kind of a balancing act of us wanting to develop his talent. You hope that he keeps getting the defensive part of it. I think he’s going to be a great player for us. As Bryan Prince says, `Kel Johnson is in scoring position when he steps in the batter’s box.’ I have him in right field right now.”
Johnson is eager to play in right or anywhere Coach Hall decides. One thing’s for sure, work ethic won’t be an issue.
“I can’t wait. I’m working hard everyday, putting in the time in the cages, on the field, just trying to get a spot in the lineup to play the game I love and help the Yellow Jackets win,” he said. “It goes against everything in me to help anyone else win but the Yellow Jackets because I’ve always been a Yellow Jackets fan. I want to see them win. I want to help them win and I want to do everything I can to make that happen.
Miller, who like Gonzalez can play both corner infield spots as well as the outfield and will make a strong push for playing time.
Basically, the heat is on every outfielder every day.
“There’s always someone that wants to be where you are,” said Spingola. “I was that guy freshman and sophomore years. You just have to hold your spot and do the best you can.I’m definitely excited to get it started and try to do better than last year.”
“You can’t take a day off out there. If you start slacking the next guy is going to jump you on the depth chart,” said Gonzalez, who actually worked out at seven different positions during the off-season. “We all keep ourselves pushing each other but also it’s a great group of guys to be out there shagging BP. They always keep you working hard and they’re always talking to you. You can can always get better from watching other people.”
Watching the outfield should be fun this year, as it was during the fall — for fans AND players.
“It’s funny, in the fall we had some balls crushed and we made some great plays and pitchers come up to us after in the dugout, they’re like, `Thank you for picking me up,'” said Peurifoy. “I’m like, `Thanks for giving me the opportunity to pick you up because I love getting those opportunities to make a play in the outfield.’ That’s what I dream about at night, defensive plays. Hitting home runs is hitting home runs but when I go out there and make an athletic diving play, tracking a ball, that excites me a lot more.”