May 25, 2011
By Matt Winkeljohn
It’s kind of easy now that the baseball team is ranked as high as No. 6 in the nation going into this morning’s ACC tournament opener against Clemson to say that Georgia Tech coach Danny Hall’s team suffered no seismic damage by virtue of its overwhelming youth.
Seventeen freshmen? Pfft!
A lineup that frequently features six first-year college players when counting the designated hitter? Puh-leeze!. That didn’t keep the Yellow Jackets from finishing in a tie for the best ACC regular-season record (22-8) along with a Virginia team routinely ranked No. 1 or darned close to it.
How the Virginia coach, whose name need not be mentioned, won ACC coach of the year as voted by his peers considering how much seasoned talent the Cavs returned relative to Hall and his situation is absolutely beyond me, and utterly absurd.
But I digress. Back to point . . .
Anyone who pays attention to college baseball had a Cliff notes read on the Jackets before the season; as freshman centerfielder Kyle Wren said Monday, “people were saying they have good pitching but they have a young offense and a young team in the field.”
Any pundit who made that observation ahead of the season was, right. Including that “but” however, was wrong. Turns out these guys can play. Wren’s leading the conference in hitting, and several other freshmen have played big, big, big roles in everything the Jackets (39-17) have accomplished.
“They kind of maybe over-looked us,” Wren said, without really saying who `they’ were. “As the season progressed, I think we’ve proven that we can play at a high level. We can be a top 10 team in the nation. I think we’re starting to get back to playing the way we were in the beginning of the season.
“If we can do that, I think we’ll have a good shot of winning the ACC tournament and . . . getting in the College World Series, which is always the goal.”
That may be down the road.
First, after today’s 11 a.m. game against Clemson, Thursday’s game against N.C. State, and Friday’s game against Florida State – all in pool play – there will be the weekend’s elimination brackets in Durham, N.C.
Barring a flame-out, there is a pretty good chance that the Jackets will play host next week to an NCAA regional. We’ll see.
Even before that is settled, it is obvious that having a roster that is 50 percent freshmen has hardly handicapped the Jackets as many might have predicted. This team struggled with weekday games all season, particularly against in-state squads.
If you’re like me, perhaps you’re thinking that all that youth was like a pressure-release valve. Maybe expectations were lowered and therefore Tech was able to play more freely. Or something like that. Hey, that’s big thinking, but it may be nuts.
Junior pitcher Mark Pope – who along with Wren earned first team All-ACC honors – said there has always been more internal pressure and expectation than external forces of like kinds. “I think [the freshmen] have been battling for positions, to prove themselves, and that’s been helping,” he said. “They’ve been trying to out-perform each other.”
Catcher Zane Evans, another of the many freshmen in the mix, threw in with that line of thinking.
“From the outside, we hear, `Oh, you guys have 17 freshmen coming in; it’s going to be a tough season,’ “he said. “We try not to listen to that, and just do what we’ve been doing our whole lives. Fighting for a spot, that’s the most pressure we’ve felt all year. It’s kind of like a puzzle that coach Hall has put together. He’s put it together pretty well so far.”
Indeed, he has.
Hall didn’t seem surprised Monday when asked about results to date.
“My expectations would never change, and I would never use the fact that we’ve got to play freshmen as an excuse for not being good,” the coach said. “I hold myself accountable for setting the expectations for my team to play as well as we can play every time we go out there.
“We’re going to play with the people we have, and if they happen to be freshmen that doesn’t change our expectations.”