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Hill Too Steep To Climb

June 5, 2011

By Matt Winkeljohn
Sting Daily

For all the fuss made about Georgia Tech’s youth before the season, I vividly recall baseball coach Danny Hall saying that with NCAA rule changes to deaden bats that to the teams with better pitching and defense would more often go the spoils.

He nailed that one.

In this game, you gotta pitch it and you gotta pick it.

In a way, Tech had the pitching. No way the Jackets had the defense.

Playing four games in roughly 50 hours, Georgia Tech rolled out all the good and all the not-so-good facets of its baseball team this weekend. In bowing out of the NCAA Tournament Sunday night with a 7-3 loss to Mississippi State, the Yellow Jackets displayed much too much of the latter.

The right-most number aside Tech’s name on the scoreboard Sunday read 5. That’s how many errors the Jackets committed (their most since the 2009 NCAA regional) against the Bulldogs, who gladly scored six unearned runs.

“We gave up one earned run. That is really what did us in, our miscues in the field gave them extra outs and they capitalized.”

That would be understatement.

MSU’s C.T. Bradford was the Regional’s Most Outstanding Player Sunday. He scored an unearned run in the first, knocked in two unearned runs in the second with a double, and drove in two unearned runs with a single in the third – all with two outs.

Said Hall: “Four RBI tonight, and that is probably the difference in the game.”

Indeed, that’s called taking what you’re given.

At times throughout Tech’s 42-21 season, defense was a significant issue. Overall, the Jackets committed 84 errors on the season, opponents 70. Tech allowed 71 unearned runs, opponents 38.

Sunday, Tech’s scab was picked.

It was widely believed – and through the season proven – that Tech’s greatest strength would be starting pitching. Counting the Jackets’ four regular starters, that was abundantly true by many metrics.

The Jackets’ four regular starting pitchers – Mark Pope, Jed Bradley, Buck Farmer and Matt Grimes — pitched 23.1 of 27 innings in the first three games, and Tech allowed just two runs in each contest.

One problem in the first game was the Jackets scored just once and lost 2-1 to Austin Peay on Friday.

You’ll note as well that I wrote that Tech’s four starting pitchers worked the bulk of those three games. Pope lasted just 1.2 innings Friday, leaving with an oblique strain, and Grimes then pitched 6.1.

That caused a second, more ominous problem.

When you lose your first game in an NCAA regional, it is a brutal uphill climb to advance. It takes winning four straight games over the next three days, and your pitching is going to end up severely taxed one way or others.

Pope’s absence Friday was not the issue; Grimes pitched superbly.

Grimes’ absence Sunday quite likely as an issue.

In pitching as long as he did Friday the freshman was rendered unavailable to pitch Sunday night against MSU. That was a big, big problem.

Beyond Pope, Bradley, Farmer – who pitched a complete game Sunday afternoon as the Jackets eliminated Austin Peay 12-2 – and Grimes only two pitchers started a game for the Jackets this season. Dusty Isaacs and Luke Bard started once each.

Sunday, freshman DeAndre Smelter started for the first time as a collegian.

His first pitch was a strike. His second pitch was turned around for a single up the middle (by Bradford), and there was no good news for him thereafter.

MSU scored a run in the first, two in the second, and three in the third to lead 6-0.

The Jackets won the game from that point, with Zane Evans homering to give him two on the day and the Jackets five for the day and seven over the final three games. Given that they hit 41 homers in the first 60 games, that was a big deal.

This was much larger: there would be no overcoming the five unearned runs charged to Smelter. Bard allowed an unearned run in 4.1 solid innings, and Hall might be second-guessing himself for not starting the sophomore.

Perhaps the defense would have played no better had Grimes started, yet with due cause you may like to think that he might have otherwise fared better than Smelter. The freshman allowed six hits and walked two in just 2.1 innings. Then again, some of those numbers came after innings should have been ended.

He was thrust under a spotlight ahead of schedule.

Plus, there’s this: for whatever reason, Tech did not defend well behind Smelter all season. In 14 appearances, he allowed 12 runs and just ONE was earned.

You lose the first game in these things, and everything gets thrown out of whack. You lose that game and two starting pitchers, and you’re staring up a cliff. You try to do it with poor defense, and it’s like taking on a 100-pound backpack for the climb.

Tech’s recent postseason frustrations have been occasionally almost inexplicable.

The Jackets’ fate Sunday fate and in late in the season were not.

Tech made 17 errors in its final eight games, going 4-4. The Jackets made 23 errors in the last 11 games, going 5-6.

That’s indefensible.

“I do not think it was a case where we were tired or a step behind or anything like that,” Hall said. “We were in place to catch the ball and just did not do it, and made a couple bad throws.”

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