May 30, 2008
by Jack Wilkinson
On a day of closure, sundown gave way to a near-ideal opening night. A very good Friday, indeed, for a team in dire need of one. By nightfall, Georgia Tech’s magic number was 40. In every sense, 40…and counting.
“At the start of the year, 40 wins was something we wouldn’t dare to reach,” said David Duncan, the starter — if not the winning pitcher — in Tech’s 8-5 victory over Louisville in the first round of the NCAA Regional at Foley Field. “At the start of the year, nobody gave us credit — the media, whoever. Forty wins just means a lot, with baseball and everything off the field.”
Forty wins means Tech, now 40-19, has its 20th 40-victory season. It also has a Saturday night winners-bracket date with Lipscomb, which silenced Foley Field with a 10-7 win over host Georgia. Forty also carries a significance far beyond baseball.
“That was his number,” Duncan said, holding up his right wrist. “That was the whole thing behind it.”
On his non-pitching wrist, Duncan wore a black plastic bracelet. Everyone in the Tech baseball program wears one. It’s a mourning band, which reads: HUTTS #40 “PROVE IT”
On Friday morning, a medical examiner’s report confirmed what everyone already knew: Nearly two months ago, Tech pitcher Michael Hutts — who wore uniform number 40 and always told his teammates, “Prove it” — had died of a lethal, accidental overdose of heroin and morphine, mixed with alcohol. The Jackets responded to the news Friday with maturity, and grit.
“I didn’t think it would be [a distraction],” said Tech coach Danny Hall. “We’ve been through this as well as somebody can. I think we’ve, as best as we can at this point, put it behind us.”
“I think Coach Hall did a good job [of preparation despite Friday’s findings],” said Duncan, a close friend of Hutts. “We’ve already been through all that stuff. I was focused on the game, going pitch-to-pitch.” After a disappointing outing against Miami in the ACC Tournament, Duncan responded with five strong, four-hit, shutout innings.
“I thought Dunc pitched great,” said catcher Jason Haniger, who went 3-for-4 with three RBI and scored three times — the last time on a towering, two-run homer he crushed to center field.
“Yeah, I hit it hard,” Haniger deadpanned.”
“I would say it was gone,” Duncan, the Jackets’ court jester, joked. “I know what those look like.”
In the sixth, Duncan allowed a leadoff double, then the first of Justin McClanahan’s home runs. The two-run blast landed into the Leyland cypress trees beyond the left field wall. When Chris Dominguez followed with a solo homer, Louisville (41-20) had erased Tech’s early 2-0 lead.
Tech’s reply was swift: A hit batter, Haniger’s single, a walk, then Charlie Blackmon’s third hit of the game. The hard smash to McClanahan’s left popped out of his glove; then the second baseman’s throw to first bounced awry. McClanahan hitteth and giveth away: His throwing error — the play was correctly called a single and an error — scored two runs and regained the lead that Tech never relinquished. Not after Haniger’s ninth homer of the season capped a three-run seventh, before the Jackets added an unearned insurance run in the eighth.
When closer Brad Rulon got the last two outs, it was over. By then, the confirmation of their teammate and friend’s death was behind them. Hutts’ memory? They’ll always carry that with them, resuming tonight against Lipscomb. “When I saw the news [Friday], we tried to put it behind us, as before,” said Duncan, who still recalls that every time he came off the mound after an inning, the first teammate out of the dugout to greet and cheer him was Hutts. He’s still inspiring Duncan and all his mates.
“Forty wins, when you start the season, it’s important,” Duncan said. It’s even more important now, now that it was finally realized in Tech’s third try at victory No. 40. And, this one was for No. 40.
“Prove it. That’s what he would always say, about anything,” Duncan said, smiling. “Just stupid stuff: `Ok, this guy [stinks]. Prove it.’ Or, `This steak’s terrible. Prove it.'”
And Tech’s 40th win? Proved it. “Forty wins, it’s a tribute to Michael and his family,” Duncan said. “We’ve done something no one thought we could do. And we’re not done.”