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Leading Off

Feb. 16, 2011

By Matt Winkeljohn
Sting Daily

You might think it’s a little nuts for Georgia Tech to lose a school record-tying 10 players to the Major League Draft and come back with a roster that is 50 percent freshmen (17 of 34 players) yet still be ranked in the top 25 of three polls.

Before the Yellow Jackets open the season this weekend with home games Friday, Saturday and Sunday against Kent State, it’s worth remembering that those rankings are theoretical.

That said, there is some methodology in play here as Tech is ranked No. 19 by Collegiate Baseball and USA Today/Coaches, and No. 21 in the National Collegiate Baseball Writers Association.

The only sure-fire returning starters afield are third baseman/catcher Matt Skole and second baseman Jacob Esch while outfielder Brandon Thomas stands a good chance of playing plenty as well.

Take a widely respected recruiting class, mix in the fact that the Jackets return two of four primary starting pitchers in Mark Pope and Jed Bradley plus talent in the bullpen (four players there have made at least 40 career appearances) – especially if projected closer Kevin Jacob stays healthy – and add all that to new bat rules and it starts making sense.

There will be a story here later this week on the NCAA’s changes regarding bats, but for sake of this story you need know only that newly deadened bats figure to make life easier on pitchers and defenders . . . and the Jackets are deep on the mound.

Pope and Bradley have both already scored mention in some preseason All-America lists. Pope was 8-1 as a sophomore with a 3.78 ERA, and Bradley – a lefty – was second team All-ACC after going 9-5, including 6-2 in the ACC. Sophomore Buck Farmer (5-1, 3.63) will be the Sunday starter.

“I don’t think you can replace Deck McGuire. He was a first-round pick, and pitched on Fridays for us two years in a row,” said head coach Danny Hall. “I feel that it’s somebody else’s time to step in there and pitch on Fridays. We’ve chosen to pitch Mark Pope. We’re going to pitch Jed on Saturdays.

“Jed’s capable of pitching on Fridays but we kind of did it because we wanted to separate a righty, lefty and another righty. We didn’t want a left and then two straight righties.”

Skole hit 20 home runs as a sophomore with a .335 batting average and 63 RBI.

With 37 home runs, he has a shot at former catcher Jason Varitek’s career record (57) at Tech although the new bat rules won’t help (more on that in the later story). Esch (.284 batting average), who Hall said is likely to pitch some this season, and Thomas (.262) plus junior offer starting points on offense.

Hall said between four and six, maybe even seven, freshmen may start at times.

That group includes catcher Zane Evans, third baseman Chase Butler, shortstop/second baseman Matt Hyde, outfielder/pitcher DeAndre Smelter, outfielder Kyle Wren and designated hitter/outfield candidate Daniel Palka among others.

Kent State, coached by former Tech player and assistant Scott Stricklin (in his first season), won the Mid-American Conference regular season and tournament titles last season. The Flashes return seven of eight starters afield, and three of four starting pitchers. They may start three lefties this weekend.

No way around this: there will be plenty of new faces this season.

“It’ll be totally different,” Hall said. “We’re trying to decide if we’re going to platoon guys or settle in with a fairly set line-up. We have a lot of guys capable of playing, a lot of guys who deserve to play. We’ll need to probably take the first three weeks to sort out whether we’re platooning.

“We’re definitely excited to open our season. We’re excited to have a break in the weather, and we’re not fighting 40-degree weather with wind chills in the 30s. it looks like we have a great weekend.”

If you’re jacked up for some baseball, or softball for that matter, send an e-mail to stingdaily@gmail.com.

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