June 2, 2006
A berth in the NCAA Tournament, as well as hosting a regional, isn’t anything new for Georgia Tech’s baseball program. After all, they are playing their 21st tournament over the last 22 years and hosting a regional for the fifth straight year.
The only novelty for the Jacket is how they’ve gotten to this familiar point. In the midst of an injury-riddled season, coach Danny Hall has had to pull a number of strings en route to a 45-16 record and number eight seed in the NCAA Tournament.
Several players have had to quickly adapt to new roles, including a pair of newcomers in first baseman Luke Murton and outfielder Wally Crancer, after injuries short-circuited the seasons of Danny Payne and Wes Hodges.
“We lost those two guys,” said Hall. “The guys that got more at-bats because of that were Luke Murton and Wally Crancer. Both those guys have filled in admirably and had a lot of great things happen for them and our team because of the extra playing time.”
Payne, the team’s center fielder, was leading the team in virtually every offensive category when he suffered a season-ending shoulder injury. That forced Hall to move left fielder Steven Blackwood to center and right fielder Jeff Kindel to left in order to insert Crancer into right field.
That’s the position where Hall felt Crancer would be most comfortable, especially allowing the California native to show off his strong throwing arm. At the plate, the junior college transfer has responded with a .355 average since moving into the starting lineup. He finished the regular season with a flurry, racking up 10 RBI over the final four games.
“I’ve learned a lot this year, and I’ve become more consistent,” Crancer said. “I think I used to be more of a streaky hitter, but now I’m more consistent and smarter at the plate.”
Hall normally doesn’t recruit junior college players and rarely focuses on players outside the region (Crancer is only one of six players on the roster not from Georgia, Tennessee or South Carolina), but he was intrigued by Crancer’s skills after assistant coach Josh Holliday spotted him during a summer league.
“We really anticipated last year that we could lose Blackwood and Kindel (to the major league draft), so we wanted to bring in an outfielder that had some experience,” Hall explained. “We noticed that Wally had played in a summer college league and done very well. He had done very well at his junior college. We was a very good student.”
At Riverside Community College in California, Crancer put up some strong numbers, hitting .340 with nine homers and 40 RBI as a freshman. He earned first-team all-conference honors that year and was a preseason all-America selection prior to his sophomore year.
He admits that he knew little about Tech’s baseball program, except the one thing that mattered – “I knew they always have a chance to make it to Omaha.”
After joining the team, Crancer anticipated getting some playing time, but just like Hall, he didn’t expect Blackwood in Kindel to return.
“I thought I would see some DH time, especially against right-handed pitchers,” he said. “When I signed here, I didn’t think those guys would be back, but it’s made us a stronger team.”
While none of his numbers jump off the stat page, Crancer has quietly become an important cog in Tech’s offensive engine, and he’s proved to be an excellent defensive player.
“There’s nothing flashy about him, but he’s a good college baseball player,” Hall stated.
Murton’s route to Georgia Tech was much less circuitous. His older brother Matt starred for the Jackets 2001-03 as an all-ACC outfielder, and he now plays for the Chicago Cubs. While the younger Murton considered other schools, he was already familiar and comfortable with Tech’s program.
At Eagle’s Landing High School in McDonough, Murton established himself as one of the best prep players in the state. Like Crancer, he came in thinking that his role as a freshman would mostly involve spot duty. However, when Hodges went down with an injury, Whit Robbins was moved across the diamond to third, while Murton took over at first.
As a starter for the last 19 games, he’s assumed his share of the offensive load, leading the team in hitting in ACC games.
“Luke’s got major power and major bat speed,” Hall noted. “He’s becoming a guy that can hit the ball to all fields. His brother was always good at that.”
In his first 55 games, Murton didn’t display much of that power stroke, hitting just a single home run. However, he enters this weekend’s regional in the midst of a power surge. He homered in the final regular game and then hit three home runs against Clemson last Saturday, including a ninth inning grand slam.
“That was a pretty good feeling,” he said. “I didn’t do much in my first two at-bats, but I got some pitches to hit later in the game.”
Murton and his teammates are now shifting their focus to their quest for the College World Series in Omaha. He got a taste of it in 2002 when Matt and the Jackets earned a trip.
“I’m only a freshman, but through my brother I’ve experienced things like that,” he said. “I remember the atmosphere. Our strength coach was just saying how it’s like a college football atmosphere out there, and that’s a good way to describe it. That really drives you to want to get out there to experience it and win a national championship.”