Feb. 12, 2013
By Jon Cooper
The idea that it’s not where you start but where you finish makes for a nice soundbite — or lead graph in a baseball preview story — but it won’t fly on the Flats. Not anymore.
In 2012, it would have fit after injuries decimated the pitching staff, and actually became something of a moral for the season when the Yellow Jackets qualified for the ACC Tournament on the final day of the season, tore through the ACC Tournament, qualified for the NCAA Tournament and advanced to the Gainesville Regional title game, where they fell to top-seeded Florida.
But 2013 is not 2012 and the Yellow Jackets have no plan to wait as long as they did to earn a spot in the ACCs, or stop playing as early as they did in the NCAAs.
This year’s squad is determined to make a statement right off the bat — starting Friday afternoon at 4:00 p.m., when they host the Akron Zips.
Junior Daniel Palka will play a big part in supplying the exclamation point on the opening-weekend statement and pretty much any statements made this year. He can’t wait to get started.
“I’m excited. It’s a little bit of a different atmosphere this year,” he said. “There’s kind of a different bond with the juniors, just being together all three years. This whole team there’s tight bonds. Everybody just seems to be ready to go.”
Tech baseball head coach Danny Hall is putting a lot on the shoulders of the 6-4, 234-pound Palka, a Second Team All-ACC performer last year, one of four All-ACC honorees from last year, three of whom are returning (pitcher Buck Farmer and outfielder Brandon Thomas were First-Teamers, and are returning, while Jake Davies also was Second Team All-ACC). Hall feels that the slugger is ready to carry the burden of being a team leader as well as being the big bat in the heart of the order.
“I’ve just seen a much more mature person on and off the field this year with him,” he said. “I think the one great strength that he’s always had is that he’s a tremendous competitor, wants to do well and wants our team to do well. When either he doesn’t do well or our team doesn’t do well, he’s not very happy. He’s a tremendous player and certainly gives our team a big boost by knowing we have a guy that hits in the middle of the order that can turn the game around with one swing.”
Nobody on the current roster has turned pitches around as often as Palka, whose 24 career home runs more than double the nearest returnee — shortstop Mott Hyde has 11 — and whose 97 RBIs and 37 doubles also are team-highs. Palka also is one of four players with a career .300 batting average (.302, third on the team), he’s third in career triples (five), and fourth in hits (141), and runs (85).
The Lyman, S.C., native likes the chances of those numbers going up as the Yellow Jackets’ offense is loaded with speed in front of him in center fielder Kyle Wren, left fielder Brandon Thomas, and jack-of-all-trades Sam Dove, and pop behind him in catcher Zane Evans. Palka and Evans may switch places in the order, but regardless of whether it’s Palka-Evans or Evans-Palka, there are going to be good pitches and RBI opportunities aplenty.
“Whether it’s Kyle and Brandon or Kyle, Brandon and [Sam] Dove, there’s always going to be that speed in front of us,” said Palka. “It’s going to be good because we’ll have me and Zane together in the middle to hit those guys in.”
Palka’s proved in his first two years that there’s no park that can hold him and very little pitching that can stop him. He reinforced his image as a national slugger over the summer, when he competed in the TD Ameritrade College Home Run Derby, was named MVP of the Cape Cod League All-Star Game, then helped lead the Wareham Gatemen to the Cape Cod League championship (he teamed with Hyde).
But Palka is not satisfied with being one of the ACC’s premiere power hitter. He’s out to prove that he’s one of its premiere hitters, period. He cut his strikeouts from 71 as a freshman to 50 as a sophomore and this season plans to be even more consistent about putting the ball in play when he’s not hitting it out of the park.
“I think that’s one of the areas that he’s grown a lot,” said Hall. “He’s much more selective at the plate. He has definitely cut down on his strikeouts. I just think that’s part of the maturity level that he’s at now as opposed to, maybe, where he was at when he first came here. I’ve seen big change in him.”
The biggest change facing Palka this season probably will be in his position defensively. He’ll see time at first base but also in the outfield.
“I like right field but it’s whatever works out best for the team,” he said. “I definitely have a little bit more experience in the outfield but I enjoy doing both so it’s really no problem either way.”
He’ll even pitch if needed, but he feels that’s one area the team is set.
“We have more depth pitching this year than last year,” he said. “We just had a couple of guys with unlucky breaks in the middle of the season and toward the end of the season. That set us back a little bit. But I think our strong offense and more depth pitching, I think that combination is going to be pretty good.”