Jan. 29, 2013
By Matt Winkeljohn
As practice began last Friday for the 20th time under Danny Hall’s watch, a familiar feel settled about Russ Chandler Stadium. In cool air under a gray sky, which is typical of these January startups, a couple oddities suddenly bounded out of the dugout and into the picture.
There went pitcher Buck Farmer and outfielder Brandon Thomas. And they weren’t spectators; they were in uniform! There was something sweetly discombobulatory about the scene as the two first-team All-ACC players bandied about.
Familiar faces though they are, Farmer and Thomas aren’t supposed to be here anymore, at Georgia Tech, playing baseball as seniors. Thomas was drafted in the fourth round last June by the Pirates, and Farmer in the 15th by the Brewers, and yet they’re still Yellow Jackets.
Add the return of senior infielder/outfielder Sam Dove, coming off a career-best season in which he batted .340 and was one of just two Jackets to start every game, and it was hardly a wonder to see Hall beaming as Tech cranked up another baseball season.
It’s not exactly typical for highly-drafted juniors to comeback for senior seasons, although it happens. To have two return in the same go-round – to a team well stocked even without them – and with Dove back as well, well, that’s like found gold in plural.
“The only thing that even comes close was my very first year when [catcher Jason] Varitek had been a first-round pick, didn’t sign, and then came back for his senior year and ended up being a higher pick,” Hall said upon taking a break from his perch behind the batting cage.
“I don’t know that I’ve ever had a Friday night pitcher that got drafted, and then didn’t sign. To get both those guys back makes a big difference in our team. You’re talking about arguably our best pitcher and arguably our best position player. That doesn’t happen very often.”
The Jackets put together perhaps the finest run in program history to win the ACC tournament last spring when you first consider their regular season. Ransacked by injuries, Tech squeaked into the tournament, and then blow-torched the field in four straight games to become the first No. 8 seed in ACC history to win the whole thing.
ACC Tournament MVP Jake Davies has moved on, but the the bulk of that team is otherwise back, bigger, and healthier.
Pitcher Matt Grimes will not play this season after undergoing Tommy John surgery last fall upon an elbow that limited him last spring, but that’s about it for significant injury news.
Dusty Isaacs, who was in the Tech rotation at the beginning of last season, is likely to return. He added a changeup to his arsenal while pitching last summer in Cape Cod. He’s not the only player who has worked hard to improve.
“I think he’s much better pitcher,” Hall said. “[Sophomore catcher-first baseman-outfielder-designated hitter] A.J. Murray, who hardly played at all last year, had a great fall. He’s a guy that’s going to get a lot of at-bats this year. We’ve got to figure out where we’re going to play him. [Junior centerfielder] Kyle Wren is much stronger and more filled out.
“Brandon Thomas had a little trouble with his hamstrings, and he’s done a lot if the offseason to make his hamstrings stronger. The neat thing about coaching at a place like Georgia Tech is our guys are pretty smart, and they’re going to do the little things to try to make themselves better players, and that’s going to translate to helping our team.”
Thomas and Farmer are back both because changes to Major League Baseball’s signing rules altered the contractual landscape and because they want to help the Jackets blaze a trail to the College World Series for what would be the fourth time in program history.
“There was lot of conversation between Brandon and I,” said Farmer, who was All-ACC last spring and is preseason All-America now. “We thought we had the potential . . . to make it to Omaha this year. We also wanted to come back and play for coach Hall. He’s a great coach, he defends his players, we love playing for him.”
The feeling is mutual. The real race begins with home games against Akron on Feb. 15, 16 and 17.
“You look at last year. We had a good ending to it. We won the ACC tournament, got a chance to go to an NCAA regional; won a couple games there. You want to use that momentum to head into this year,” Hall said.
“We have a lot of guys back. We have an older team . . . I think we have much more pitching depth than we had last year. I think our position players are a year older. Everything points to us having a very, very competitive team.”