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#STINGDAILY: The Champ Is Here!

May 20, 2013

By Jon Cooper
Sting Daily

A year can make a world of difference, especially in college baseball.

As Georgia Tech heads into the 2013 ACC Baseball Championships, it hopes it’s not TOO big a difference.

Heading into the 2012 ACC Tournament, Tech’s expectations were a little bit guarded. Although riding a wave of emotion, the unranked Yellow Jackets could just as easily have been on fumes after having to scratch and claw just to get in, beating Miami, 2-1, on the season’s final day to secure the eighth seed. There was next-to-no pressure, considering no No. 8 seed had ever won the Tournament, only two No. 8 seeds had ever reached the title game, and Tech would have had to run a gauntlet of No. 1 Florida State, arch-rival Clemson and No. 19 Virginia in pool play, alone.

Playing relaxed, and riding the hot hand and bat of Jake Davies, they would become the first No. 8 seed to win it all.

This year, expectations are a little different.

The Jackets, unranked in the polls but 22nd in the RPI, come in after a rousing victory at Miami on the season’s final day, this time, 10-1, in Coral Gables, and, as with the final score, there was much less drama. They were already assured of a spot in the Tournament. Their victory simply kept them from finishing eighth — which wouldn’t have been the worst thing considering how they did there in 2012.

As Tech prepares to face Florida State, the No. 2 team in the tourney and No. 5 in the nation, at 11 a.m. on Wednesday at Durham Bulls Athletic Park, in Durham, N.C., the team knows where it wants to be and what it will take to get there.

“I don’t think I have to reference [last year],” said head coach Danny Hall, who will try to capture his fifth conference tournament title and first back-to-back crowns. “All the guys that played on the team last year know what we’re capable of. But I think it gives us confidence knowing that we did it last year.”

“It’s quite interesting that we’re opening up with Florida State, who we opened up with last year and I, quite honestly, think they’ll throw the same pitcher that pitched against us last year (lefty Scott Sitz),” Hall continued. “So there’s some familiarity there. We won’t sneak up on anybody this year.”

The players don’t think that’ll be necessary. The Jackets will ride their four All-ACC selections — coincidentally the same number as last year — in pitcher Buck Farmer, catcher Zane Evans, right fielder Daniel Palka, all first-teamers, and left fielder Kyle Wren, a second-team selection — through a bracket much more to Tech’s liking.

The FSU game will be followed by an 11 a.m. tilt Thursday morning against No. 3 Virginia, then, a 3 p.m. start against No. 6 Virginia Tech to conclude pool play Friday.

The Jackets went a combined 5-4 against their opposition, taking two-of-three against the Virginia schools (including a pair of one-run thrillers against the Cavaliers), and going 1-2 against FSU, with each team winning a rout, before the Seminoles took the finale, 8-6, overcoming an early 5-0 deficit by scoring two in the seventh and two in the eighth. Tech was a combined 2-7 against Florida State, Clemson and Virginia, their opponents in pool play last year, 3-9 if you include Miami, who they beat in the title game.

“We got put in a good bracket when we size up our opponents,” said Palka, the ACC home run champion, with 17. “We think we have a good chance of doing the same thing.”

“This year, we have kind of been up and down but I don’t think there’s really anything different going into the Tournament this year,” said Farmer, the first Yellow Jackets pitcher to earn three All-ACC nominations. “It’s going to be the same. We need to go out there and play hard, do everything that we did last year and hopefully come out with another win.”

One slight difference against Florida State is that the Jackets may be the ones swapping opening-round pitchers. Last season Seminoles’ head coach Mike Martin chose to start Sitz instead of ace Brandon Liebrandt. The Jackets beat Sitz.

Hall may choose to give Farmer an extra day of rest, following his 90-pitch effort on Thursday against Miami. A possibility would be Saturday-starter Dusty Isaacs.

“I haven’t made my mind up on that yet,” said Hall. “Dusty didn’t throw many pitches in his start Friday, so he may have the freshest arm coming back on short rest. We’ll try to line up in a manner that gives us our best chance of winning the Tournament again.”

Sitz beat Tech and Isaacs in the second game of the Friday double-header this season, an 11-3 win for FSU — Isaacs allowed four runs and six hits in four innings, while Sitz allowed two runs (both unearned) and eight hits in 5 1/3.

For the Yellow Jackets to get past the ‘Noles, Cavaliers and Hokies, they’ll need someone to step up at the plate the way Jake Davies did last year.

While it’s doubtful anyone will match Davies’ production (a .438 average, with four homers and 11 RBIs, as well as a one-run, two-hit performance on the mound in six innings against Clemson), the Jackets have plenty of candidates willing to take their best swing. Tops are Palka and Evans.

They ranked 1-2 in the ACC in homers (Evans had 14), 3-4 in RBIs (Palka 63, Evans 62), and were both top five in slugging (Palka .665, Evans .618). Setting the table is Wren, who hit .370 and led the league with 88 hits. He and Evans were especially big in crunch time, as Wren scored eight game-winning runs, while Evans drove in eight game-winners. Brandon Thomas, who led the league in hitting for a substantial portion of the season, also is a factor. Tech also has seen production from shortstop Mott Hyde, second baseman Thomas Smith and the rest of the bottom of the order.

“I think we’ve had good production up and down our lineup,” said Hall. “When you get production from guys down there at the bottom, it just makes your whole team that much better.”

While consistency was an issue for Tech — 15-15 in conference play — Palka believes the team is starting to hit on all cylinders. (For the record, the 2012 Yellow Jackets were 12-18 entering the ACC Tournament).

“We still show really good signs of pitching, really good signs of hitting,” he said. “We just have to get back to where we’re doing both at the same time. We realize we have to finish strong as well to make sure we secure a spot in a regional. We’re focusing in.

“I think every once in a while we played up to our competition or played down to our competition,” he added. “We just have to stay focused and do what we have the potential to do this week.”

The postseason is an opportunity to put a nice finish on the up-and-down season.

“Postseason everything kind of goes out the window once you find out what seed you are,” said Farmer. “After that, it’s a new slate and it’s go time. I think a lot of guys understand that and are definitely going to come out and prove that.”

They’ll have something to prove to the NCAA Selection Committee.

“[Repeating is] something that we want to do and it would be fun to do,” said Farmer. “Our main focus this year is to get to a good regional and get by Regionals this year. If we could win the ACC again it would definitely be a plus for us.”

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