Oct. 4, 2006
ATLANTA – With 19 letterwinners returning from last year’s NCAA College World Series team, the Georgia Tech baseball team opens three weeks of fall practice Thursday afternoon. The Yellow Jackets, who also welcome the nation’s 14th-ranked recruiting class, will hold their annual fall practice at Russ Chandler Stadium on campus.
Tech posted a 50-18 record in 2005, advancing to the College World Series in Omaha for the third time in the program’s history and second time in the last five years. In his last five seasons, Georgia Tech head coach Danny Hall has led the Yellow Jackets to two College World Series (2002, 2006), two ACC Tournament championships (2003, 2005) and two ACC regular season titles (2004, 2005).
The Jackets welcome back five regular starters from the 2006 team, including two outfielders, two infielders and a catcher. The Tech pitching corps returns seven hurlers who made at least 18 appearances last season.
Wieters, a first-team All-America by Baseball America magazine in 2006, hit .355, 15 HR, 71 RBI and went 1-3 with a 3.41 ERA and seven saves on the mound last season. Payne, the Jackets’ lone first-team all-conference honoree in 2006, returns after missing the last two months of the 2006 campaign due to a shoulder injury after hitting .356, 11, 44, leading the team with 20 SB.
Other returning starters in the field include senior right fielder Wally Crancer (Riverside, Calif.), .321, 6, 30, junior shortstop Michael Fisher (Nashville, Tenn.) and sophomore first baseman Luke Murton (McDonough, Ga.), .339, 6, 44.
“We lost some very good players and guys that have played for us a long time,” said Hall, “but I think these five returnees are great players and were very instrumental in our success last year. Not only are they good players, but I think that they will provide great leadership for our young guys.”
Alpharetta, Ga. natives Brad Feltes and Ryan Tinkoff will challenge for more playing time in the infield in 2007 after appearing in 16 and 22 games, respectively, while redshirt freshman Nick Wenderoth will also compete for playing time. Sophomore Chris House (Marietta, Ga.), .250, 0, 5 and redshirt freshman Jay Dantzler, who had a successful summer campaign, add depth to the outfield, while Jason Haniger (Santa Clara, Calif.), .444, 0, 5, and Nick Scherer (Roswell, Ga.), .333, 0, 2, return as experienced backups behind the plate.
“We are going to have new guys at both second and third base this year, and have some veterans in Brad Feltes and Ryan Tinkoff returning that will vie for both of those jobs,” said Hall. “We also have two very talented freshmen in Patrick Long, who I think could be an excellent third baseman, and Jeff Ussery, who really is a shortstop, but I think we might end up seeing him more at second base this season. So I feel like we have some guys that can fill those holes.
“Obviously, to fill a hole like the one that Wes Hodges left is not an easy thing to do, and Mike Trapani was probably one of the best competitors that I have ever coached, playing second base for us the last two years, but that is the part of the process of being a college baseball coach. You are going to lose players, either to the pro draft or graduation, and that is where it is critical to recruit guys in here to fill those spots.”
On the mound, Hall faces the task of replacing the Yellow Jackets’ Friday and Saturday starters from a year ago, losing both Blake Wood (11-4, 4.79 ERA, 19 GS, 114.2 IP) and Lee Hyde (6-0, 3.02, 11, 86.1, to the 2006 MLB Draft. The Jackets will also have to replace Tim Gustafson (2-0, 3.94, 2, 29.2), a workhorse in the bullpen in both 2005 and ’06.
Vying for those starting positions this fall are a pair of lefties in sophomore David Duncan (New Richmond, Ohio), 7-2, 5.50 and senior Ryan Turner (Dahlonega, Ga.), 4-4, 5.55, while junior lefty Tim Ladd (Marietta, Ga.), 5-3, 4.27, senior right-hander Jared Hyatt (Marietta, Ga.), 3-0, 4.66, and junior righty Brad Rulon (Columbus, Ga.), 5-0, 2.20, will also challenge for more permanent starting roles.
Duncan started 14 games last season after becoming the regular Sunday starter in mid-March and pitched a total of 72 innings in 2006 while Turner, with 23 starts in his three-year career on the Flats, has the most starting experience of any of the returnees from last year’s squad.
“The biggest thing that we’ve got to try and solve is finding out who is going to be in our rotation,” said Hall. “David Duncan started every weekend for us in the ACC last season, and he’s worked very hard in the off-season. I think that he’s already better than he was at any point in time last year. Ryan Turner was tremendous for us down the stretch last year, so I would think that he’s also going to be in that starting rotation. We really probably need to find that third and fourth guy between some veteran guys that we had last year and some newcomers.”
Two other players that could compete for starting roles are redshirt junior John Goodman (Marietta, Ga.), 2-0, 3.68, and sophomore Chris Hicks (Alpharetta, Ga.), 4-1, 5.31, but the two will see limited action this fall.
“Both of those guys are nursing sore arms right now, nothing major, but I think will be capable in stepping in and joining the rotation with Turner and Duncan by the beginning of spring,” added Hall. “We also have some freshmen that we’ve recruited that we feel like are going to have to contribute for us to have the kind of club that we have been accustomed to.”
The Yellow Jackets’ bullpen returns essentially intact, anchored by Wieters, who finished 1-3, 3.41 with a team-high seven saves. Other returning relief pitchers include Rulon who had a team-best 2.20 ERA with two saves, Hyatt (23 APP, 2 SV), Ladd, (22 APP), and Hicks (18 APP).
“I think a strength for our team last year was that we had a tremendous bullpen and ideally, we’d like to leave that untouched,” said Hall. “Obviously, we have Wieters that can close some games, but it becomes tricky with him because we’re asking him to do a lot when he catches almost every game for us.
“It’s good to know that we do have a very good bullpen sitting there, but at the same time we are going to have to look and see if we are going to have those guys stay in the bullpen, or if we are going to ask some of them to fill in as starters for us.”
Two other pitchers – redshirt sophomore Eddie Burns (Hiram, Ga.) and Payne, 0-0, 3.86 ERA, 1 SV – missed much of the 2006 season either recovering from or after suffering injuries, but are expected to be healthy this spring.
“I think that Eddie Burns is very close to being back to 100% health-wise,” said Hall. “And I think that he’s a guy that, if we can get him back healthy and close to where he was coming out of high school, he can be a contributor for us this year.
“One guy that we were getting ready to pitch a lot last year before he got injured was Danny Payne, and I think that he’s another guy that can contribute greatly to our pitching staff this year.”
Another pitcher, Michael Hutts, who played in four games, recording 9 K’s in 8 IP, will also challenge for more time on the mound in 2007.
Tech’s freshmen class, which is ranked among the top-15 in the nation, includes infielders Jeff Ussery (Hilton Head, S.C.) and Patrick Long (Mechanicsville, Va.), outfielders Curtis Dupart (Woodinville, Wash.), Matt Harper (Valdosta, Ga.) and Ben Baker (Peachtree City, Ga.) and pitchers Zach Von Tersch (Cedar Falls, Iowa), Andrew Robinson (Senoia, Ga.), Will Hirsch (Suffolk, Va.) and Tony Plagman (Alpharetta, Ga.). The Yellow Jackets also add junior college pitcher Charlie Blackmon (Brunswick, Ga.) and outfielder Michael Klindt (Roswell, Ga.), as well as walk-on pitcher Elliot Ogawa (Columbus, Ga.), to the program this year.
Hall also welcomes former Yellow Jacket outfielder Wes Rynders as a volunteer coach.
“We are excited to have another former player joining our staff,” said Hall. “Wes was an outstanding player for us, playing for our 2002 College World Series team. He’s been coaching the last three years with the East Cobb Baseball program, as well as at Woodward Academy, and now we’re looking forward to helping him launch his collegiate coaching career.”
Georgia Tech will conclude its fall practice with the annual White & Gold World Series, a best of three intrasquad series, October 23-25. Fans are invited to attend the games, and attendance is free.