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Tech Baseball Season Preview

Feb. 2, 2005

Georgia Tech baseball is ranked No. 13 in the nation in Collegiate Baseball’s preseason poll. The Yellow Jackets return 20 letterwinners from last year’s team that went 44-21, including preseason All-America shortstop Tyler Greene. Head coach Danny Hall, who owns a 484-211 record in 11 years at Georgia Tech, discusses the upcoming 2005 season that opens on February 11 against Georgia State.

During the last three years, your program has advanced to the College World Series (2002), won the ACC Tournament (2003) and won the ACC regular season (2004). Discuss your team’s goals entering the 2005 season.

“The ultimate prize every year is to get to the College World Series so that you have a chance to compete for the national championship. That is a lofty goal and that is a high bar, but I think our program has been at that level for many years where you do have a chance to do that.

“If you look at the last three years, there has been one World Series appearance, there has been one ACC tournament championship and there has been an ACC regular season championship, which included a run of 16 straight conference victories for Georgia Tech. Arguably, it may be the three best years in the history of baseball at Georgia Tech. In saying that, we have only made it to the World Series one year. That is disappointing and the two years we didn’t go to Omaha, we had a chance to host Super Regionals and have gotten beaten at home. That is disappointing but you don’t lose sight of the fact that we have had some great teams, some great players, we are competing at a national level and I think a lot needs to be said about that. We play in a great city. We have great support amongst our fans. We play in one of the finest facilities in the country. We have a great coaching staff. We have great players. We had ten guys get drafted off of our team last year, which is the most in school history. We will have several high draft picks again this year. We are continuing to put a lot of guys who aren’t making it in baseball into successful careers beyond baseball. I think that we have a lot to not only be thankful for, but a lot to be proud of.”

Entering the season, you have to feel like you have quality depth and some experience at the catching position.

Andy Hawranick had to wait for his time catching behind Mike Nickeas for the last two years. It is now his turn to shine. He has caught some big games for us in his first two years. I thought he had a great year last year and he got the attention of a lot of people in Cape Cod last summer. I think he is one of the best catchers in the country. He is a great player and will continue in the long line of catchers that we’ve had that have gone on to have great opportunities in pro baseball.

“Behind him is another great catcher in freshman Matt Wieters. He is an excellent catcher and he has a great mind for the game. He can also pitch, but he will be able to catch once or twice a week so we don’t have to wear Andy out. He is capable of playing some other positions and can swing the bat equally well. I feel like we have two excellent catchers.

“The third guy behind them would be Nick Scherer. He had a great fall and is certainly a good guy to have as your third option.”

Your philosophy has been to have two catchers that you use interchangeably throughout the season. Is that your plan again this season?

“I think we are in great shape. Any other year and Matt Wieters would be the number one catcher. I think we were very up front with him when we recruited him. We told him he would catch some this year, probably pitch some and DH. He probably could play some third or play some first if we had to play him there. He is very comfortable with it. I am very comfortable knowing we have two guys that if either one of them is in the game our pitching staff is going to be well taken care of. They can shut running games down and help us do what we need them to do to help our team be successful.”

You also have the luxury of the ultimate utility player in Cameron Lane, a guy who can play nearly every position on the diamond.

Cameron Lane is a guy that everyone respects on the team. He works harder than anybody. He could go in and catch, play multiple infield positions, multiple outfield positions. We have caught him some a little bit in the fall. That is probably not his best position, but he could definitely go in there if an emergency presented itself and do an excellent job. He is a tri-captain, which is voted on by our players. That just tells you the respect our guys have for him. Here is a guy who has never really established himself as a starter, but he has definitely established himself as one of the leaders on our team.”

Discuss your outfield as you enter the 2005 season.

“In left field we have Steven Blackwood. He is one of the most consistent players I have ever had a chance to coach. He’s a tremendous student who achieved a 4.0 GPA in the fall. He just does all the little things you want to see a guy do to be a good player. He hit three-hole for us last year and had a very good fall. I think the biggest thing he improved on from last year was that he is a much better defensive player right now than he ever has been. He is one of the most respected guys on our team for the way he works both on and off the field. He’s one of the best players, for sure, in the ACC and one of the best players in the country.

Danny Payne earned the starting job in center field with a great fall. He is a great defensive outfielder. We have been very blessed since I have been here to have some great outfielders. The things that I saw that guy do this fall, I would put him up against any of the others we have had in terms of the way he plays defense. He is fearless. He gets great jumps on the balls. He has great instincts. He has a great throwing arm. He can run. I have been very impressed with that. Offensively, he is a contact, gap type of guy. He has an excellent eye at the plate. I think he is a prototypical lead off type of guy. I wouldn’t say we would start the year with him leading off, but I could see him being a lead off hitter at some point in time. He is just a very smart baseball player. We are excited to have him in our program.

“In right field is Jeremy Slayden, who missed most of last year with shoulder surgery but has come back fully strong from that. He had a great fall offensively. I look for Jeremy to have a break out year. He has worked very hard through rehab. I think the fact that he missed a year has freshened his perspective on baseball. I just see him having a lot of fun and working very hard to really prove to everyone what a really great player he is. I think we have three excellent starting outfielders.

“The guy that’s a fourth outfielder that impressed me tremendously in the fall was Jeff Kindel. He swung the bat very well. He is a great competitor, which is the one thing that he does every time he steps on the practice field. When he gets the opportunities in games, he is going to compete. He has established himself in my eyes, our staff’s eyes and our team’s eyes that he could go in there and play left and right and maybe center. His bat could be a big force in our line up.”

All three of your projected starting outfielders are left handed hitters. Is that an area of concern for you as the team enters the 2005 season?

“Both Blackwood and Slayden have hit well against left handers. Danny Payne impressed me this fall hitting against left handers. We have some wild card guys that could get in the mix out there. Jake Hall has played some out there. Cameron Lane has played some out there. Michael Fisher, one of our freshmen, who played primarily in the infield this fall, has played quite a bit in the outfield. He is a switch hitter. I think we have some options if we need to put some people out there to swing the bat right handed.”

You enter the season with a starting infield that all has valuable game experience in shortstop Tyler Greene, first baseman Whit Robbins, second baseman Mike Trapani and third baseman Wes Hodges. What does it mean to your team to have a veteran infield starting the season?

“I think it is invaluable. Wes Hodges has come back healthy from breaking his cheekbone. I think he is bigger, stronger and faster. He is anxious to get playing again and sorry for his sake and our sake that he missed some fun games down the stretch last year. I think he is a good of third baseman as there is in college baseball. I think it he is an excellent hitter.

Tyler Greene, in my mind, is one of the best players in the country. He continues to prove that. I think he had a great season last year. He went to Cape Cod League during the summer and continued to play great up there. I thought he had a tremendous fall. I think we have one of the best shortstops in the country.

Mike Trapani last year filled in for Wes Hodges at third base and we couldn’t have asked for a guy who did more than did. He did everything. He played great defense. He swung the bat well. He hit for power. He was a clutch hitter. The thing about him is he has had to work very hard to get an opportunity. He finally got it last year and took advantage of it. Now he is eager to take that opportunity that he got and run with it. He is going in as our starter at second base. He is one of our tri-captains because of how hard he works. Nothing has been given to him. He has had to earn everything he has gotten, and he has done that.

“Probably one of the unsung guys from last year’s team is Whit Robbins, our first baseman. I thought down the stretch last year he had some big, big hits in key situations for us, not only in league play but in regional play. We do have four guys who started a lot of games for us last year playing in our infield.”

Discuss some of the other options that you have in the infield – Jake Hall, Michael Fisher, Brad Feltes and Ryan Stanley.

Jake Hall missed most of the fall. He had Tommy John surgery last summer. We fully expect him to be recovered from that by the time we start playing. I think he a lot like Cameron Lane and Mike Trapani, in that he is very well respected on our team because of how hard he works. He has been a starter at some points in time in his career and could end up being a starter again this year. He is a senior with leadership qualities. He knows how to play the game. He is a team guy. He can play some second or play third if we needed him to and could play in the outfield. He is one of those versatile team kind of guys that we like to have. I look for him to get a lot of at bats.

Michael Fisher is one of our best freshmen. He is a great athlete. He was a great football player in Tennessee. He can play second, short, third, and the outfield. He is a switch hitter and a smart guy. He’s a great athlete who has never really devoted himself to just baseball, but now that he has had the chance to just play baseball this fall, he is just getting better and better. He has a high ceiling. We feel really good about having him in our program.

Brad Feltes is a program player. He can swing the bat. He reminds me a lot of [former Tech third baseman] Brandon Hensley. If you look at the teams that Brandon Hensley played on, he was never the superstar of those teams, but always put up great numbers offensively and then made all the plays at third base. I think Brad Feltes is a lot like that. He worked really hard this fall. I think he is in the best shape he has been in probably the last couple of years. He just needs to continue to work hard at getting stronger and playing the game. He may have to sit a little bit this year behind Hodges, but I think he could come off the bench, pinch hit and play some. If someone is hurt, he could come in and play and play very well because he is a smart player and a good baseball player.

Ryan Stanley improved a lot this fall. He is in great shape and has power. He put the ball in play more consistently this fall. I can see him being a guy coming off the bench and pinch hitting. If we need a home run, he is a guy capable of coming off the bench and hitting a home run like he did last year a couple of times. Ryan has worked hard and I think he is definitely in the mix more this year than he has been.

Moving to the pitching staff, the biggest challenge you must face is replacing the loss of your starting rotation from last year. How do you address that heading into the 2005 season?

“If you look at what we lost last year, the biggest loss was the guys we really counted on to pitch for us. Those guys are gone. You are sad those guys are gone, but you are also excited about the opportunities that some of our younger guys are going to have to get innings. I was very pleased at the end of the fall. I think our pitching staff really made great strides during the fall.

“Probably the most improved guy, and if we started today he would start the first game, is Jason Neighborgall. He had a dominating fall. Everything kind of fell into place for him. I am very happy that it has because he went through a rough season last year. He has persevered through that. He threw with great velocity and threw strikes. He was a dominant, dominant pitcher for us. Right now, I would say he is going to be one of those guys that will be a starter.

“Guys that started for us last year, that group of sophomores is going to be counted on heavily to start for us. That is going to be Lee Hyde, Ryan Turner, John Goodman, Blake Wood and Tim Gustafson. Those five guys have got to be five guys who will eat up a lot of innings for us. I think that all five of them will be candidates to get in our starting rotation.

“The one guy we still really don’t know how we are going to use is Gustafson. We think he is one of our best guys, but we also think he is one of those guys to stick in the bullpen because he is a great athlete and great competitor. That may be his best role, not only for him but for our team if he is in the bullpen.

“We are going to try make Goodman a starter. I think he is a lot like his brother [former Tech pitcher] Chris in that he is a good bullpen guy, but his brother Chris was a great starter. I think that is what John wants to do, and I think may be his best role for us to put him in the starting rotation. He will throw strikes and compete. I expect big things from him.

Lee Hyde had a great summer. He pitched some big games for us last year, and I expect he will pick up where he left off.

Ryan Turner had a great summer. He got some innings for us last year as a freshman, but I think he just continues to improve. I like that fact that both he and Hyde are left handed. That gives us some left handed starters.”

You do return some veteran players who pitched out of the bullpen in a number of key situations last year in Jordan Crews, Ryan Self and Jared Hyatt. Do you expect those players to provide some veteran leadership in your bullpen this season?

Jordan Crews was as good as anybody down the stretch last year. He pitched great in the Cape Cod League this summer and pitched great for us this fall. I look for him to be a guy that could close or set up a lot of our games. The biggest think I like about Jordan is he throws strikes and he is going to get a lot of ground balls.

Ryan Self we used a lot in left-on-left situations. He had a great summer in the Cape being a middle inning to late inning relief guy. I see him gobbling up a lot of innings in the middle of games for us.

Jared Hyatt is a guy that can continue to improve and has a great shot of getting into the starting rotation. He is a strike thrower. The thing he tried to really improve upon this fall was being able throw more than just his fastball consistently for strikes. I think he is the type of guy that if we gave him a scouting report on a team and this said this is what we need to do to execute that scouting report he could be capable of executing that report because of his control. He is not going to overpower you with your stuff, but I think he is a very good pitcher. I think he can definitely get in the mix as a starter for us.”

Your freshman class of pitchers is certainly a very talented group. How do you see them fitting in to the pitching staff this season?

“Our freshman class is really talented. The guy really stood out for me in that group this fall was Brad Rulon. He has a very good fastball. He has a great breaking ball. He throws a lot of strikes and likes to compete. We kind of see him as a set up guy or a closer right out of the gate in our bullpen. We think very highly of him.

“The opposite of him in terms of his stature would be Eddie Burns. Eddie Burns is a 6-7 right hander that made great strides for us this fall. He started out very slow and very rough, but I thought at the end of the fall had his velocity back up around 90, threw a lot of strikes, and competed very well. He is a great athlete and I look for him to continue to make strides this spring to put pressure on some of these upper classmen for some of those innings that are up for grabs.

Tim Ladd is another guy that I thought made great strides this fall. He started off a little slow, but towards the end I thought he threw a lot better. I think he is a lot like a [former Tech pitcher] Cory Vance. Whether he can get to that level is up to him. He just has to continue to work hard. He has that kind of stuff. He has a good breaking ball, good fastball, good change. I think he likes to compete. We are happy to have another good left hand arm in that freshman class.

Brian Futral may have more pitching ability than freshman I have talked about. He can throw three pitches for strikes. He has a great change up. His velocity picked up towards the end of the fall. He works very hard at his pitching. I think the biggest thing he needs to do is get a little stronger. I know he gained about ten pounds this fall and filled out some.

“I feel very good about having numbers in our pitching staff. We just have to sort out the roles that guys are going to fit into and who really is ready to step up to get the job done.”

The schedule this year is a little different due to the expansion of the conference with 30 ACC games instead of 24. Discuss the new ACC with Miami and Virginia Tech, as well as yet another challenging non-conference schedule.

“Expansion certainly it makes it a little challenging. We have been playing Miami year in and year out so that doesn’t change. It just changes the way the games count. When you play them it is going to count in league standings. They are going bring a lot to our league and everyone else in our league is going to have to step up in order to challenge them for that league championship. I think that is exciting for our league. Virginia Tech has one of the most successful coaches ever in college baseball in Chuck Hartman. He is a guy that has coached for a long time and coached several pro players. I think they will bring a lot to the table with the league this year. Our league just continues to get better. It will be more challenging which will make it fun for our players and fans.

“Over and above the league, we have another difficult non-conference schedule. We have three games with Georgia and two with Auburn. Then we have two unique non-conference weekends in Florida Atlantic, who we played in the super regional a few years ago, and Winthrop, who is a perennial power in their league and is ranked in the top 25. Winthrop is one of those schools that not a lot of people know about, but they may have more pro prospects than any other school in the south right now. There are some unique games on our schedule. It will be a challenging schedule but one that we are certainly looking forward to playing.”

For the third consecutive year, Georgia Tech and Georgia will play at Turner Field in a game that benefits Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta. Last year’s game attracted more than 28,000 fans. What does this game mean for the promotion of college baseball?

“It is a great experience for our players to get a chance to go play at Turner Field. You are playing against your arch-rival in the state. Both programs have been on recent highs. Georgia has played great in the SEC. We have played great in the ACC. You are playing for great charity in Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta. Last year we played in front of 28,000 fans, which is the second largest crowd for a regular season college baseball game. It is an unbelievable experience and it is great for our players. I thought it was just great for college baseball in general, not only in our state, but nationally with 28,000 fans at Turner Field. I hope we have even more people at the game this year.”

Discuss your new staff members – assistant coach Josh Holliday, volunteer coach Victor Menocal and director of baseball operations Tom Kinkelaar.

“In Josh Holliday we have a guy that we tried to recruit out of high school out of Stillwater, Oklahoma, but his dad was the coach at Oklahoma State at the time. He wanted to stay and play for his dad and I can certainly respect that having played for my dad on a smaller scale back in high school. I know how tight that bond is. Josh was a great player at Oklahoma State. He was an academic all-American as well as being a great player. His dad, his uncle and his brother are all still involved in baseball with his dad being the pitching coach at Texas, his brother being a major league player and his uncle being a national cross checker for the Colorado Rockies. It is a baseball family. He has tremendous knowledge of the game for a young guy. He is one of the most passionate, energetic guys I have seen. He is going to be an excellent recruiter. He already has brought a lot to the table for our team. I think our players really respect him. They like him. He is a positive influence on all of us.

Victor Menocal is one of the best players to put on a Georgia Tech uniform. I think he was as popular of a player as we ever had. He wasn’t the consensus all-American like a Varitek or a Garciaparra or Texeria, but he was very well liked by the fans and very respected by our players. He led the 2002 team to the College World Series and played great out there. He is back finishing out his degree and serving as a volunteer coach. He will have a tremendous impact on our players and our staff and everyone that is involved with our program.

“When I first came to Georgia Tech we were very fortunate to have a guy in Pat Sonnett, the director of baseball operations, who did a lot of great things to enhance our program. He took a lot of the toll away from me and gave me a lot more freedom just to be a coach. Dave Braine and Larry New gave me a chance to hire a guy who was my college roommate. He was an excellent pitcher at Miami (Ohio). He has been college coaching and high school coaching ever since he left Miami. I think I have a friend and certainly a peer because he has been in coaching and here as director of baseball operations. He will have the chance to watch our team does, but more importantly enhance our program from a fan’s perspective, Grand Slam Club members and just everything outside of just the day to do day operations of the program he is going to get involved with. We are very excited about not only having a very good friend on the staff but having a guy that will make a big impact on our program.”

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