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#TGW: 'A Game of Inches'

By Matt Winkeljohn | The Good Word

THE FLATS — By the time the dust settled on Georgia Tech’s 2019 baseball season, the Yellow Jackets Sunday night were spent, gassed by a sport sometimes governed by fickle fates. It took a couple days to process what happened, but with the benefit of time, there is glory to look back upon.

A fabulously surpassing season had just ended with a 4-1 loss to Auburn, and players Tristin English, Kyle McCann and Keyton Gibson sat aside head coach Danny Hall in the Brock indoor football practice facility on a temporary stage set up adjacent to Russ Chandler Stadium at the NCAA baseball regional.

They were worn out from making a great run and taking a debilitating gut punch in the ninth inning of Saturday night’s first game against Auburn. In that one, the Tigers won 6-5 on a two-out, two-strike, three-run home run to put the Jackets in peril.

College baseball can flip like a light switch, and it did a few times at Tech over the weekend, but this light remains on: The Jackets had a fantastic season, their best in a few years, and there were remarkable improvements and performances scattered through the lineup all season.

Picked in the preseason to finish fifth in the ACC’s Coastal division, the Jackets (43-19, 19-11) dropped their opening ACC series at Miami and then won the final nine series to capture that half of the conference and reach the championship game. They fell to North Carolina, yet their body of work earned the Jackets the No. 3 national seed and the right to host a regional.

It was hard to think about that after two of Auburn’s less accomplished pitchers threw lights out against Tech, first on Saturday and then again on Sunday.

“It’s a tough loss, but I can’t be more proud of our team for the way they battled all year, for the way they battled in that first game today [a 10-8 come-from-behind win over Coastal Carolina] after a tough loss [Saturday] night in the ninth inning,” Hall said. “But you’ve got to tip your hat to Auburn. They got the big hit last night, and another big hit today.”

The Jackets came up big repeatedly this season, which is why Hall was named ACC Coach of the Year for the fourth time, English earned All-ACC first team honors for the third time, pitcher Connor Thomas for the second and McCann for the first (he was third team last year).

Sophomore right fielder Baron Radcliff, who hit .180 as a freshman, pulled down second-team All-ACC honors, and pitcher Xzavion Curry and designated hitter Michael Guldberg were tabbed to the third team.

In the past two days, English was drafted in the third round by Arizona, McCann in the fourth round by Oakland, Thomas in the fifth round by St. Louis, Curry in the seventh round by the Cleveland, outfielder Chase Murray in the 13th round by Pittsburgh and pitcher Amos Willingham in the 17th round by Washington.

Don’t forget junior center fielder Nick Wilhite, who like McCann and sophomore outfielder Colin Hall started all 62 games, nor Luke Waddell, who batted .322 in the leadoff spot.

Nick made the all-regional team, along with English, McCann and Waddell, in part because of his defensive wizardry — a finalist for the Brooks Wallace Shortstop of the Year award.

More notably, Nick Wilhite cranked it up at the plate this season.

Working a great deal with first-year assistant coach James Ramsey, a former outfielder at Florida State who spent seven years in professional baseball, Wilhite this season batted .311 after hitting .128 as a freshman and .155 as a sophomore.

Radcliff, who moved into right field early in the season when Murray was sidelined by a strained oblique, also took off with help from Ramsey. His numbers in conference play were stout. Radcliff finished fourth in ACC slugging percentage (.653) behind No. 1 English (.825), and fifth in conference on-base percentage (.458). He batted .257 overall with postseason struggles.

The Jackets won more games this season than in any since 2010 (47-15), and they did it with almost predictable juice from English, McCann and Thomas and the aforementioned surprises mixed in with pitchers Willingham and freshmen Cort Roedig and Luke Bartnicki among others.

Junior third baseman Jackson Webb and designated hitter Michael Guldberg also out-paced expectations.

English started the season somewhat slowly.

Through 10 games, he was batting .139 with six hits, one home run and four RBI.

English was crushing the ball, but it just so happened it was usually right at defenders.

Over his next 47 games – he missed five with injuries – he smacked 68 hits, 17 home runs and 67 RBI. Tristin punished the ACC. Despite missing four conference games, he led league play with a crazy .825 slugging percentage, tied for first with 11 home runs, was second in batting average (.381), tied for second in runs (32) and fourth in on-base percentage (.462).

His 1.287 OPS led the ACC by a mile.

One week after hitting a walk-off home run that beat Duke in the ACC tournament and sent Tech to the semifinals against N.C. State, he tore up the NCAA regional.

English was 11-for-14 at the plate with eight RBI, three doubles and a home run – an absolute missile to left off Auburn ace closer Cody Greenhill – in the regional. He reached base in 14 of 18 plate appearances as he was hit by a pitch twice and walked once while adding an RBI sacrifice fly.

When the Jackets rallied from a 7-2 deficit Saturday afternoon to a 10-8 win over Coastal Carolina to set up the rematch with Auburn, English’s RBI double in the seventh was critical in Tech’s five-run inning. That followed McCann’s three-run triple off the right field wall. McCann’s 23 home runs were third-most in program history, trailing only Anthony Maisano’s 25 in 1990 and the 24 hit by Mark Fischer in 1997. He also had 70 RBI, one less than English’s 71.

English also took over on the mound in the bottom of the seventh with no outs and the bases loaded, Tech leading 9-7.

He was in the right place at the right time.

Coastal’s Scott McKeon got hold of a ball, and ripped it up the middle. English got a glove up — and knocked off — deflecting the ball to second baseman Austin Wilhite behind second base for a 1-4-3 double play. The Jackets got out of the inning with only one run allowed as English threw just seven pitches to record three outs. After the double play, he struck out Nick Lucky.

These were the vagueries of baseball working for Tech.

“We hit a bullet right at English’s head. I don’t know how in the world he got a glove up,” said Coastal Carolina head coach Gary Gilmore, who is right behind Hall in active wins among Division I coaches (Hall’s No. 6 with 1,270, Gilmore No. 7 with 1,216).

“It almost ricocheted off his head, and he ricochets it to the shortstop and he turns a double play on us. That ball’s in center field, we score possibly two . . . man, it’s a game of inches. It’s all over the place.”

Gilmore should know about these things. In 2016, he brought his team to Tech. The Jackets swept the Chanticleers. From there, CCU went on to win the College World Series.

Anyway, English added two more scoreless innings of work, allowing just one hit, and that set up another night game against Auburn. It was set up by dark pretense and the brightest essence of Tech.

Thomas pitched a whale of a ball game Saturday. That was no surprise.

He was top two in a slew of ACC pitching categories, where he went 7-0 in league play with a 2.86 era and threw more innings than everybody else in the conference. He and Louisville’s Reid Detmers were the most successful pitchers in the conference.

Thomas threw a complete game, five-hitter at Louisville earlier in the season on the way to a 4-0 win, one day after Curry and English combined to allow two hits in a 3-1 win against the ACC team that finished with the best regular season record. Detmer took that loss, in part because Radcliff hit his first home run.

In the bottom of the ninth Saturday night, though, a day after the Jackets had whipped Florida A&M and Auburn pummeled Coastal Carolina Friday, fickle fate popped up.

Auburn was the home team by virtue of coin flip, one of the more odd rules in the NCAA baseball tournament.

With two on and two out, right fielder Steven Williams came to the plate and Auburn trailing 5-3. A south Georgia kid who grew up playing with and against Thomas, he fell down 0-2.

Connor threw too good a pitch, missing his spot. All night he had been inducing ground balls, as usual, with diving pitches. This one didn’t dive enough, and it was too high and sweet.

The inning began with a ball bobbled by Waddell, and a batter hit by Thomas on an 0-2 count. Pitching coach Jason Howell visited the mound. He told Connor, “Just to kind of be myself,” Thomas said. “He calmed me down and told me just to go after Steven and give him my best shot and we were fine, and to trust my stuff.”

The next two batters were retired to bring up Williams, who was benched briefly three weeks ago for slack offense.

“He was kind of doing the same sequence all night, but he was executing his pitches and I’ve got to give a lot of credit to him. He pitched extremely well,” Williams said. “The one I hit out, he just hung a slider and it was up in the zone and I just saw it and put a good swing on it and fortunately came out on top . . . everything he threw had a downward tilt.”

Maybe except for that pitch, or before that the ball that Coastal rapped off of English Sunday, the weekend outcomes would have been different.

All of Thomas’ teammates met him at the mound, where he knelt in agony as Williams circled the bases, and most of them made the trip to the post-game press conference – in various states of dress – to support him.

The first person to greet Thomas as he left the stage was athletics director Todd Stansbury, who wrapped an arm around the student-athlete’s shoulders as he walked to the locker room.

Even Gilmore knows. “Yesterday, they get walked off on a ball that if it’s a half inch higher or lower, it gets popped up or grounded out and [instead] it’s a home run,” he said.

Ultimately, the Jackets were done in baseball’s vagueries.

Auburn freshman Richard Fitts, who had done nothing significant over the regular season, pitched six scoreless innings of relief ball Saturday after the Jackets took a 5-1 lead through three.

“For whatever reason we could not hit Fitts . . .” Hall said after that game. “But I’m very proud of the way we played, and I’m very proud of Connor Thomas.”

Fate seems a factor. Auburn has something special going. They’re grinding in the wake of the sudden death of long-time, beloved play-by-play broadcaster Rod Bramblett and his wife in a May 25 auto accident, and the May 20 murder in the line of duty of Auburn police officer William Buechner, who regularly worked security at Auburn baseball game. His father is a season ticket holder.

“We’re playing for something bigger,” said Williams, who added a big two-run double Sunday night.

The Jackets played big for months, going without two of their top three starters over the past six weeks.

Sophomore Brant Hurter, a lefty, went down in April to season-ending elbow surgery. He was 2-2 and among ACC leaders in ERA in league play (3.06, No. 4) and batting average against (.197, No. 2). Curry, Tech’s Friday starter since he set foot on campus as a freshman, missed the last month with shoulder soreness.

Tech also lost potential closer Andy Archer before the season began; he suffered an elbow injury in fall workouts. That left English the closer, and he went 3-0 with a 3.70 ERA and six saves.

The Jackets came back against Coastal, but in the rematch against Auburn, they could not solve lefty Bailey Horn, who threw six shutout innings after a non-descript regular season.

Horn and Greenhill allowed a total of three hits and walked one. They hit no batters, and Auburn committed no errors.

Roedig started and gave Tech four shutout innings, but did not return to the game after a nearly-two-hour rain delay.

Horn did, and he buzzed the Jackets for three more frames. He’s 14 months removed from elbow surgery. “He has a pretty good spin rate on his fastball. He was mixing it up, changeup and slider to righties and lefties,” English said. “Up and down, and he was making it tough on us.

“Obviously, we’re disappointed. We know we’re a really good ball team, and we just didn’t want it to end. We were fighting tooth and nail to the very end, and it just didn’t swing our way today.”

All of it amazed Auburn coach Butch Thompson, who said, “I’m in awe,” of his players. “We played about as solid a game as we could.”

Tech scored just once, when English crushed a Greenhill fastball to over the left field fence in in the seventh. Hall was in awe of that.

“I told him in the locker room, I’ve coached a lot of great baseball players here at Georgia Tech and other places, and I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a player have the kind of performance that he had in this tournament,” Hall said. “I told him that in front of the team.

“Like I said, Greenhill is throwing 95 and he [English] turned on that like it was nothing. He pitches three innings in the first game, so he couldn’t have done anything more than he did to try to get us to the Super Regionals. Phenomenal performance.”

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