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#TGW: A Young Man's Game

Feb. 3, 2014

By Jon Cooper
The Good Word

There was good news and bad news surrounding Major League Baseball’s First-Year Player Draft last June.

The good news was that eight Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets were selected.

The bad news was that eight Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets were selected.

Those eight players included six crucial pieces of the 2013 team — the entire starting outfield (from left to right, Kyle Wren, Brandon Thomas and Daniel Palka) starting catcher Zane Evans), starting third baseman (Sam Dove), and Friday night starter (Buck Farmer). It should be noted that Thomas, Dove and Farmer were graduating seniors.

That massive departure left quite the rebuilding job for 2014 for master builder and Head Coach Danny Hall. The job was not new for Hall, who went out and replaced all the holes following the 2010 June Draft, in which 10 Yellow Jackets were selected, by recruiting the class of 2011, from which the three non-graduating `13 Draftees that left, plus pitcher Matthew Grimes, who chose to return to Tech, came.

Hall stepped up, signing a recruiting class ranked ninth in the nation by Perfect Game USA.

The baby Jackets made quite a first impression during Fall Practice, especially in the White & Gold World Series.

The next step began late last week, with the start of Spring practice, that began just prior to the winter storm.

The snow is gone and the season opener is on the horizon — only 10 days away.

But the optimism that Hall always carries into Opening Day is accompanied this year by some anxiety — 14 freshmen on the roster will do that.

“Oh, it is a little daunting,” he said last week during Tech Baseball Media Day. “Even the best players, who are the greatest players that we’ve had here, some have had major struggles when they’re freshmen. So to have that many and to have to count on that many, I think, yeah, certainly, it causes a little stress. But I do think they’re talented. I’ve been impressed with their talent level, been impressed with how hard they’ve worked and we’re going to count on them.”

The freshmen will help Hall answer some of the questions the ’14 Jackets face.

“The biggest question mark I have is what are we going to be offensively?” he said. “How do our freshmen blend in with the upperclassmen to kind of give us an offense? There’s no way we’ll have the power that we’ve had the last couple of years but I’m hoping that we can do other things to score runs.”

Tech likely will run more. Speedy shortstop Mott Hyde, one of the key senior leaders, isn’t conceding anything as far as the Jackets being able to score runs.

“Of course, we’re not going to have as many home runs as we did last year but I feel like we’ll put up good numbers regardless,” he said. “We definitely have a lot more speed.”

Bolstering the offense will be outfielders Daniel Spingola and DeAndre Smelter, who both will likely see time in centerfield, as Spring Football will cut into Smelter’s availability. A.J. Murray and Alex Cruz also provide solid sticks, but Cruz may be most valuable as a late-inning defensive replacement — Hall referred to him as the team’s best defensive first baseman — and a key bullpen component. Matt Gonzalez, who showed his power stroke over the summer at the 2013 TD Ameritrade College Home Run Derby, will be counted on, and Hall hinted that sophomore catcher Grant Wruble also could find some playing time in the outfield depending on how he swings the bat.

Hall will be relying on big freshman contributions and, based on the fall, that’s not unrealistic. Outfielders Keenan Innis and Ryan Peurifoy led the victorious White team, finishing with .380 and .370 averages, while infielder Connor Justus hit .364, second to Spingola on the Gold team.

The pitching side will allow Hall to sleep a whole lot better as the Jackets have plenty of arms vying for weekend rotation spots, including sophomore Jonathan King and juniors Cole Pitts and Josh Heddinger, the hero of last year’s Nashville Regional.

“We have more pitchers than we’ve ever had but that gives us a lot of options, particularly out of our bullpen,” said Hall. “We’re counting on, certainly, King, Heddinger and Pitts to, at least initially, anchor those weekend spots. But I would not rule out Grimes.”

King was a concern due to back issues that plagued him during the fall, but is back at 100 percent and excited by the potential battle ahead for rotation spots.

“We all want to be in it and we know that not all of us can be in it,” he said. “We’re going to fight for it until Opening Day.”

King expects freshmen to be part of the equation here, too.

Zac Ryan has been throwing the ball extremely well. He threw the ball really well all fall,” said King. “Ben Parr is another one, a left-hander. He’s been outstanding so far. We’re excited about all of them, especially those two. “

The bullpen also promises to be strong with the return to health of Grimes and lefty Devin Stanton, who Hall said is “healthier than he’s ever been, throwing better than he’s thrown probably since he’s been here,” as well as senior Dusty Isaacs.

Isaacs opens the season as Hall’s choice for closer but he’s not limiting him to the ninth inning. He’ll be using him for the most important three outs, regardless of where that might be.

Hall compared him to former Jacket Jeff Watchko, who was invaluable in the Jackets 2002 run to the College World Series, when he went 11-1 with a pair of saves.

“I called [Watchko] a trouble-shooter,” Hall recalled. “We didn’t just use him strictly as a guy to throw in the ninth inning. We used him as a guy to settle those games down that were tight in the sixth and seventh inning. In a perfect world we’d like to use him as the Jeff Watchko of this year’s team.”

Hall realizes that his perfect world can be a lot different than the real world. If there was any doubt, he just needed to look at publications, which picked the Yellow Jackets for fourth in the Coastal Division and out of the top 25.

While not being ranked is uncharted territory for Hall, he doesn’t feel slighted.

“I think we’re right where we need to be, honestly,” he said. “We don’t have many hitters back, we lost our Friday Night starter, who was tremendous for us in Buck Farmer, and a lot of people in our league have almost their whole team back. So I think those rankings are pretty accurate in what people, at least on paper, think we are. I’m hoping they’re wrong come May and June.”

That’s not to say he’s scaling back on expectations, nor are his players, who likely will find those rankings in a convenient viewing spot on the clubhouse billboard.

“Traditionally we have high expectations here, we always have high goals,” he said. “When you come here you want to try to win ACC Championships, you want to try to get into Regionals, win Regionals, win Super Regionals and get to play in the College World Series. I think they fully have embraced that.

“I think they’ve embraced maybe having a little chip on their shoulder that people maybe don’t think we’re going to be as good as we have been and that’s all good,” he added. “We’re not there yet but we haven’t played a game yet and that’s the fun part of getting into your season. Let’s see what we can do.”

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