May 27, 2014
By Jon Cooper
The Good Word
– Want a real test of character?
Try taking a group of 20-plus 18-to-21-year-olds on the road, have them live out of a hotel for a week while having to perform under extreme duress — the level of which elevates with each passing day.
That’s what Georgia Tech baseball went through in the ACC Tournament and what they’re preparing to go through in the NCAAs. But if any group can handle the pressure it’s this one.
“They’ve been very resilient all year. I think they put everything in perspective,” said head coach Danny Hall, who will lead the Jackets into its seventh straight NCAA Tournament and 18th in his 20 years on the Flats (they’ve made it 28 times in the last 30 years). “More than anything I think they care a lot about each other and they want to play for each other.”
Playing for each other and picking each other up was never more clearly evidenced than over the past week in Greensboro, N.C.
The Jackets played four games in four days — including a single-elimination play-in game (going 3-1) — and overcame the one loss to Duke, which put them on the brink of elimination. With their backs against the wall, they got a big-time start from closer Dusty Isaacs, who would earn Tournament MVP honors, and a four-inning close from sophomore Sam Clay to stave off elimination.
Even their day off on Saturday was stressful, as, needing Miami to beat Duke, Tech watched as the `Canes blew a two-run lead in the ninth before winning in 12. That was just to get TO the championship game.
In Sunday’s ACC Championship game against Maryland, they jumped out 2-0 after half a inning, but allowed a pair of two-run leads to slip away, falling behind, 4-3, with nine outs left to play with.
But they found that resilience, tying the game in the seventh, jumping ahead in the eighth, then salting away the game in the ninth, winning, 9-4. It was Georgia Tech’s second title in two years, their second straight at NewBridge Bank Park and their ninth title in school history.
The big moment came in the bottom of the sixth inning. Maryland had tied the game off redshirt-junior righty, Matthew Grimes, pitching in relief of starter Devin Stanton. With the bases loaded and none out the Terrapins appeared poised to break the game open.
But Grimes made a pitch and got some help from his best friend, the double play. He would retire the next hitter. The 5-4-3 gave Maryland the lead, but also minimized the damage, kept the Jackets close and allowed them to continue to believe.
“Our attitudes were so positive,” said first baseman Thomas Smith. “I think it says a lot about our team to be able to answer when we got down, able to answer then score a couple of runs to get on top and get in a good position [to win].”
The deficit wouldn’t last long, as young and old came through to knot the game in the seventh, rallying off Maryland closer Kevin Mooney, who was third in the ACC with 11 saves.
Freshman Brandon Gold doubled to start the inning and fellow frosh Ryan Peurifoy sacrificed him to third. Mitch Earnest then tied the game with a sacrifice fly in yet another gritty at-bat by the senior backstop.
“Mitch is an unsung hero on our team,” said Hall. “He does a tremendous job of catching, he has had his moments, had big at-bats for us, just like today. That was a critical play in the game to get us that sac fly. He doesn’t get enough of the credit that he deserves.”
After senior Jonathan Roberts threw a scoreless frame, the offense took over. Daniel Spingola doubled down the left field line and scored when Matt Gonzalez’s sacrifice bunt was thrown into the seats. After a Smith sacrifice and an A.J. Murray walk, freshman Connor Justus singled home two runs. Up 7-4, the game was in effect over.
Freshman Ben Parr threw an overpowering 1-2-3 inning then, after the Jackets tacked on two runs in the ninth, lefty Sam Clay, who’d closed Friday’s win against Clemson, finished the job, setting off a wild celebration.
The Jackets were champions, on a day when Isaacs wasn’t available — although he said he would have lobbied to pitch — and table-setters Mott Hyde and Daniel Spingola went a combined 1-for-9 (Spingola also reached, and scored after getting hit by a pitch).
The middle of the order stepped up, setting the table themselves then clearing it. The trio of Gonzalez, Smith and Murray combined to go 10-for-18, with six runs scored and six driven in.
“Coach Hall said it was going to be someone contributing that hasn’t contributed yet and so anybody could do it, one through nine,” said Gonzalez, who went 4-for-5, with three runs scored and an RBI. “It doesn’t matter who comes up there. We know they’re going to get on base and we can just do a job.”
“That’s best-case scenario,” said Spingola, who joined Hyde and Isaacs on the all-tournament team. “The leadoff guys aren’t getting on but the big power-hitters are hitting doubles and scoring runs,”
Also key was that the Jackets did not commit an error in the entire tournament. They turned nine DPs — four more than the next nearest team, Florida State.
“We went through the whole tournament without making an error, which is unbelievable,” said Hall. “It’s a big reason why we came out of this thing champions.”
The Jackets, who in 2012 became the first eight-seed to win the ACC Tournament, taking home the eighth in school history, became the first nine-seed to do so in 2014, winning the school’s ninth title.
Opinions are mixed on finishing 10th next year to try and win the school’s 10th title, and become the first 10th seed to win it.
“It’s interesting that those numbers add up, but I’d rather not have to be in a play-in game,” said Hall, with a laugh.
“I might actually want to get a top-five seed for once,” preferred Spingola. “But whatever does the trick, right?”
“Absolutely,” said Smith. “If it works out like that that would be awesome. I think we’ve been really fortunate to be in a position the past three years to have a chance to win two titles. I don’t think many teams and many players get a chance to do that.”
As in 2012, the Jackets will travel to SEC country for the NCAA Regional, specifically Oxford, Miss. Ole Miss will host the region that includes No. 2 seed Washington and Jacksonville State.
Hall has great respect for the entire region, especially opening opponent Washington.
“Oregon State’s the No. 1 seed in the tournament. The University of Washington finished second in the Pac-12 and it was very close. That tells me that Washington is very good,” said Hall, about the Huskies, who finished two games behind the Beavers. “It’s going to be a tough Regional, but they’re all tough. Everybody’s a winner that gets into the NCAA Tournament and you have to play well to advance.”
Isaacs stated that the Jackets will be a confident group going in.
“It’s just a matter of getting hot at the right time and I think we’re peaking right when we need to,” he said. “I’m really excited. We’re going to go in, play as hard as we can and let the chips fall where they may.”
The Jackets can be loose, as they come in under the radar — one analyst on the Selection show even presented a Super Regional scenario Ole Miss played Mississippi State.
“They didn’t talk about us at all but we’ve been the underdog all year, so we might as well keep doing it,” said Gonzalez. “I’ve heard Ole Miss is a great place to play and I’m excited to go over there.”
The Jackets hope a significant number of fans share that excitement and follow suit.
“We’ve had great support,” said Hall. “A lot of fans showed up in Greensboro, which was great. So I hope a lot of Georgia Tech folks come over and support this team. This team is definitely worthy of being supported. Hopefully they’ll make the trek.”
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