by Jon Cooper | The Good Word
Emotion can take you a long way.
Georgia Tech baseball hopes it can help carry them through the next three days, as the Yellow Jackets (29-24, 12-15, fourth in the Coastal), wrap up the 2018 regular season, hosting the No. 9/10 Duke Blue Devils (38-12, 17-9, second in the Coastal).
While playing a top-10 team and Coastal rival provides plenty of motivation, the three-game set will test the Jackets’ mental toughness, as it begins a day earlier than usual and caps off a season-ending stretch of seven games in nine days.
The bizarre stretch included an off-day between games two and three of last weekend’s series at Virginia, then a Monday night getaway game, which, because things evidently weren’t tough enough, was delayed two-and-a-half hours by weather, resulting in the team getting back to campus around 4:00 in the morning. That gave the Jackets a little more than 14 hours before their midweek game against Southeast Missouri State. After winning that game and after a full day off, it’s Duke to close the season.
The series is crucial for ACC Tournament positioning and includes an emotional spike on Saturday, with Senior Day.
“Hopefully it will be a good day and we’ll get a win first of all,” said senior second baseman and co-captain Wade Bailey. “These four years have gone by really fast and the fact that I only have three more games at the Rusty C is kind of sad. There are a lot of memories, a lot of good times out there playing with my brothers. I knew it had to come but it’s starting to get a little bit more real now.”
Also real is the way the Jackets have responded to this past week of must-win games. They’ve won three of four (losing only Monday). The key is just taking it as it comes, one game at a time.
“I’m approaching it just like I’d approach any game, but, obviously, these games mean a lot for us moving forward into the postseason,” said junior catcher, co-captain Joey Bart, who may also be playing his final games at Russ Chandler, as he’s expected to be a high draft pick in the 2018 MLB Draft held June 4-6. “Hopefully everyone plays loose and doesn’t get too tight even though we have to win just about every game. We know that. We’re just going to come out here, grind and compete, try to get wins.
“Just think about the fun of the game, coming out, having fun, doing what we’ve been doing since we were five, six years old,” he added. “I just think of it as coming to the yard, having fun. It’s just part of what I do.”
Bart, who was recently named a Johnny Bench Award semifinalist, has done what he does over this last stretch. The ACC’s leader in hitting (.371), slugging (.649), on-base percentage (.480) and total bases (131) — he’s second in hits (75), home runs (15) and runs scored (51) — is riding a 10-game hitting streak (batting .472, 17-for-36) and is hitting .500 (7-for-14) over the past four games, with three multi-hit games, five runs scored and seven more driven in. He’d love to leave with a big series against the Blue Devils, who he did not see last year due to injury.
He sees a parallel between this team and the ‘16 edition, which swept eventual national champion Coastal Carolina.
“That was really cool,” he said. “Obviously, we didn’t know that they were going to go ahead and win it all, but looking back at it now, it shows you where this program has been and what we’re capable of doing. We’re certainly capable of doing the same thing this year.”
The Jackets have lost the last two series and four of the last five games against Duke but are 50-16 all-time in the series at Russ Chandler Stadium, and 92-37 all-time in the series.
“We have to be ready to go on Thursday when the Duke Blue Devils roll into town,” said head coach Danny Hall, following Tuesday night’s win. “We had to persevere. It felt like our guys did what we needed to do. I felt like we competed a lot harder as the game went on.”
They’ll need to compete hard in all three games in a series that promises to be a pitching showcase, with Tech leading with their 1-2 punch of Xzavion Curry and Connor Thomas.
“Shake-and-Bake” has combined to win four ACC Pitcher of the Week awards this season — all since April 1 — and are a combined 13-6, with 15 quality starts.
Pitching and defense has been a recipe for success for Duke, whose 3.41 ERA ranks 24th in the country, their 25 home runs allowed are fewest in the ACC (Tech is at 4.80, with 48 homers allowed, both second-highest in the conference). The Blue Devils also lead the ACC in fielding percentage (.983), fewest earned runs allowed (33) and most double plays turned (48). Tech is at .970, 60 and 44, the second-fewest twin-killings.
Hitting-wise, Georgia Tech leads the league in hits (545) and total bases (844), is second in the league in hitting (.293, 22 points higher than Duke) and slugging (.453, 32 points higher). However, they’re also tied for third in grounding into double plays (37). Bart and Chase Murray are 1-2 in the conference in hitting, with Bart at a league-best .371 and Murray 13 points back. Murray hit .364 (4-for-11) with three runs scored, a double, a triple, seven total bases, and two RBI with a .636 slugging percentage, and .364 on-base percentage against the Blue Devils last year. A couple of other bats to watch are Tristin English, who feasted on Duke in 2016, (.571 B.A., 8-for-14, .700 slugging, .600 OBP, with a pair of doubles, and 10 total bases), and Bailey (.364, on 4-for-11, .455 SLG, .467 OBP, with a double and three runs) last season.
The Jackets will try to send their senior class out on a good note, saluting five members of the roster on Saturday in Bailey, Kel Johnson, Jared Datoc, Ben Schniederjans and Patrick Wiseman and one important member of the team not on the official roster as a student-athlete in bullpen catcher Johnathan Langley in a pregame ceremony.
“They’ve been a really good group,” said Hall. “Wade Bailey’s played here all four years and has been a really, really good player and a good leader. Kel Johnson has had a great career. He’s just been stuffed with his shoulder injury but he’s probably led by example, putting a lot of time in, a lot of work in to become a good player. Schniederjans, a guy that walked on, has contributed greatly throughout his time here. Patrick Wiseman, his career has been just injury-riddled to where it’s been hard for him to get on the field, but he’s been a great student here. He already has a really good job starting this summer with Georgia Pacific and Jared Datoc, the last two years, has been one of the key guys in our bullpen, one of the guys that really leads our pitching staff. The unsung guy is probably Langley, being a guy that catches in our bullpen every day. He’s not on our roster but he’s just invaluable, the things that he has been able to contribute on and off the field.”
The group may be small but is tight-knit.
“We’re pretty close,” said Datoc. “A bunch of us grew up playing together and it was really cool to come down here to school and all put on the same uniform again. So it’s definitely going to be kind of sad once we all break up but I’m sure we’ll keep in touch.”
“It has been a great year for the team. I’ve been able to see some things in this season that I have not seen in past seasons,” said Johnson, who enters the weekend with 33 career homers, two grand slams and a three-homer game. “We’ve had a really deep starting rotation, we’ve had three really good weekend starters and a good midweek starter, we’ve had guys stepping up out of the bullpen, things that we’ve been needing and it’s really good to see. I wish, of course, that I could be contributing more from an offensive standpoint but it’s still been a very exciting final season. Hopefully we’ll continue to play the way we’ve been playing on the weekend.”
The emotion of this weekend and the ramifications of this series can be felt in the bullpen as well as in the dugout.
“It’s all hands on deck. We’re not going to leave anything in the tank,” said Schniederjans, who pitched Georgia Tech’s first game ever at SunTrust Park last season. “I definitely want to end on a good note here at Tech. To get back to NCAAs would be amazing. Being in postseason play is why you come to a place like Georgia Tech.”
“I think it will be exciting,” said Wiseman, who got to pitch his first two years with older brother, Joe. “We have a top-10 team coming into town. We’ve always played Duke pretty close and this is obviously going to be the most crucial series of the year because it is must-win. Looking forward to the last series at the Rusty C, I really enjoyed playing here for four years.”
Langley will get a rare, but deserved, opportunity to get in the spotlight on Saturday afternoon. Typical of his career, Saturday is not about him, but the team.
“It will definitely be special,” he said. “We’ve got a couple more games left and hope that we can get on a little winning streak and make a regional and see what happens from there.”
Hall is hoping for good things just to keep the class together as long as possible.
“They’ve been a really good group, they’ve played in some regionals, I hope they get a chance to experience that again this year,” he said. “Hopefully we can close it out, finish strong and they get another opportunity to play in the NCAA Tournament.”