By Jon Cooper | The Good Word
THE FLATS — There will be a time when Georgia Tech’s baseball players will stop and appreciate everything they accomplished during the 2019 season.
It’s a lot — going from unranked to a national top-10 ranking (they currently sit at No. 6), winning a school-record nine-straight ACC series (10-straight overall), winning the series from then-top-five Georgia, and sweeping SEC rival Auburn (ranked No. 15 and No. 23) and taking home the Coastal Division title for the first time in eight years. Then there’s the individual honors, head coach Danny Hall winning his fourth ACC Coach of the Year (his first since 2005), and a conference-high six All-ACC nominations (first-teamers junior catcher Kyle McCann, redshirt junior 1B/P Tristin English and junior LHP Connor Thomas, second-team sophomore outfielder Baron Radcliff and third-teamers junior RHP Xzavion Curry and sophomore DH Michael Guldberg).
That celebration won’t be any time soon. Especially not this week.
This week, the Yellow Jackets (38-16, 19-11) head into the ACC Tournament as the No. 2 overall seed and are instead more focused on what is still out there to be earned.
“I feel like we feel like we need to stay on the gas and just keep doing the things that made us successful this season.” said Hall, whose fourth C.O.Y. ties him for third-most in ACC history. “We’ve got to keep putting pressure on people, we know we’ve got to throw strikes and play defense. Have their minds ready to know that everybody’s going to compete hard and you’ve got to be ready to match the intensity of playing in the ACC Tournament.”
The players know there’s a big, fat target on their back when they take the field of Durham Bulls Athletic Park in Durham, N.C., to begin Pool B play, taking on 11-seed Notre Dame (24-28, 13-17), at 3 p.m. Wednesday afternoon, then No. 7 Duke (30-24, 15-15) on Friday at 11 a.m.
The Jackets can feel the target, but don’t mind wearing it.
“It fires you up,” said McCann, who led the ACC with 22 homers, finished third in RBIs (63), slugging (.694), and walks (56) and fifth in on-base percentage (.465). “Having the target on your back kind of shows that you’re one of the guys, you’re on the team. To go out and prove it is a good thing.”
“Last year everybody overlooked us,” said Thomas, who finished 9-1 with a 3.11 ERA (sixth in the ACC), led the ACC in innings (98 ⅓), was second in wins, tied for second in fewest walks allowed (17, with teammate Amos Willingham, one behind teammate Xzavion Curry), was third in strikeouts (93) and was ACC Pitcher of the Week for the season’s final week, after firing a 93-pitch, complete-game, two-hit shutout of Pittsburgh. “This year, we’re the aggressor. We’ve come at everybody and given them our best shot and it’s shown and we love it. We love being the guys that everybody is going after.”
The target on their back actually goes along nicely with the chip they carry on their shoulder. It’s a chip that began in the preseason, when the Yellow Jackets were picked for fifth in the Coastal — they’d take it by a game over Miami (18-12) and by two over North Carolina (17-13).
“It’s the first time that we’ve been in a position like this since I’ve been in school here so we’re kind of relishing it right now, but at the same time, we’re kind of brushing it off, because we played the whole year with a chip on our shoulder,” said English, a semifinalist for the John Olerud Two-Way Player of the Year Award, who ranked top 10 in home runs (15, tied for fifth), slugging (.670, sixth), and RBIs (57, eighth), while leading the league in Sac Flies (7) and hit-by-pitches (19), and boasted saves against No. 4 Louisville, No. 4 Georgia, and then-No. 9 North Carolina, and had a win against top-ranked UCLA. “We were unranked, then we’d win games, they wouldn’t rank us. Now that they have, we’re kind of playing with that same chip but we want to keep moving up. So we’re not coming in with a title of champs. Honestly, I’m pretty upset we’re not No. 1. That we didn’t overtake Louisville. So that’s the way we’re coming into this tournament.
“We kind of have all the incentive we need without any extra,” English added. “We play with a chip on our shoulder. We’re a team that can get locked in and when we’re locked in we’re dangerous. So I’d say we’re going to take the same approach that we’ve had the whole year, that nothing different. Just like a regular series. Win two out of three and move on.”
The Jackets will open the series with junior righty Amos Willingham on the mound. Willingham, a junior college transfer who last year at this time was getting ready to play summer ball in Florence, S.C., embraced the challenge of being first in the rotation following injuries that sidelined Curry and sophomore Brant Hurter. He started 4-0 as midweek starter, then, went 2-0 in three Friday starts — the Jackets won all three games.
Willingham not only personifies its “Next Man Up” mentality but also the dream-come-true season that has been 2019. Yet, even in his dreams, he never pictured himself starting for Georgia Tech in the conference tournament, never mind their opener.
“Not at all, especially as good as our staff’s been all year,” he said. “I definitely didn’t think that I was going to be the guy that would be going out the first game. But things happen. Unfortunately those two guys are down so for Coach Hall and Coach Howell to trust me to go out there, it means a lot. That they give me that trust, now I have to go out and prove that I deserve it.”
His teammates fully trust him.
“Amos is going to go out there Wednesday and give us a great start so I’m really just looking forward to competing,” said shortstop Luke Waddell, Tech’s leadoff hitter extraordinaire — he was second on the Jackets in hits (63, tied with leftfielder Colin Hall), third in (11), and walks (38) — who earned a spot on the Brooks Wallace Shortstop of the Year semifinalist list. “We’ve got to control what we can control and everything else will kind of take care of itself. We’ve just got to come out and play with some intensity and passion and we’ll be alright.”
“I love Amos. He’s done a great job coming into that Friday night role when we needed him. He’s really stepped up for us,” said Guldberg, who entered the tournament hitting .373 (third in the conference), with a .460 on-base percentage (seventh) and seven sacrifice bunts (tied for fourth) hitting behind Waddell and in front of McCann and English. “He gets after it but that loose personality makes me smile every time I see him.”
The Yellow Jackets would love to have something to smile about in this tournament, as they begin play Wednesday having one win in the tournament since their last championship in 2014, and carry in a seven-game losing streak.
But like the title of Coastal Champion, they’ve put those losses, which include three one-run losses in the last four games, behind them. In fact, they fit perfectly on that chip on their shoulder. This is a new year. This year’s team didn’t have a losing streak longer than two games. They had only three of those all year and haven’t had one of those since April 9 at No. 2 Georgia and April 12 at B.C. They didn’t lose back-to-back ACC games since March 9 and 10 at Miami.
Those streaks have a good chance of staying in tact, even if things should things not go well against Notre Dame, which played Duke at 7 p.m. on Tuesday, as Thomas is waiting on Friday.
Thomas is 4-0 with two no-decisions after a loss (Tech is 6-0) and he hasn’t lost since Feb. 23 against UCLA.
“I love the pressure,” he said. “I love being that guy for the team and I’ve worked hard to be there.”
“I think this year, in general, has felt totally different,” said Guldberg. “We totally expect to win every game that we play. We have confidence in the guys around us, we trust the guys around us, we love the guys around us, we love our coaches and we just love being out here. This year, they score six on us? We’ll come back at you and we’ll be fine. You have to fight for outs against us. We’ll just go out there and play hard and play loose and go from there.”
Neither Notre Dame nor Duke has had anything to do with the Jackets’ recent ACC Tournament difficulties — Tech has never even PLAYED the Fighting Irish — but if you really want some incentive, Duke, which is 3-8 against the Jackets in ACC Tournament play, was the only team to beat Georgia Tech on its run to the ‘14 championship, their fifth under Hall. The Jackets not only have an advantage of having Duke and Notre Dame already playing a game, but also the pool-play rule that allows them to advance should the teams end up tied, as the Jackets are the highest seed.
Tech is more about looking ahead than behind them, as a good showing could lead to a top-eight national finish and the opportunity to host a super regional.
“Obviously, we have the ACC Tournament then a regional. We first have to get through the both of them before we can even think about a super,” said Thomas. “But we just take care of business. I would say if we get to the playoffs of the ACC Tournament I think we’ll lock up a top-eight seed, I feel like.”
“It’s definitely one of our milestones,” said English. “Our milestone was win the regular season, which we won part of but came up short for overall, win the ACC Tournament, win a regional, win a super, win Omaha. So it’s kind of Step Two on our way of where we want to go. It’s just in the way.”
The Jackets will look to move things out of the way and move on with their goals this week.
“I think we’re really just focused on a ‘Next pitch’ mentality,” said Waddell. “So we’re ready for the first pitch and once that’s over with you kind of have to move on. So I’m really excited for it. I think everyone is. We’re ready to go.”
“We have a lot more to do,” said McCann. “So we’re excited to see how far we can go. Just to go out and kind of play with a chip on your shoulder has helped a lot but I think we still have to KEEP playing with a chip on our shoulder because I’m sure there are a few people that doubt us and all that does is fire us up to play even harder.”