May 16, 2014
By Jon Cooper
The Good Word
Outfielders are expected to impact a game with their legs and their gloves, only occasionally getting the chance to do so with their arms.
That occasion has been more frequent than usual for Georgia Tech’s outfielders during the 2014 season.
Heading into the final regular-season series against South Florida — they’ll play the second game of the three-game set tonight (first pitch at 7:00 p.m.) — Georgia Tech outfielders had chalked up 22 outfield assists (OFAs), tied with Cal State Bakersfield, for the most in the nation.
That’s an impressive feat.
It’s even more impressive considering the Yellow Jackets came into the season having to replace their entire starting outfield, as 2013’s starters Kyle Wren, Brandon Thomas and Daniel Palka, were selected in Major League Baseball’s First-Year Player Draft.
Enter (from left to right) sophomore Matt Gonzalez, who started at third base last year, junior Daniel Spingola, who’d started 29 games over his first two years, and freshman Ryan Peurifoy, who has platooned with fellow freshman Keenan Innis.
That new group has not only admirably filled the shoes of its predecessors, but is close to lapping them in OFAs, as Wren, Thomas and Palka totaled 13 last season.
All four have contributed, led by Gonzalez, who leads the team with nine assists, tying him for fourth in the nation and equaling the school single-season record set in 2006 by Jeff Kindel. “Gonzo” also became the 11th Jacket and first since Wren last May 16 at Miami, to tied the school single-game record with two OFAs in the first game of the March 22 double-header at North Carolina.
Peurifoy is next with five assists, Innis has four — he became the 12th Jacket to record two OFAs in a game doing so on March 29 at Pittsburgh — and Spingola has three.
“That’s my favorite thing to do in baseball now that I’m an outfielder is throw somebody out,” Gonzalez said.
“We don’t get many opportunities and when we do we don’t want to miss them,” added Peurifoy. “It’s exciting when you get that opportunity and you take advantage of it.”
It’s fun to watch for head coach Danny Hall, who recognizes their importance.
“Gonzalez has a great arm and he throws very well from out there. He’s got a lot of assists and Peurifoy has a really good arm as well,” said Hall. “Both those guys can throw from their positions. It just kills [opponents’] momentum.”
Just how much was obvious on Tuesday night against Georgia at Turner Field in the Kauffman Tire Spring Baseball Classic For Kids. With the game scoreless and Georgia threatening in the sixth inning, Gonzalez charged a two-out single by UGA’s Sean McLaughlin, and unleashed perfect throw to catcher Mitch Earnest, who put the tag on Bulldog Conor Welton to end the inning, keeping the game deadlocked.
“I was sitting there thinking, `This is a lefty, [Tech pitcher Matt] Grimes is throwing pretty hard, so he could be behind a little bit, hit a ground ball, line drive to me,'” recalled Gonzalez. “I knew I wanted to get a good angle, come through it and then just let my arm do the work. That’s one of those where it leaves your hand and you know that it feels pretty good. You just sit there and wait and it’s kind of slow motion when the runner slides in but it feels great.”
The Jackets built on that momentum, scratching out a run in the top of the seventh, helped out by a perfect sacrifice bunt by Peurifoy, who had boomed a double into the left-centerfield gap earlier in the game.
The outfield came up big again on consecutive plays in the bottom half of the inning to protect the tenuous lead. With one out, Spingola raced in and laid out, making a spectacular diving catch on a sinking line drive. Peurifoy then closed the inning by earning his fifth OFA of the season and second in three games with Georgia.
A smash by Georgia’s Skyler Weber ate up first baseman Thomas Smith and rolled into right field headed toward the corner. Seeing Weber gamble and take off for second, Peurifoy charged, cut the ball off, spun around and fired a strike to second, where shortstop Connor Justus was waiting to put the tag down, ending the inning.
“When I was doing my reverse turn to get the ball and I saw him take an aggressive turn into first base I got a little excited and made a good throw,” he said. “Connor picked it for me pretty well. It was pretty exciting. The Yellow Jackets outfield came up strong today. `Gonzo’ nailed that guy at the plate. That’s exciting. Something you practice for.”
“That was huge because that gets the tying run in scoring position for them,” raved Gonzalez. “He’s got a great arm and he’s very quick to the ball. So that was definitely huge.”
The Jackets outfield has come up huge on runners headed toward the plate seven times this season (not including Thursday night), accounting for almost a third of their OFAs.
Those plays give the team a big lift.
“As a pitcher that fires you up,” said righty Matt Grimes, who got the series-clinching win over Georgia Tuesday night, throwing seven shutout innings. “I know I was excited after that play. That was big and then Peurifoy with the throw from the outfield to second base, also a pitcher’s best friend. I’ll take those easy outs.
“It gives you a lot of confidence out there,” he added. “You know you can give up a hit like I did and they’ll throw somebody out. So it’s definitely a confidence booster.”
The entire outfield has grown together this season and continues to grow more and more confident.
They’re having fun and challenging each other in taking aim at opposing runners, who dare challenge them.
“As outfielders we’re out there competing, to show off our arms out there,” said Peurifoy. “You live for those moments. It’s something to put your hat on.”
“It’s a friendly competition,” said Gonzalez. “We want to see who gets the most [assists] but that’s cool. It’s good to see us both get [one tonight].”
Get The Good Word in your e-mail box — it’s free! Just register here to get the latest features on Georgia Tech Athletics.