April 3, 2014
By Jon Cooper
The Good Word
Georgia Tech (16-13, 5-7, T-5th Coastal) vs. Duke (17-12, 7-5, T-3rd Coastal)
Friday: Josh Heddinger, RHP (1-1, 4.45), RHP vs. Drew Van Orden, RHP (2-2, 3.57), 7:00 p.m. (ET)
Saturday: Devin Stanton, LHP (1-1, 3.76) vs. Trent Swart, LHP (2-1, 1.42), 4:00 p.m. (ET)
Sunday: Matthew Grimes, RHP (3-1, 3.90) vs. Michael Matuella, RHP (0-0, 1.29), 1:00 p.m. (ET)
Television: All games on ESPN3
Radio: All Games WREK 91.1 FM Atlanta
The Series: Georgia Tech leads, 85-31, 44-13 in Atlanta
There’s no faking passion. You either have it or you don’t.
Watching freshman shortstop Connor Justus it’s easy to see which side of that fence he’s on.
The 18-year-old from Cartersville, Ga., has it in spades and has used that passion to go from someone trying to make the team to a valuable piece in the Yellow Jackets’ infield and an important piece in the bottom third of the batting order.
“It’s been so much fun,” he said of his freshman campaign. “I can’t say enough about our team and just how fun it is to play for it. It’s like a brotherhood. Everyone’s so close and it’s just been a great experience coming in and helping contribute to the team.”
Justus has always been about contributing and winning. He was named the 2013 Georgia Dugout Club AAA Player of the Year and was three-times All-Region and two-times All-County leading Cartersville High School to three region titles and a state crown his senior year. He also starred on the East Cobb Yankees, where he was named 2013 East Cobb Baseball/Rawlings Defensive Player of the Year. It didn’t take long for him to earn some attention in the Fall, even though a hand injury kept him from hitting for a portion of the fall.
There simply was no ignoring his work ethic, his unbridled passion and love for the game. He took great pride in his defense and work tirelessly to improve those facets that he didn’t do as well.
“He just impressed me in the fall with how he could play defense,” said head coach Danny Hall. “He’s impressed me in that every day that he comes to practice. He’s one of those guys that enjoys practice. He’s going to have fun. He’s going to work hard and is infectious with other guys on the team just because of the way he goes about his business.
“Then, when he got a chance to play a little bit, not only did he play good defense, but he was having good at-bats and just everything that he was doing was helping our team,” Hall continued. “So I decided he was probably our best shortstop and moved him to short, moved Mott to second and I think our infield defense has picked up and gotten a lot better since we did that.”
Together, Tech’s infield is playing at a high level and is making the double play commonplace, as, heading into Friday’s game, they’d turned 36 of them, second in the ACC, one behind Notre Dame. Smith, Hyde and Justus ranked in the top eight in the conference in fielding double plays, with Smith tied for the conference lead, having participated in 26, Hyde right behind him, tied for third, with 25, and Justus eighth with 22.
The Jackets have been especially strong up the middle, with Hyde and Justus working together as if they’d been playing together for two years, not a little more than two months. (Check out the silky smooth 4-6-3 — especially Justus’ deft footwork — they turned on the roller up the middle in Wednesday’s 7-3 victory over Georgia State.
Justus credits Hyde’s presence and example for his stellar play and his adjustment to the college game.
“It’s been great playing beside Mott. He’s the best second baseman in the country in my eyes,” said Justus. “We hit it off when I came in. I know it sounds cliché when I say that but he’s just taught me so much about the game. Playing with him in the middle has been a great experience. I can’t say enough of how great of a player he is.”
Justus’ defense made a strong first impression, but his bat has made a more lasting one.
He enters the weekend series with Duke at Russ Chandler Stadium right on the cusp of .300 (.298, sixth on the team), with a .379 on-base percentage (fourth) and is hitting a respectable .273 in ACC play (also sixth). He has the team’s third-longest hitting streak of the season, a nine-gamer from March 11 through March 22, during which he hit .333 (15-for-45), with five multi-hit games, driving in six runs and scoring six more.
Hall was as impressed with the poise with which Justus handled the streak as he was with the streak itself.
“He’s not going to let anything go to his head. He’s going to show up every day to work and get better,” said Hall. “He’s always going around doing something. So I don’t think there will ever be a time that he lets something go to his head. He’s a worker.”
Justus thought nothing of the streak…literally.
“I tried not to worry about it. I try just to go and play the game as hard as I can,” he said. “You can only control so much. I just try to control what’s between my ears, just what I think. When I go up there I try to relax and see the ball and just hit it. I try to be as confident as I can and hope that the best happens.”
That confidence also has translated to coming up with big hits. He’s tied with sophomore Matt Gonzalez for the team lead with three game-winning RBIs (he’s also scored a pair of game-winning runs).
In the March 15 double-header against Miami, he scored what proved to be the game-winning run in the bottom of the eighth, the second in the seven-run uprising, then, in the nightcap, sent the fans home happy and Miami back to South Beach broken-hearted with a game-winning single in the bottom of the 10th.
“It’s the best feeling ever,” he said of the walk-off hit. “It’s so much fun when you have a big situation like that and you come up and you get that big base hit or whatever it is. You just want to celebrate with your team. It’s just an awesome experience.”
Coming through in the clutch is a matter of staying within himself — something he constantly reminds himself.
“It’s kind of funny, when I get up there, you’ll see me talking to myself. Some people probably think I’m crazy,” he said. “I’m always talking to myself and saying, `You can do this.’ `I’m gonna do this.’ I think that’s what helps me the most in those situations, just calming myself down and trying to release the nerves from myself because there’s so much building in there.
“Every time you go up there, you have to go up there and you have to have a positive mindset or you’re not going to do anything,” he added. “That’s the biggest thing for me, just having that positive mindset and thinking that I’m going to produce every time I’m at the plate and hoping that the best is going to come.”
Hall has confidence that the best is going to come for Justus and the Yellow Jackets, beginning this weekend against Duke.
“I think our team has competed well,” he said. “That’s certainly an encouraging sign. Duke is ahead of us in the ACC standings so we’ve got a chance to at least bring somebody a little closer to us.
“This will be a big weekend, as they all are,” he added. “Duke kind of has a veteran team, they have a very good pitching staff and we’ll have our hands full but we need to play as good as we possibly can play this weekend.”
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