May 23, 2017
By Jon Cooper | The Good Word
Conventional postseason wisdom states, “You can take regular-season stats and throw them out the window.”
Georgia Tech baseball coach Danny Hall would agree as he prepares his 10th-seeded Yellow Jackets to kick off the ACC Baseball Championship against No. 6 Miami. First pitch at Louisville Slugger Field in Louisville, Ky., is set for 11 a.m. and can be seen on Fox Sports Network as well as heard on WREK and followed online at WREK.org.
A big reason most of those stats can be disregarded is that a lot of the guys that put up those numbers — a third of the 27-man roster, according to Hall — not only won’t be in the lineup, they may not even be in Louisville!
“I’ve never seen anything like it, quite honestly,” said Hall, who’s won five ACC Championships. “To our guys’ credit, we’ve been battling this thing the whole year, and I think they’ve battled just about as hard as they can battle to get us here. I think we’ve proven that we can play with the best teams, and we’ve also proven that we can lose to just about anybody. So our goal is just to go there, play our best baseball, and see what happens.”
It’s basically a case of go with who you can for as long as you can.
That formula didn’t work badly during the final series of the season last weekend, as despite a series loss to No. 8 Virginia, the Jackets blew out the Cavaliers in the opener and overcame a six-run deficit in the finale before falling, 10-9. Sunday’s starting lineup included six freshmen, from regulars like full time starting shortstop Austin Wilhite, who was named to the ACC All-Freshman Team, and catcher Kyle McCann, who made 36 starts and has made nine straight to end the season in place of injured Second-Team All-ACC catcher Joey Bart, to lesser-used frosh like Nick Wilhite, who started the final four games, and Paxton Rigby, who hadn’t played at first base all season. Fellow freshman, Connor Thomas, who didn’t make his first appearance until May 9 against Georgia at SunTrust Park, started and was one of three frosh to toe the rubber.
Getting production from the kiddie corps has become commonplace this year and will be expected in Louisville.
“They’ve been stepping up for us all year so I don’t expect them to have any jaw-drops or eyes wide open any more. They’ve already experienced that,” said senior centerfielder Ryan Peurifoy. “So I think we need to come into this with a little different mindset and focus a little more on just taking it one game at a time. This is one game at a time. We win that first game we move onto the next game. We win the next game we can play again. If we lose the first game it’s done.”
Freshman outfielder Chase Murray is up for the challenge, despite the aches and pains.
“Towards the end of the season guys are all banged up but you just put it out of your mind and go out there and give whatever you have,” said Murray, who’s played the majority of the season with a broken hamate bone in his hand but will have a cheering section, as he grew up an hour away in Cincinnati. “You want to be out there at 100 percent but most of us are about 80 to 60. So you just give whatever you can.”
How long they’ll have to go might actually work to the Jackets’ advantage, as thanks to the format adopted this year, they only need to win two games to advance to the semifinals.
Beginning this year there will be four three-team pods or pools, with each team playing the other teams in its pool. Should the three teams all go 1-1, the top seed of the bracket will advance.
But the Jackets aren’t thinking about what-if scenarios that will eliminate them. They’re looking at the one in which they advance.
“I think it’s actually more exciting because you only have to play two games to get into the semifinals,” said Peurifoy, who was a freshman in 2014, when the Jackets, coincidentally also seeded 10th, went on a five-game tear through Greensboro, taking out Wake Forest and Miami — their pod mates in ‘17 — then, after a loss to Duke, whitewashed Clemson, 3-0, in the semifinals, and beat Maryland, 9-4, in the Championship game. “Win these first two and then go on. (Pool play) was more stressful way. This way we just play two games, we can get into the Tournament and make a chance.”
Needing two wins against the higher-seeded Demon Deacons (No. 3), and Hurricanes — both of whom took two of three from the Jackets during the season, won’t be easy but they’ll have the luxury of setting up their starters. Tech goes with sophomore Jake Lee (4-2, 5.51) against Miami then comes back with freshman Xzavion Curry (6-4, 5.52) against Wake.
Both have been solid down the stretch. Lee, who threw primarily on Sunday, fired a complete game shutout his last time out at Duke on May 14, the first CG for a Jackets’ pitcher since Josh Heddinger against No. 2 Vanderbilt on June 2, 2013 in the Nashville Regionals. He’ll look to avenge last year’s ACC Championship start against Miami, when he was chased after a third of an inning, allowing three earned runs in the 4-0 loss. Curry is unbeaten in his last five starts (3-0, 2 N.D.s).
Curry, Tech’s Friday night starter all season, believes the team, even with the preponderance, won’t be intimidated or guilty of overthinking.
“You just have to clear your mind so you can go out there and play the best you can,” said Curry, who had a no-decision at Wake during the year. “If you’re uptight when you’re trying to play some things are going to happen. I just want to go in there and compete, give my team the best chance to advance inside the Tournament. That’s all I’m going out there to do.”
The Jackets’ bats heated up over the season’s final week, scoring at least nine runs three times in four games, twice against Virginia in the final weekend, doing all that damage despite not having their top two sluggers, Kel Johnson and Bart, who combined for 23 homers and 83 RBIs — that’s 32 percent of their long balls and 26 percent of its RBIs. Johnson (shoulder) will be out for the ACCs, while Bart (hand), a second-team All-ACC performer, will be a game-time decision.
Sparking the offense will be a pair of juniors, All-ACC First-Team second baseman Wade Bailey, and third-teamer, third baseman Trevor Craport. The duo, which went 1-2 in batting average, runs, hits, doubles (they tied), triples and total bases, look to continue to set the table, as they’ve done all year and lead by example.
“It’s important for guys like me and Craport to kind of set the tone early at the top of the lineup,” said Bailey, who led the team in hitting (.347), on-base percentage (.420), hits (78), runs (62), triples (3) and total bases (122), tied for the team lead in doubles (20) and ranked second in slugging percentage (.542) and walks (26). “Kind of let the other guys know, ‘Hey, it’s still baseball. We’re still playing a game. Just relax, enjoy it, have fun and see what happens.’”
Picking up the slack with the absence of Johnson and Bart has been senior Coleman Poje. The slugger bashed 11 homers (second on the team), including a grand slam that knotted Sunday’s game at 9-9.
Poje feels the Jackets, who had eight players blast at least five homers, are ready, as they’ve basically been playing in it all May.
“It’s definitely had that feel just because it’s kind of a win or go home type mentality with the team,” he said. “The last three weekends has definitely had a postseason feel to it, which is a lot of fun to play in.”
Hall realizes it’s probably win it all or go home as far as the Jackets making the NCAAs. In that regard, he sees a similarity with Miami.
“I think they’re definitely battle tested just like we are, because you play so many good teams throughout the year. Much like us, they’re mid-week games are not easy either,” he said. “They have the same goal we have. They’d like to win that ACC Tournament just to make sure they get in the NCAA Tournament.
“I think we understand that we have to — I wouldn’t say play perfect — but we have to play pretty crisp every time we go out there to have a chance.”