By Jon Cooper | The Good Word
THE FLATS – You can only prove so much in practice.
Georgia Tech baseball feels it’s proved and improved all it can and is ready for someone else. Anyone will do.
The Yellow Jackets will get their first challengers when they open the 2019 season this weekend against University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC), on Friday, University of Richmond on Saturday and West Virginia University on Sunday. First pitch Friday is 4 p.m. and 1 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday. It’s the start of a loaded slate, which includes games against six teams ranked in the preseason top-20 — non-conference matchups with No. 5 UCLA, No. 9 Georgia, and No. 22 Auburn and ACC series at No. 4 Louisville, against No. 7 North Carolina, and No. 24 Clemson.
“It’s a real tough schedule, but that’s one of the reasons that I came to Georgia Tech, because you’re going to play against the best,” said head coach Danny Hall, who begins his 26th season on The Flats. “It’s the same with the players. They enjoy playing against good competition. Hopefully it brings out the best of us. Like I’ve said many times, to get where we want to go we’ve got to beat good teams.”
The players aren’t backing down. They’re backing up their manager.
“As a team, we like it,” junior catcher Kyle McCann said. “It puts a chip on our shoulder so we get to go out and have fun. With all these tough teams coming in, it makes us step up to the occasion and go hard.”
“I believe we’re just as good as anybody in the country. We just have to go out there and prove it,” said junior outfielder Chase Murray. “Anybody coming in here is going to have a tough job getting us out and facing our pitchers.”
Neither job will be easy. The Jackets, 31-27, (14-16, fourth in the Coastal), were one of the ACC’s top hitting teams last season, batting .293 (second), slugging .450 (third) and lacing 593 hits, 103 of them doubles, 67 homers (all fourth). They return seven starters from that group.
The two players not returning, however, are catcher Joey Bart, last year’s ACC Player of the Year and the No. 2 overall pick in the MLB Draft by the San Francisco Giants and Bailey, a four-year starter and spark plug leading off most of his career, who was drafted on the 33rd round by the Los Angeles Angels.
“They’ll be hard to replace but Kyle McCann has looked good behind the plate and Luke Waddell will take over second base so I feel like we have good replacements,” said Hall. “We don’t expect them to do what those two guys did. We just want them to play to their best. If they do that they’re going to help our team tremendously. The flip side is seven of the other nine guys that played a lot are back and that’s encouraging.”
Especially encouraging is the return of redshirt junior Tristin English. English, first-team All-ACC last season (.279, 6 HR, 17 doubles, 60 RBIs, the latter team-highs), is on the 2019 Golden Spikes Award Watch List. He’ll primarily play first and also is expected to be a valuable arm on Sunday, midweek and possibly out of the bullpen.
“He’s got everybody’s attention because he’s been a really good hitter for us and now everybody’s kind of seen what he can do pitching,” said Hall. “So he can help us a lot of different ways. He’s very deserving of being on the Golden Spikes watch list.”
Then there’s McCann. The all-ACC third-teamer last season, also the Jackets’ leading returning slugger (15 HR, 45 RBI, .600 SLG, 114 total bases, .423 on-base percentage), who patiently waited behind and learned from Bart. Hall thinks this could be a big year for him.
“He knew he’d have to play some behind (Bart), but he managed to play a lot of first base last year, he’s DH’d for us and he keeps getting better at the plate,” said Hall. “Now it’s his chance to show everybody what kind of catcher he is. I know he looks at it as a great opportunity to showcase his skills as a catcher.”
“We were good friends and I’d always tried to pick his brain,” said McCann on his former teammate-turned first-round draft pick. “He would always tell me to just stay calm and don’t let the game speed up on me. It’s helped out a lot. I’m ready to go. I’ve caught my whole life so now that I get to be back there I’m more comfortable with the game. I’m ready to go.”
He has the confidence of Friday night starter Xzavion Curry.
“He’s a big target, like Joey. Kyle’s receiving skills are good, kind of like Joey,” said Curry, a teammate of McCann a couple of summers back on the East Cobb Yankees. “I believe Kyle is a great catcher.”
McCann has already shown he has power. With English and McCann batting 3-4, the Jackets promise a very potent middle of the order.
“We’re looking to do a lot of damage,” said McCann. “We’re always in the cages, kind of joking around, ‘Who’s gonna be 3? Who’s gonna be 4?’ But at the end of the day we’re going to be side by side just playing our game. Our whole lineup is great hitters.”
Murray will play a big part in setting the table. He is confident that the Jackets can pick up where they left off last year.
“Seven starters being back is huge,” said Murray, the leading returning hitter, having hit .343, with 72 hits last year. “Obviously, Joey and Wade were incredible players but I think with Kyle and Luke, we’ll probably be just as good this year.”
The Jackets expect to be just as good at the top of their weekend rotation, starting with Curry on Friday then fellow junior righty, Connor Thomas.
“For Zay, it’ll be three years in a row now he’s pitched on Friday. For C.T. it’ll be two years in a row pitching on Saturday,” said Hall. “They just need to be themselves.”
McCann agreed, “They just need to go out and play the game that they know how to play. Keep throwing strikes, attacking hitters and staying competitive.”
Curry, 8-4, 4.18, 101 strikeouts in 92.2 innings, including a complete-game shutout and four games with at least 10 strikeouts, sees this season as a huge opportunity to raise his game.
“I expect to improve in the number of innings that I’m throwing and basically the efficiency that I’m giving the team,” he said. “This is the year where I really have to carry the load even more.
“I’ve been working on my mechanics. I’ve been working on my changeup and just working on becoming a better pitcher,” he added. “The mental aspects of pitching, things like, ‘Okay, what did I throw that hitter last?’ ‘What kind of swing path does he have?’ All that kind of stuff.”
He’s also looking forward to watching Thomas (7-4, 3.34, 106 K’s in 97 IP) and his electric stuff, which last year included a 17-K, complete game win over Wake Forest.
“I’m always excited to see C.T. pitch,” said Curry, breaking into a big smile. “I love knowing that after I pitch on Friday I get to sit and watch another great pitcher, C.T., pitch on Saturday.”
Sunday and midweek will be determined, but there are plenty of quality arms lined up to audition.
“We’ve got options,” said Hall. “Tristin English could be a Sunday guy. He’s our best hitter so he’s got to hit every day. So we’ll have to balance how we use him throwing-wise with what’s going on with him as a hitter. (Sophomore righty) Brant Hurter threw a lot last year midweek. (Transfer junior righty) Amos Willingham, who we recruited in, he has a chance to be in there on a Sunday, (rookie lefty) Luke Bartnicki, one of our freshmen, and (rookie righty) Cort Roedig, another freshman. So I think if we looked at those five, six guys, we’ll figure out who the three- and four-starters are going to be.”
“Our freshman class has brought in a lot of good pitchers,” said McCann. “We’re looking for them to come up and fill some shoes and just go out and compete.”
The bullpen also looks strong, even with the loss of dependable Jared Datoc. Hall points to redshirt junior righty Jonathan Hughes as the front-runner to close (English also could get a look), while senior righty Keyton Gibson also has thrown well this offseason.
The infield returns the left side intact, sophomore Oscar Serratos at third and junior Austin Wilhite at short. The right side sees Waddell, who played 42 games (31 starts), with a .903 fielding percentage last year, replacing Bailey, and English at first. When English takes the mound or needs a rest, McCann has also played first.
“I like (the infield) a lot,” said Hall. “Those guys are playing with a lot of confidence, playing really well and they’re working really hard. I think that’s going to be an improved area for our team, our defense is going to be better.”
The defense also will be improved in the outfield, where Murray anchors left, highlight machine Nick Wilhite takes center and Colin Hall, now healthy, will get to show his skills in right. The trio combined for a .980 fielding percentage, with 10 assists vs. six errors last year.
“We’re going to prove that we have three center fielders out there, not just one,” said Murray.
The entire team has plenty to prove and they’re ready to start proving.
“I know that we’re playing some good teams,” said Curry. “To be the best you have to beat the best so we don’t want it handed to us. We want to go out there and work for it. We want to prove to people that we deserve to be there.”