June 3, 2016
By Jon Cooper | The Good Word
It wouldn’t have been surprising if the Georgia Tech players turned the TVs in the clubhouse off at around 12:15 on Selection Monday, once they found out they were going to the Gainesville Regional in the NCAA Tournament.
In their minds, where they were going was the only question surrounding the 31st Tournament berth in program history, the 28th in 31 years and the 20th in 23 years in the Danny Hall Era.
That confidence began at the top.
“There were a lot of things on our resume that gave me confidence that we were going to get in,” said Hall, pointing to the series sweep of then No. 15 Coastal Carolina and series wins at North Carolina and Clemson. “When I saw that there were six ACC Regional sites, I’m like, ‘That committee respects what was done this year in the ACC.’”
“We were pretty confident that we were going to get in,” agreed senior and First-Team All-ACC selection Matt Gonzalez, the Jackets’ leading hitter (.370, 85 hits) and run-producer (48 RBIs). “It was definitely not like last year when we knew we weren’t going to get in. I think we came in knowing we were going to see our name up there. With the resume we had this year we had a really good chance of getting in. Now it’s about taking care of business in Game One.”
The Gainesville Regional is the Jackets’ first games in McKethan Stadium in Gainesville, since 2012, when they also were the second seed, finishing runner-up to the Gators. In a sense, it’s deja vu, as the Jackets (36-23, 13-16 in ACC play, 13-12 in away/neutral site games) are again the second seed behind the Gators (47-13, 19-10 in SEC play, 29-4 at home), only this time will take on No. 3 Connecticut, the American Athletic Conference Champion (37-23, 14-9 in the American Athletic Conference, 23-18 in away/neutral site games) in the opener. Bethune-Cookman, the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference (MEAC) champion (29-25, 11-12, 12-16) rounds out the field.
There is a difference this time. Unlike 2012, when the Jackets rolled the dice by moving Friday night starter Buck Farmer to the Saturday game, throwing freshman Cole Pitts in the opener against College of Charleston, this time, they were expecting to throw their ace, junior Brandon Gold (8-3, 2.38) in their opener. Instead, the Yellow Jackets are going with junior Zac Ryan (a decision made late Thursday afternoon).
The reason is pitching — Tech’s supreme confidence in Gold and the talent of Huskies starter Anthony Kay.
“Anytime Gold goes out there he gives us a chance to win,” said Gonzalez, who enters the Tournament with 294 career hits, tops amongst active players — interestingly only seven more than UConn’s senior first baseman and All-AAC First Team selection Bobby Melley. “He throws strikes, the pounds the zone, he competes as good as anyone I’ve ever seen. So I feel really good when Gold is on the mound.”
“I heard they have a really good pitcher, who I assume we’re going to see right off the bat. but I think Gold is as good as anyone in the country and we’re as good as anyone in the country when Gold pitches,” added freshman Tristin English, an All-ACC First-Teamer at first base, who only played there because of a sore elbow that kept him from pitching, and whose 21 doubles led the Jackets.
Kay is that really good pitcher. The junior lefty (9-2, 2.45 ERA), has a school-career-record 260 strikeouts (already 12 more than previous record holder Matt Barnes, now with the Boston Red Sox), and he anchored a staff that whiffed a school-record 538 hitters. Kay averaged seven innings a start, throwing 113 ⅓ in his 16 appearances, and held opposing hitters to a .216 batting average.
“He’s a kid that everybody projects to go in the first couple of rounds,” said Hall. “We saw a video clip of him in the championship game of their tournament and he was 94, 95 in the first inning. We’ll just have to see how he’s going to try to attack us and do the best we can to make the adjustments we have to to score. I worry more about Brandon Gold and our defense and us keeping them from scoring. If we can do that we’ll have a chance to win the game.”
Gold can match up with and has as hot a hand as anyone. He closed the season going 4-1 over his final six starts, allowing one-or-fewer runs in five of those starts, and has pitched at least seven innings in nine of his final 11 starts, dating back to March 18 — he went 6 ⅓ in another. The team is 11-4 in his starts and 8-3 in his last 11.
Gold knows what’s at stake.
“The first win, it’s huge,” he said. “We’re going to see a great arm Friday night if they pitch who we think they’re going to pitch. Then, depending on what happens after that, Florida’s got the best arms in the country, everyone knows that. Get that first ‘W,’ that would be huge and anything can happen after that.”
For his part, Gold, an All-ACC Second-Teamer will continue to rely on his defense, which turned a nation-leading 76 double plays.
“We always have one of the best defenses in the country, leading the nation in double plays this year,” he said. “So put the ball in play. Just try to utilize my defense.”
Gold is similarly confident in the entire staff.
“We have confidence in the other guys,” he said. “Whether it’s (Ben) Parr, (Cole) Pitts, Keyton Gibson, Gorst, especially, so we just need to take it one game at a time.”
Perhaps nobody, except maybe for Gold, inspires more confidence than closer Matthew Gorst. Gorst, also a Second-Team All-ACC selection, finished with a 0.41 ERA, making him the first pitcher in Georgia Tech history to finish a season with an ERA under 1.00 (minimum 40 innings). He decimated Mike Sorrow’s 45-year-old record by 66 points and blew away the lowest ERA in the Danny Hall ERA by 82 points (Sam Clay in 2014). He showed he can not only close, recording 12 saves, but also that he could go for a while. He heroically pitched five innings of two-hit ball in the final game of the ACC Tournament against NC State, striking out a career-high eight and nearly pulling out a victory until he was undone by a costly error.
“The guy’s a bulldog out there. He can be in pitch No. 1 or pitch No. 70 and he’s going to give you all he’s got,” said Gonzalez. “Every time he goes out there he’ll come up with something if he needs to to get outs. He gets the hitter out that he’s facing then and there and moves on to the next guy.”
Gorst carries an 18 ⅔ innings scoreless streak into the NCAAs — his second such streak of the season — and expects to play a big role this weekend, ideally being this year’s Dusty Isaacs, who carried the ‘12 team.
“I feel like I’ve been one of our main guys out of the pen so I imagine I’ll have quite a big role,” he said. “I could be used in the closer role or long relief or starter. To me it’s all the same. I’m comfortable in all of them. I’m excited. I want to win. I want to go to Super Regional, I want to go to Omaha.”
Should the Jackets advance past UConn — they’ve won six of the previous seven all-time meetings but haven’t met since 2000, the Gators, against whom Tech is 33-59-1, and their incredible pitching would be next. (They’ve never met Bethune-Cookman).
“I’ve seen enough of it on the SEC Network and have heard enough of it from other coaches on how good their pitching is,” said Hall. “They’ve got outstanding pitchers and they’re well coached. Kevin O’Sullivan used to be in our league. He’s a great coach, he has a great program.”
Hall has great respect for the entire region.
“Connecticut has guys scattered around the big leagues that played there. So they always have a guy and it looks like their pitcher is the guy,” he said. “Last time we were [in Gainesville] Bethune Cookman was there and Bethune Cookman just about beat Florida in the opening game (The Gators prevailed 4-0). So they’re one of those teams that a lot of people don’t know anything about but are always in regionals.”
None of the current Jackets are on the roster that won two games in that Regional — both against College of Charleston, they lost twice to Florida — but they are eager to make a good showing and are not intimidated by the Gators.
“If you’re going to go to Omaha you’ve got to beat the best guys anyway,” said Gonzalez. “So you might as well start with a regional.”
After a year way, being back in the field after a year away is rewarding and Hall wants his team to take advantage of the opportunity.
“It is a whole new season. Everybody starts 0-0,” he said. “It kind of rejuvenates you. There are a lot of good teams. There are good teams sitting at home that aren’t playing but we’re one of those teams that gets a chance to play. I told the team that, that there’s only 64 teams that are playing and you have to earn your right to get in the tournament. We’ve definitely done that. We’re excited to be playing this time of the year. We’re all playing for a chance to get to Omaha. It should be great.”