By Jon Cooper | The Good Word
From the time kids first pick up a baseball, they harbor dreams of playing professional baseball.
While a fortunate few will get to experience that dream as soon as next month’s June Draft, the entire Georgia Tech team will get a taste of it beginning this weekend as they go through a season-ending stretch that sees them play seven games in nine days.
“It’s here in front of us. Hopefully we’re going to play our best baseball,” said head coach Danny Hall. “We’ve just got to go play, give it everything we’ve got in the next two weeks. We’ve got a little work to do but hopefully we can close it out, finish strong and they get another opportunity to play in the NCAA Tournament.”
The stretch starts with a wrap-around weekend series at Virginia, then their final midweek game against Southeast Missouri State on Tuesday, before their final ACC- and season-series against No. 19 Duke. The caveat to that final series is that it’s moved up one day, running Thursday through Saturday.
Never has the cliché about taking it one game at a time been more important. The Jackets are unfazed.
“It’s something you’ve kind of been doing if you played travel ball growing up but it’s going to be something else,” said catcher and co-captain Joey Bart. “Coach Hall told us, ‘It’s kind of like pro baseball.’ Monday night, flying out after the game and getting in here probably 1, 2:00 in the morning, get some sleep, wake up and play Southeast Missouri. It’s all going to be here so fast.”
“Flying in then having to get ready for a game that same day, that’s something I’m definitely looking forward to seeing, what that’s going to be like,” said senior second baseman Wade Bailey. “These last two weeks are going to be very important for us. Every pitch, every at-bat, every ground ball is important to the outcomes. We need to finish strong in order to try to make regionals.”
The nine-day odyssey begins in Charlottesville, Va., where they’ll play the Cavaliers on Friday and Saturday, take Sunday off, and then conclude the series on Monday night.
It’s a must win series for both teams, as the Yellow Jackets are among four teams tied at 11-13 in the ACC and can finish anywhere from sixth to 12th, while the Cavaliers are on the bubble just to get in, currently sitting one spot out of the money.
While the Cavs are 9-15 in ACC play they are 19-10 overall at home. In conference play, they’re 5-7 but have dropped the last two series and have lost five straight ACC home games. Davenport Field has been a tough place to play for the Jackets, as they are 27-32 and, only 5-12 since 2010, having dropped all five series there. Tech also has struggled on the road in ACC play this year, as they’ve dropped all four series, are 2-10 overall and have lost five of the last six road tilts.
The road losses have been particularly frustrating, as six of them were by three-or-fewer runs, four of those one-run games.
Following Monday’s game, the Jackets fly home, and will come back and play against SEMO, who sit at 15-9 in the Ohio Valley Conference and is in a dogfight of its own for positioning. GT is 4-0 against the Redhawks, but hasn’t seen them since 1998.
The last leg of the trip comes less than 48 hours later, when GT faces the Blue Devils. Tech is 92-37 all-time vs. Duke, 50-16 at Russ Chandler Stadium, 9-3, with two series sweeps since 2010. The Blue Devils have won the series the last two years, however. They’re 11-6 on the road, 8-6 in ACC road games.
If it seems like long odds against the Jackets, they’re not concerned. Bailey is confident the team will respond to the challenge.
They feature a superb 1-2 punch in starters Xzavion Curry, and Connor Thomas, the NCBWA Pitcher of the Month for April, and the offense ranks second in the ACC in batting average and is third in home runs.
Bailey believes that the recent scourge of “At ‘em” balls that has really hurt the Jackets will turn around and that the Jackets are due to make a long run once it does.
“A lot of the guys have been putting a lot of really good swings on balls the past two weeks,” he said. “Man, I’ve never really seen anything like it when it’s right to the defense like that. Balls just are not finding a way to get hits for guys but it’ll come. I’m not stressing out. That’s baseball. It’ll all even out.”
There’s also the feeling that Georgia Tech can put all three facets of their game together.
“I feel all year we haven’t really hit a stretch where we’re just clicking on all cylinders, where we’re pitching it well, playing good defense and hitting well,” said Hall. “I’m hoping that we’re saving the best for last and that we can hit on all cylinders going down the stretch here. Hit well, play defense and pitch well.”
The carrot at the end is the opportunity to get back to the NCAAs.
“I’ve had one regional in my four years,” said Bailey. “So just to have a shot to make a run in the ACC Tournament and maybe make regionals and supers, that’s something that I’ve wanted to do the past THREE years. This is my last chance so I definitely want to end strong and experience that kind of stuff.”
“It would mean everything,” said Bart, who was a freshman on the 2016 team that went to the Gainesville Regional, where it played overall No. 1 Florida. “(The seniors) have been a part of a few pretty good teams, especially, their sophomore year, that team was pretty good. Coach Hall’s only missed one or two regionals in 25 years here. So it would be huge for the seniors but it would also be huge for Coach Hall, with what he’s done for us.”
Bart feels once the team finds that consistency it has the potential to be a nightmare in postseason.
“We’ve got a dangerous team,” he said. “We can beat anyone, unfortunately, we’ve been able to lose to anyone as well. There aren’t very many teams that want to play us. We might not be ranked as high as far as wins and losses but we’re a dangerous team that has some good starting pitching and can make a run. But we’ve got to go win some games first.
“Obviously, these games mean a lot for us moving forward into the postseason,” he added. “Hopefully everyone plays loose and doesn’t get too tight even though we have to win just about every game to move on. We know that. We’re just going to come out here, grind and compete, try to get wins.”