Feb. 14, 2018
By Jon Cooper | The Good Word
Danny Hall is a man with standards. High standards.
Upholding those standards has been paramount during his 24 seasons as Georgia Tech baseball’s head coach.
“I think one of the reasons I wanted this job 25 years ago was that I felt like Georgia Tech was a spot that you could compete nationally every year. We’ve done a pretty good job of that,” said Hall prior to last Friday afternoon’s practice. “In my opinion we’ve lost some of that the last few years, whether it’s been injuries or our lack of playing the way we need to be playing. So for me, that’s always kind of the standard and the goal, ‘How do we reestablish that we are going to be a force in the ACC?’ And if we’re a force in the ACC, we’re really good. That’s what we’re working hard to get back to, that standard of excellence.”
They’ll take the first step in that direction this Friday afternoon at Russ Chandler Stadium against the University of Minnesota. First pitch is at 4 p.m.
It’ll be a giant and ambitious step after last year, one of his most difficult and unpredictable.
“Basically, nobody could predict that you’d have seven or eight surgeries. I can’t remember exactly how many we had last year but it was a lot,” he said. “It just depleted our depth. In particular it depleted our depth on the mound.”
In all, 11 players missed at least three weeks of action. Among them were key starting pitchers Ben Parr, Jay Shadday and Jonathan King. Tristin English — who Hall counted as two players, as he was recruited as a pitcher but because of injury moved to first, where he was an ACC all-freshman, all-ACC first team and Louisville Slugger freshman all-America in 2016 missed the entire season, while fellow Louisville Slugger freshman all-American and ACC all-freshman Joey Bart, slugger Kel Johnson, and outfielders Brandt Stallings and Carter Hall were on that list as well.
The attrition took a physical and mental toll on the team, which endured their first losing season in the Danny Hall Era (27-28), its fourth-straight sub-.500 season in ACC play (11-19) and went out in pool play in the ACC Tournament for the second-straight year, although they had a shot to win both games, dropping one-run decisions to Miami (6-5 in 13) and Wake Forest (5-4) even with the depleted squad.
After an offseason of introspection, Hall is determined to bring the luster back to the program.
“One of the things we tried to address was reestablishing the standard of Georgia Tech,” he said. “It’s holding everybody to a higher standard. I think our leadership and our belief in team is getting there. That’s hard for everybody, to maybe sacrifice some of what they think they need to be doing for the good of the team. So that’s been kind of the message and it will continue to be the message throughout the year.”
Hall has done his part to help steer those needing some direction.
“It’s been good to see Coach Hall get into guys more, just kind of focusing on stuff,” said senior second baseman and team co-captain Wade Bailey, named preseason all-America by NCBWA (second team) and College Baseball (third team). “BP’s not just up there taking swings and getting to feel good. It’s a focus on what’s behind situational hitting, line drives, have a plan, which is going to make a difference.”
How much of a difference ideally will be seen beginning Friday afternoon. They’ll get the chance to do so with nearly a full squad as only junior reliever Micah Carpenter is definitely out but is close to returning. Hall realizes there’s no way the Jackets will go an entire season unbitten by the injury bug, he’s also confident that this year’s team will be better equipped to face adversity.
“We’ve got to bring a lot of energy and effort every day,” he said. “There’s going to be adversity throughout the year but we’ve got to be better and tougher at handling adverse moments — whether it’s a tough schedule, whether they’ve had a lot of tests that week, they still have to show up and be ready to play.
“I do think we have a lot more position-player-depth. I think we’re much deeper on the mound,” he added. “We’re going to find out if we’re going to be competitive enough to compete against the people we compete against but we’re in a much better spot right now than we were last year. I feel we have really, really good leadership. We have quite a few seniors that have seen a lot of baseball. I think we’re all disappointed with what happened last year and I think we’re pretty determined to make a much better run at it this year.”
That run would include reversing their recent run in the ACC, advancing in ACC Tournament play — they are 1-6 in the three years since winning it in 2014 — and getting to NCAA Super Regionals, a place the Jackets haven’t been since 2007. Anything less is unacceptable to proud seniors Bailey, Johnson, reliever Jared Datoc and Bart, a junior, who is projected to be an early first-round pick in the 2018 MLB June Draft.
“We’ve got a lot of goals and a lot of things that we want to improve on from last season,” said Bailey. ”Things that we think we have the team to do that on.”
Hall has seen the upperclassmen take charge and prepare the 13 freshmen for the gauntlet that lies ahead.
“We’ll count on a lot of those freshmen to play,” Hall said. “College baseball being what it is, everybody kind of has to play freshmen because you’re losing a lot of your juniors and your seniors every year. So you need to count on and develop those freshmen as good as they can be developed, in a hurry.”
Underclassmen will hold a big role in several spots. On the mound, last year’s Friday night starter, and the incumbent No. 1, Xzavion Curry, is a sophomore. After Curry, junior righty Jake Lee is the only upperclassman, as sophomore lefty Connor Thomas, redshirt sophomore righty Jonathan Hughes and a pair of humongous freshmen in lefty Brant Hurter (6-6, 227), and almost-as-humongous righty Hugh Chapman (6-3, 223) will play a part in the starting rotation.
Coming out of the pen, Datoc is looking to build off his finest season on The Flats and could take on the closer’s role. He was recently named to the NCBWA Stopper of the Year Award preseason watch list and is looking to continuing Tech’s recent line of superb closers which has included Dusty Isaacs, Matthew Gorst and Zac Ryan.
“I really worked off my cutter last year,” said Datoc. “I have three other pitches that I can throw behind that if it’s not there. I’m feeling better than I ever have.”
Hall feels pretty good about Datoc and the depth behind him.
“I think Datoc’s a critical guy for us,” said Hall. “Then we’re going to lean on some of those upperclassmen, a guy like Keyton Gibson, a guy like Ben Schniederjans. So I feel like we have more veteran-type guys who have been through a lot that we can use in that bullpen.”
Playing better defense is also a priority. The Jackets expect to be solid up the middle with Bart, a Golden Spikes Award preseason watch list member and Johnny Bench Award semifinalist last season, behind the plate, the middle infield tandem of Bailey and Austin Wilhite, who was all-ACC as a freshman and is recovered from a hamate bone injury that kept him out of fall play.
“Austin’s playing really well defensively. He’s been able to get a lot of at bats, because he missed all fall,” said Hall. “Austin kind of came out of nowhere. We thought he was a good player but he had a tremendous year.”
The possibility of coming out of nowhere this year might well come at third base, where a trio of freshmen are looking to replace all-ACC third team member Trevor Craport. Luke Waddell, a two-sport all-state honoree (baseball, football), Oscar Serratos, who Hall says may have the best arm of any infielder, and Michael Guldberg, Hall’s wild card, who played center field in leading Walton High School to a state championship. Carter Hall, primarily an outfielder, may also get a look at third.
There’ll be as interesting a battle at first as well, with English back from injuries, Johnson and Kyle McCann, who backed up Bart behind the plate but then finished the season starting the final nine regular-season- and both ACC Tournament games.
In the outfield, Chase Murray returns to start in left and speedy Carter Hall appears to be front-runner in center. Right field could be fun to watch. Freshmen Colin Hall, Carter’s younger brother, and powerful Baron Radcliff, a two-sport star (baseball, football) — Hall and Radcliff were drafted a round apart but instead chose to come to Tech — and sophomore Nick Wilhite, Austin’s twin brother, who Hall calls, “probably one of our best defenders in the outfield” all will be in the hunt for playing time. Guldberg could work his way into the outfield, while Johnson’s bat will surely get him in the lineup at DH if not in the outfield.
How the team comes together will be determined during their non-conference portion of the schedule. It’s a challenging slate and should toughen the Jackets up for an ACC that has five teams in the preseason top 25.
“When you’re playing Georgia three, Auburn two, and then you’ve got the Mercers, Kennesaw States, Georgia States, Georgia Southerns, who are all very good, those games are critical because they add up at the end of the year,” Hall said. “We’ve always taken them seriously but it’s paramount that we play well in those games, hopefully win those games and then use it to figure out what roles guys are going to have on our team as we move forward.”
“We want to do everything we can to be good every day,” he added. “If we use that as our standard, to get better every day, we’ll be fine.”