Oct. 22, 2014
By Jon Cooper
The Good Word
– With so many possibilities, selection for the inaugural FBS playoff system promises to be very tricky over the final weeks of the season.
Should the committee need a problem-solver to straighten things out they might want to consult Georgia Tech Baseball Head Coach Danny Hall. After all, filling a field of four spots will be child’s play for Hall, who will spend the next couple of months in search of the right combination to fill an entire infield, outfield, starting rotation and bullpen for the Yellow Jackets as they look to defend their ACC Championship.
Fall practices, which concluded on Monday with Gold winning the finale of the White-Gold World Series, did little to clarify things. If anything, it further clouded the issue.
“I think if you polled our coaches we don’t know who’s going to start on Friday, we don’t know who’s going to close and we don’t know what roles the pitchers are going to have,” he said, breaking into a smile.
It’s not a bad problem to have. Hall will certainly take it. In fact, he looked at the end of the fall rather pragmatically.
“I think it went well,” he said. “I think the biggest thing you’re always happy about is that nobody got a really serious injury coming out of the fall.”
Not only did nobody get hurt, but nobody hurt their chances to contribute.
Stanton was held out of summer league competition as well as fall practice after feeling a little bit of shoulder discomfort early in the summer (“it’s nothing he had to have surgery on. It was just wear and tear of pitching,” said Hall), while Pitts is coming back from Tommy John surgery (according to Hall, he is ahead of schedule in coming back and is throwing bullpens off the mound).
With the two upperclassmen getting back to 100 percent, last year’s crop of freshmen, now sophomores, took advantage of their opportunity to audition.
“If you look at the top four guys, [Cole] Pitts being healthy is going to be in there somewhere, Devin Stanton, Ben Parr and Jonathan King,” said Hall. “Then you’re looking at all the sophomores. So [Ben] Schniederjans, [Matthew] Gorst, [Matt] Phillips, Zac Ryan, Tanner Shelton, those five guys have to contribute for us to be good. I think we’ve see flashes of it. Have we seen it on as consistent as basis as we want to see it? No. But we’ve still got three months before we have to play. So you hope that you make some gains in the off-season to where those five are major role guys for us moving forward.”
Schniederjans, who won the final game of the Series, throwing five shutout innings, certainly has caught Hall’s attention.
“Ben’s one of those guys that continues to get better,” said Hall. “He had a very good summer, had a good fall and he’ll be a guy that we’re going to count on. What role he ends up being in we’re not sure yet but he’ll have a significant role for us this year.”
“We knew that at the end of a game we had a chance to be very good with those two guys in there,” Hall said. “With them being gone, it’s kind of like, `Who are we going to put in that role?’ Today we don’t have the answer.”
One candidate is the hard-throwing Ryan.
“Zac Ryan did close during the summer and I think he is one of the power arms that we have on our team,” Hall said. “I felt like he made progress each time he went out there this Fall and he does have a power arm. So it’s definitely a possibility that he can be one of the guys towards the end of a game.”
Ryan’s role and the back end of the game will be settled beginning in January.
There are as many options among position players, but one thing is clear following the fall: incumbents should beware of the talented crop of incoming freshman intent on getting on the field.
“We have a lot of position players back but we’ve got three freshmen that are going to push every one of those guys, in Kel Johnson, Wade Bailey and Blake Jackson,” said Hall. “All three of those guys are going to push guys that played a lot for us last year.”
All three played for the victorious Gold team.
Johnson, a 6-4, 200-pounder, who played with the East Cobb Yankees (he did not attend high school, as he was home-schooled) hit .700 in the White-Gold (7-for-10), blasting a pair of home runs and driving in all four runs for the Gold team in the finale.
“Kel can play first and he can play in the outfield,” Hall said. “A lot is going to depend on what we end up doing with [Thomas Smith]. If `Smitty’ plays second then Kel or A.J. Murray could end up playing first. But Kel can also play in the outfield. The biggest thing with Kel is he has a great bat.”
Bailey, who starred at Villa Rica High School, could also push Smith for time at second base. Bailey hit .545 (6-for-11, with a double, two RBIs and three runs scored in the Series.
“I would throw Wade Bailey in the mix at second,” Hall said. “I think he’s a very, very talented, young baseball player.”
Jackson, a Warner Robins native (Houston County H.S.), could see action at third. He finished going 3-for-11 (.273), with four RBIs.
The competition at third base could give new meaning to its nickname “the hot corner,” as incumbent, sophomore Brandon Gold, and his predecessor, junior Matt Gonzalez, will be fighting with Jackson for the starting position.
“Brandon Gold is a great third baseman,” said Hall, quickly adding. “He’s going to get challenged at third with Blake Jackson. We’ve even had [Matt] Gonzalez at third this fall. So [Gold is] going to have to continue to improve to hold onto that. But the thing I love about Brandon Gold is that he’s a great defensive third baseman.”
Gonzalez, who ranked among the nation’s leaders in outfield assists, may go from throwing runners out at the plate to tagging them out, as Tech tried putting him behind the plate.
“That’s still kind of a work in progress,” said Hall. “I could easily see a scenario down the line for him, particularly in pro baseball, where somebody says, `Okay, we’re going to make you a catcher.’ So we put him back there some this fall. I think he showed up well. His arm plays wherever you put him.”
The full-time catcher is likely going to be sophomore Arden Pabst, who did a superb job handling pitchers as a freshman then did great work over the summer in Cape Cod.
“He knows our pitchers, he knows [assistant] coach [Jason] Howell. He’s literally the quarterback of your defense,” Hall said. “He’s a very good leader. So to have somebody with that experience, that understands who’s on the mound and what they can do, it’s an invaluable resource to your defense.”
Senior A.J. Murray, who played a lot of first last season, and junior Grant Wrubel also could be in the mix as Pabst’s back-up.
About the only given in the outfield is that senior Daniel Spingola will be patrolling center field. Spingola came back for his final year, turning down the Chicago Cubs, who drafted him in the 24th round (709th overall) of the 2014 First-Year Player Draft.
Sophomore Ryan Peurifoy will look to build off his strong freshman showing, while speedy Keenan Innis will try and work his way back from injuries that slowed him as a freshman. Johnson also lurks with his powerful bat.
As far as underdogs, Hall left fall practice very impressed with walk-on Trevor Craport (pronounced CRAY-port). Hall believes the versatile Craport, who hit .444 (4-for-9) with a homer, two doubles, three RBIs and four runs scored in the White-Gold could follow in the footsteps of current walk-ons Spingola and Smith as a contributor.
“Trevor Craport is a walk-on from Norcross and played every infield position this fall. He caught, he pitched,” said Hall. “He’s a good baseball player and a good competitor and, as far as a walk-on goes, he was very impressive this fall. Daniel Spingola and Thomas Smith are two guys that were walk-ons that are significant players on our team, and I can easily see that happening for Craport as time moves on.
“Anytime you see anybody that wasn’t recruited, and they get into school here on their own and then they have a good fall, you’re always kind of rooting for that guy,” Hall added. “Is he going to play a lot this year? Probably not, unless somebody gets hurt, but he definitely has put himself onto our team and in the mix. I definitely, liked everything that I saw from him.”
Only time, and spring practice, will tell how the 2015 Yellow Jackets play out.
Those two-plus months between now and January, will give Hall plenty of time to mull over plenty of lineups and combinations.
“I think we have a lot of versatility offensively and defensively on our team,” he said.
* * * * *
With the White-Gold Series over, Hall can concentrate on the World Series between the Kansas City Royals and San Francisco Giants.
While there is a rooting interest, as Kansas City selected catcher Zane Evans in last year’s First-Year Player Draft — no other Yellow Jackets were left, as Pittsburgh, which has pitcher Brandon Cumpton on its roster, Detroit, which in June drafted pitcher Josh Heddinger and in August brought up former Jackets’ Friday night starter Buck Farmer, and Baltimore, which selected Matthew Grimes, were already eliminated — Hall took a more analytical approach.
Here’s how the Jackets’ head coach sees it.
“Whoever wins [last night’s Game One]. I think the fact that it’s in Kansas City could be a factor but I think the way Madison Bumgarner is pitching right now I’d probably lean on the Giants, just thinking that he’ll win tonight and that’s going to kind of give them the upper hand in the series. I think both teams are evenly-matched. They’re different in how they try to score, so that could definitely be a factor. I look at Kansas City and, to me, their three big bats are [Alex] Gordon, [Eric] Hosmer, and [Mike] Moustakas, those have been the guys that have kind of carried them, they’re all left-handed and I think left-hand hitters have a hard time hitting Bumgarner. So I’ll go with the Giants, based on Madison Bumgarner.”
Hall went more with his heart than his head on the length of the series.
“I think it could go seven games,” he said. “I always root for seven games. It makes the baseball season last longer.”
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