By Matt Winkeljohn | The Good Word
THE FLATS — There is plenty to learn about Georgia Tech baseball before the Yellow Jackets host No. 4 UCLA this weekend and there will be afterward, yet they’ve already shown a few things like superb pitching, the ability to go deep, a few jitters, a little sketchy defense and clutch genes.
Tech (2-1) opened the season in Russ Chandler Stadium with a 6-3 win Friday over Illinois-Chicago, a 7-1 loss Saturday afternoon to Richmond, and a 5-4 walk-off win over West Virginia Saturday night when Nick Wilhite singled to score Colin Hall and send the Jackets into delirium.
That game had a different feel, if not quite a postseason vibe, partly because they were oddly sluggish earlier when puttering around and getting caught in the Spiders’ web.
“One hundred percent,” said starting pitcher Connor Thomas, who struck out 10 Mountaineers in seven innings while allowing three unearned runs. “We had the idea coming in that West Virginia was a better team, or the best team of the weekend, and . . . we lost the first game [Saturday] and that added pressure. It was game on from the start.”
Let’s start with pitching.
The Jackets rang up 39 strikeouts in three games, walking nine and allowing a .221 batting average and a 3.41 ERA against. That’s even with freshman Cort Roedig issuing three free passes in just 1.1 innings of work in his college debut vs. Richmond.
“I think he was nervous,” said head coach Danny Hall. “[Pitching coach] Jay Howell said it, he might have walked more guys in his first start than he’s walked all fall and all spring combined. He’s always thrown strikes, and I think he was just too keyed up, quite honestly.”
Friday starter Xzavion Curry wasn’t nervous. He whiffed nine and walked none in five-plus innings of five-hit work vs. UIC.
After he was touched for a two-run homer in the sixth inning, Brant Hurter came on to strike out the side. He’ll start Tuesday’s game at Georgia Southern.
And after Thomas left the WVU contest, Tristin English – who saved Friday’s game – combined with Keyton Gibson and freshman Luke Bartnicki to strike out eight batters in four innings.
Here we come for the first time to clutch.
Hall called for a 6-foot-3, 210-pound lefty from Walton High School after Gibson issued a ball to WVU’s TJ Lake with two outs in the 11th inning and Mountaineers on first and third.
These were not typical circumstances for a college debut. Bartnicki cared not. He inherited a 1-0 count, and struck out Lake with blazing fastballs to end the top half of the inning.
“It was a tough spot to put him in . . . ” Hall said. “We debated it before Keyton threw the ball to the left-handed hitter, and when Keyton threw the ball I was like, ‘[Bartnicki’s] got a funky arm angle, and if I was a left-handed hitter I wouldn’t want to have to hit off of him.’
“He kind of looked unflappable, to be honest . . . I said, ‘How many pitches did you throw?’ He held up four fingers. I said, ‘That might be the fewest pitches for a win that somebody’s gotten in quite some time.’ “
Now, about bomb-ability.
Tech beat UIC Friday on the strength of a four-run third inning in which Kyle McCann, Chase Murray and Oscar Serratos all homered.
The McCann blast ricocheted high off the centerfield backdrop. The junior who’s come out from behind catcher Joey Bart drove a shot to right-center against West Virginia even further as the Jackets built a 4-0 lead through six innings.
He feels better working behind the plate rather than first base or as designated hitter as he did before Bart was drafted No. 2 overall by the Giants. “One hundred percent,” said McCann. “It slows the game way down for me, and I can just roll with it.”
It’s not like he’s new. McCann last year was third team All-ACC after hitting .300 with 15 home runs and 45 RBI.
“He’s a good player in his own right,” coach Hall said. “He had to sit behind Joey for two years, got to play some first and DH, and now it’s kind of his time to shine.”
Now if Jackets can pull their defense up to speed, all the better.
West Virginia was close largely because Tech committed five errors. Serratos had four at third base, a series of off-target throws.
The biggest mistake came in WVU’s three-run seventh inning when McCann threw to third base and air-mailed behind shortstop Austin Wilhite. He was racing to cover the bag because Serratos had charged a ground ball and couldn’t get back after throwing errantly to first.
But Wilhite was a moving target for McCann to hit as a baserunner scrambled back to the base, and the catcher missed.
“He was on the run and I threw it sidearm so it kind of had a little tail to it,” McCann said. “He said he was running too hard to go back on it.”
Clutch up time.
One inning later, McCann threw to third again. Serratos was stationary, caught the ball, and the Jackets nailed an overzealous WVU baserunner in a rundown to end the frame.
And Nick Wilhite clutched up just minutes after Bartnicki.
The junior centerfielder from Buford, Tech’s No. 9 hitter who batted .155 last season, went to the left batter’s box with one out in the bottom of the 11th inning and the bases loaded. Most importantly, Colin Hall stood at third base.
West Virginia moved infielders in, and the count went 2-2 on Tech’s least likely run producer.
Here it came, and there it went, a low liner of modest velocity perfectly aimed between WVU’s shortstop and third baseman.
Wilhite’s brother Austin, the shortstop who’d reached second base, leapt like a lottery winner as Colin Hall scored in front of him. The Tech dugout quickly emptied of more jumpers, McCann perhaps chief among them.
“I think we came out and took Richmond for granted and it ended up biting us,” he said. “Getting that walk-off threw our intensity to another level.”