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#TGW: Twistin' by the Pool

by Jon Cooper | The Good Word

Fasten your seat belts, ACC baseball fans. It’s postseason.

It’s the time when a team can pull into town having barely qualified for the baseball championship, get hot and leave town with a conference championship.

No one knows that better than Georgia Tech, as the last two times they won it, in 2012 and 2014, they did so as No. 8 and No. 9 seeds. Head coach Danny Hall believes it’s as wide open this year.

“All 12 teams are capable of winning it,” said Hall, who has captured the crown five times — they’ll have to do it from the eighth slot this year. “This time of year just about anything can happen. The excitement is knowing that and knowing you have to play well to keep advancing.”

The Yellow Jackets, (31-25, 14-16 ACC) will quickly get to find out where they stand, as they’ll open the tournament against 12th-seed Pittsburgh (27-25, 11-19 ACC) Tuesday morning. First pitch at Durham Park in Durham, N.C., is set for 11 a.m. Sophomore right-hander Xzavion Curry (8-3, 4.31, 5-3, 5.34) gets the ball for the Jackets, while redshirt-senior righty Matt Pidich. (5-2, 3.20, 3-2, 4.19) takes the hill for Pittsburgh.

To say the Yellow Jackets aren’t thrilled about the time is an understatement, but Jackets co-captain and junior catcher Joey Bart also assured that they will be ready.

“It’s definitely not ideal but a lot of us played travel ball growing up so we started at 8, 9:00 in the morning,” said Bart, who Monday afternoon got to add ACC Player of the Year, ACC Defensive Player and first-team all-ACC to a resume that already included Johnny Bench Award semifinalist, Dick Howser Trophy semifinalist and Golden Spikes Award semifinalist. “We don’t have the luxury of having an option of when we’re playing. Just come out and do our best.”

While everything changes in postseason, apparently the quirkiness of Georgia Tech’s scheduling did not, as following the Pittsburgh game, the Jackets get two days off then complete play in Pool A when they take on top seed and nationally ranked No. 5 North Carolina (37-17, 22-8 ACC) at 3 p.m. on Friday.

Tech finished the season playing seven games in nine days, including a mid-series off-day to accommodate TV, then a pushed-up regular season-ending series.

“The scheduling at the end of the year definitely doesn’t seem ideal at all, especially rolling into the tournament but there’s no excuses for it,” said Bart, who need not make ANY excuses for his 2018 season, as he finished the regular season leading the ACC in hitting (.355), slugging percentage (.651), on-base percentage (.481) and total bases (138), ranked second in hits (78), and runs scored (55) and third in home runs (16). “Nobody’s going to feel sorry for us. We have to go out there and give these teams our best games.”

The Jackets didn’t fare particularly well against either Pittsburgh or North Carolina during the regular season, as they dropped the series 2-1 to the Panthers in Pittsburgh April 13-15 and then were swept by the Tar Heels the next weekend.

But that was not the Georgia Tech team that comes in having won four of five. Hall insists his team will be even better prepared because of the earlier series.

“They pitched very well against us in Pittsburgh so we know that they have a good pitching staff,” he said. “We’re going to have to play well in all phases of the game to beat them.”

Senior second baseman and co-captain Wade Bailey, has put that earlier series far behind him.

“We’re not looking too much at what happened in the regular season,” said Bailey, also a first-team all-ACC selection, who finished tied for third in the ACC in hitting (.345). “Anything can happen in one game. As a team, we owe them one and can’t wait to get back at them in the tournament.”

Pitching will be the key in both Tuesday’s game against the Panthers and Friday’s finale against the Tar Heels.

Curry allowed three runs and eight hits, striking out five vs. one walk in six innings at Pittsburgh on April 13. He left trailing, 3-1, in a game the Jackets would tie in the eighth then win in the ninth on a grand slam by Kyle McCann. Pidich pitched on Saturday, with similar success. He held Tech to three runs (two earned) and seven hits over 8.1, striking out eight with one free pass in Pitt’s 4-3 win. Neither starter was around for the decision in their starts.

Connor Thomas (7-3, 2.87, 5-3, 3.26), who will pitch Friday against North Carolina, also did not figure in the decision in his start against UNC, although he deserved better. Thomas went 6.2, allowing two runs (one earned), and six hits, with one walk and eight strikeouts. North Carolina’s pitcher is still to be determined. “C.T.,” who was named first-Team all-ACC, was national pitcher of the month, a two-time ACC Pitcher of the Week and led the Jackets in ERA and strikeouts.

Hall is counting on his 1-2 punch to give the Jackets an opportunity to get to the weekend.

“I think both guys will be motivated to pitch well,” he said. “Xzavion Curry is the key. He’s got to have a good start. If he has a good start and we play good defense behind him we’ll be in pretty good shape. Zay, last year pitched very well in his game against Wake Forest in the ACC Tournament (6.0 IP, 1 hit, 1 run (earned), 1 walk, 8 strikeouts).”

“I do like that Connor Thomas will be on normal rest,” he added — ironically, Thomas will get the extra rest thanks TO the crazy scheduling. “He’ll have seven days in between starts. So I like that, but the key game for us is really the Pittsburgh game.”

Bart is counting on the competitive nature of Curry and Thomas — not to mention the N.D. (no-decision) next to their name in starts against them — as added motivation.

“I hope they come out with a little chip on their shoulder,” Bart said. “You have to come out and give it your best all the time, playing that caliber. That’s what they do. ‘Zay’ and ‘CT,’ we’re definitely good with them on the mound and feel we can beat anyone with any of those guys on the mound.”

Another key for the Jackets is to continue swinging hot bats. They split their final two ACC series — dropping two at Virginia (10th seed) but winning two at home against No. 10 Duke (fourth seed), scoring 49 runs in the six games (8.2 runs per game). They also put up eight runs in the Tuesday night win over Southeast Missouri State, despite not getting back to campus until 4:00 in the morning.

The Jackets swung hot bats all season, pacing the ACC in hitting (.296) and total hits (585) with three of the ACC’s top four hitters in Bart, second-team all-ACC left fielder Chase Murray (.355), and Bailey, who tied for third. Tristin English (.288, 6 HR, 59 RBI, second in the ACC, a team-high 16 multi-RBI games), was named first-team all-ACC as well, and McCann (.299, 15, 45, .603 slugging), who had three grand slams, tied for most in D-I, and a three-homer game was named third-team all-ACC.

“We’re clicking, we’re playing really good baseball,” said Bailey, who’s 11 hits shy of 300 for his career. “To do it as of late going into the tournament gives us a lot of confidence to play well this week.”

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