The Time Has Come

May 27, 2010

Jon Cooper
RamblinWreck.com

It’s starting to get hot in Atlanta.

Georgia Tech, winners of nine of its last 11 games, hopes to bring some of that heat to NewBridge Bank Park in Greensboro, N.C., where they’ll begin their quest for the 2010 ACC Tournament Championship, starting tonight at 8:00 p.m., when they meet Virginia Tech. The game will be broadcast locally on Fox Sports South, and can be heard on WREK 91.1 F.M. Live stats can be followed on ramblinwreck.com.

“We definitely have something to prove,” said shortstop Derek Dietrich. “We feel we have one of the best teams in the ACC this year. We’re excited to get down to Greensboro, get our practice in, then go to work and play for that ACC title and get that ring.”

Talk of a ring is evidence of the kind of confidence the Jackets will take with them when they hit the field.

“That’s the kind of attitude you want to have,” said head coach Danny Hall, who entered the 2010 Tournament with three ACC titles and a career .557 winning percentage (34-27) in the ACCs. “You want to expect to win every tournament that you play in and it’s been a while since we’ve won the ACC Tournament (the last time was 2005). If we have that kind of attitude and we play well we have a chance to do something special.”

Tech, the third seed in the tournament and No. 6 team in the country, did a lot of special things in 2010, finishing with a 44-11 record and a 21-9 mark in ACC play. Only Coastal Division winner Virginia (45-10, 23-7), the tournament’s top seed was better. The Jackets never had a losing streak longer than two games and only twice had a losing streak that long. They also had six players named First- or Second-Team All-ACC (first baseman Tony Plagman, Dietrich, third baseman Matt Skole and pitcher Deck McGuire were First-Teamers, while pitcher Jed Bradley and DH Thomas Nichols made the Second Team).

The Jackets are aware that what they do in Greensboro can, best case, supplement, worst case undermine everything they’ve done to this point and, looking ahead, can affect their ultimate goal of getting home field in a Regional on the road to the College World Series.

“We’ve had several goals. We tried to break them down incrementally throughout the season,” said catcher Cole Leonida. “ACC Tournament champions is obviously one, then we’ve got to worry about the Regional championship, Super Regional championship and of course the National Championship is the ultimate goal. But as of right now our goal for this coming week is the ACC Championship.”

Focusing on the task at hand shouldn’t be hard, considering that Tech’s first two opponents, Virginia Tech, 16-14 in the ACC, and N.C. State, 15-15 in league play – both took the regular-season series from the Jackets and provided them with both losing streaks. The only other series Tech lost all season was in Virginia. So there is no looking ahead. Added incentive came with Boston College’s near-miss against UVA and N.C. State’s up-ending of Clemson on Wednesday.

“We need to go out, we’ve got a little bit of redemption on our minds for the first two games and we’ll go from there,” said Deck McGuire, who will start the opening game against Virginia Tech. “We’ve been doing a good job all year long of just taking it one game at a time and not trying to look too far ahead. Just keep that mentality.”

McGuire led the ACC in innings pitched (98 2/3), was second in strikeouts (105), and held opposing batters to a .228 average (fourth). In ACC play he threw a conference-high 70 2/3 innings and was tied for the league-lead with two complete games.

“I wouldn’t want to go into [the opener] with anybody else other than Deck McGuire as my starting pitcher,” said Hall. “It gives our team a lot of confidence that he’s going to go out there and pitch well.”

The rotation’s depth makes the Jackets quite formidable. Following up McGuire are Brandon Cumpton (8-2) and Jed Bradley (9-3) the league’s top winner. Right on the big three’s tail is Mark Pope, who was 7-1.

As a staff, Tech was third in the ACC in ERA (4.60), opposing batting average (.276), hits (287), runs (159), earned runs (137) and walks (108).

Closer Andrew Robinson has been lights-out, with seven saves (five in ACC play, tied for third in the conference) and a 2.45 ERA.

“I would say we’re set up better than we have been in a while because we have more pitching than we’ve had on a lot of those other teams,” said Hall. “Have we had maybe some other teams that I thought were really good? Sure. But I think this team has more pitching than some of those others.”

Tech also has plenty of offense, having led the league in on-base percentage (.399), slugging (.549), runs (249), triples (11), and homers (59) and ranking second in batting (.304).

The Jackets bludgeoned their way through the ACC with a slugging percentage 61 points higher than the nearest school and with 17 more home runs than their nearest ACC rival. Tony Plagman, the ACC’s active career leader in homers (53) and RBIs (211), topped the league with 19 round-trippers (his 70 RBIs were second) and led a line-up that had four of the conference’s top eight home run hitters and five of its top seven sluggers. In ACC play, Dietrich’s 13 homers led the league.

“I think we have a lot of guys that can hit home runs and when you can hit home runs you’re never really out of a game,” said Hall, whose team had six players reach double-digits in homers (lead-off man Jeff Rowland came in at nine and Jay Dantzler had six but missed more than 20 games). “We’ve proven that at different times this year where it looked like we were left for dead and then all of a sudden somebody hits a three-run homer or a two-run homer and we’re right back in the game. I think we’re dangerous. That’s a good dangerous.”

Another good dangerous sign is that the Jackets don’t have to rely on the long ball.

“I think as a team we’ve done a better job of winning games without living and dying by the three-run homer,” said McGuire. “We took a game up at Boston College where the wind was blowing in at 20 miles per hour. We got some base hits, timely hitting, situational hitting, and pitched pretty well. All around we’ve become a more well-rounded team.”

Unheralded lefty DH Thomas Nichols hit 10 homers, but also was among league leaders in batting (.384, second) on-base percentage (.519, second) and slugging (.652, seventh), while centerfielder Jeff Rowland was second in the league in triples (7) and gives the team speed at the top of the order as a table-setter.

About the only weakness Hall sees in his team is the lineup’s preponderance of left-handed hitters, and the potential susceptibility to a left-hander, like Miami’s Chris Hernandez or Clemson’s Casey Harman…or Virginia Tech’s Justin Wright, who went eight innings, going pitch-for-pitch with McGuire in the Hokies’ 11-inning 3-1 victory at Russ Chandler Stadium on April 23rd.

Of course, as Hall also pointed out, N.C. State’s right-handed duo of Cory Mazzoni and Jake Buchanan, who fanned a career-high 13 in 7 2/3 innings against Tech on April 30th in Raleigh, both shackled the Jackets during the season. Tech will face Buchanan on Friday (the Jackets counter with Cumpton), and on Saturday, Bradley will face Clemson, who has not announced its pitcher.

“You’re going to have to beat a good pitcher on every one of these teams and that’s what postseason play is all about,” said Hall. “Everybody’s got good pitching and you have to beat a good pitcher to advance.”

The bottom line, Hall said, is to just go out and play ball.

“If the players block out all the distractions and the naysayers and focus on that little white ball that we have to play then we have a chance to do well,” Hall said. “If we go the ACC Tournament and play well we have a chance to be a top-eight national team. If you’re a top-eight national you have a chance to play at home the whole postseason. It’s important but you have to earn it. They don’t give it to you. So we have to go play well all week.”

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