David Perno's baseball team returns to the diamond today against Georgia Southern looking to erase memories of a late season slump that kept them out of the NCAA Regionals. Will Perno emerge as a conquering hero, or go down as the goat?
As Kyle already pointed out, it's a big day in Georgia sports with action in softball, tennis, lacrosse, golf and baseball on the agenda.
The baseball team will take the field at Clements Stadium in Statesboro this evening at 6 for the first game of a three game set against the Eagles from Georgia Southern. The Bulldogs tallied a 31-26 record during the 2012 campaign, but a late season slump kept them out of the NCAA Regionals, continuing a theme throughout the Perno era. It seems that the Bulldogs' skipper just hasn't been able to string together two standout teams in a row.
Georgia returns 10 pitchers from the 2012 staff, but freshman Sean McLaughlin will get the start tonight. Coach Perno recently characterized McLaughlin as a guy who "just throws strikes" and doesn't beat himself." The Diamond Dawgs will be without sophomore closer Pete Nagel, lost for the season after undergoing Tommy John surgery, but have plenty of veteran relievers from whom to choose in replacing him. What this Bulldog rotation lacks in star power it seems to make up with depth. If the combination of returners Brian Benzor, Patrick Boling, and Brian Dieterich can provide quality innnings, it will give the 'Dawgs a chance to develop the young pitchers like McLaughlin and fellow freshmen David Gonzalez, Jack Esmonde, Michael Peel, and Austin Wallace.
Among the tasks for the 2013 Bulldogs will be manufacturing some offense. Last year's squad sported a .279 team batting average, good for only 6th in the SEC. And that's perhaps the best offensive stat. They finished 9th in the league in runs scored (279) and 9th in home runs. If there's good news for turning that around, it's that last years star performers, shortstop Kyle Farmer (.302 avg., 4 HR, 41 RBI) and third baseman Curt Powell (.355, 2 HR, 20 RBI) return.
The Bulldogs signed a large and deep freshman class last year, and some of those youngsters are likely to work their way into the everyday lineup as the season progresses. In opposition to last year's team, this year's Diamond Dawgs may actually improve as the season progresses. That would be a nice bonus for Coach Perno, who has struggled to build a consistent winner in Athens.
After the trip to Statesboro the Bulldogs will return to Foley Field for a four game homestand against Kennesaw State and Belmont, teams which are perhaps better historically than the casual fan recognizes. The 'Dawgs will begin SEC play on March 15 with a three game trip to College Station, Texas to face new conference foe Texas A&M in what looks like a serious test. Other highlights include a late March home-and-home with the Clemson Tigers which has become a fan favorite, and a regular season ending three game home stand against the Florida Gators.
As always, we'll have coverage of the Diamond Dawgs efforts throughout the season, and we'll be hoping to continue that coverage all the way to Omaha in June. Admittedly that would be a little bit of a surprise, as there's little from last season that would clue you in that the pieces are in place for CWS run. But one of the great things about collegiate baseball is that players have a way of coming out of nowhere to make their mark. It's one of the things that makes the sport great. So let's just enjoy the ride, and support our Bulldog athletes.* Until later . . .
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*Speaking of which, if you're supporting the Bulldogs this weekend in Bulloch County we'd love to hear from you. Feel free to send pictures, impressions, or updates to macondawg followed by the "at" symbol then gmail.com and we'll give you full credit for your on-the-scene reporting.