I was grateful that the S.E.C. elected to begin the final weekend's games on Thursday rather than Friday, as it gave me 24 fewer hours in which to fret over the opening game of the Diamond Dogs' three-game set with the league-leading Kentucky Wildcats, who had come on strong this baseball season to add an element of intrigue to this series.
My central nervous system needed the break the early start date provided, as I was exceedingly anxious heading into the contest. I kept imagining all the horrific ways in which the Red and Black could come crashing back to earth . . . I might have dreamt, for instance, that Mickey Westphal would take the mound in the first inning and proceed to give up, say, a leadoff single to Antone DeJesus and a walk to Colin Cowgill.
You can't really blame Mickey Westphal for being too distracted to find the plate when he was pitching to one of the Cowgirls . . . wait a minute! Did you say Cowgill, not Cowgirl? Oh, well, there's no excuse for that! (Image courtesy Bruce Kennedy Photography/Warchant.com.)
I might then have envisioned, oh, I don't know, a Ryan Strieby groundout that advanced both runners, followed by a Sean Coughlin single to plate a pair of runs. Perhaps I even could have anticipated that John Shelby would punch a base hit into left field and a frustrated Westphal would plunk Michael Bertram to load the bases.
In my most nightmarish scenario, though, I could never have suspected that Justin Scutchfield would then single up the middle to score two more runs. Thankfully, although all of that occurred, there ensued a Ryan Wilkes flyout, after which Bertram was out at third.
I suppose this would be a good time to point out that I would rather lose a blowout than a nailbiter. Last-second losses are gut-wrenching, leaving one analyzing squandered opportunities and minute miscues for days. When you get it handed to you, though, well, there was nothing you could have done about it.
By the middle of the first frame, I knew we were in for a skunking.
By the time the bottom of the first inning began, therefore, I was at peace, secure in the knowledge that the Bulldogs were going to be throttled. It didn't even bother me when Jonathan Wyatt grounded out, Joey Side struck out, and Gordon Beckham flied out. A streak-snapping setback being inevitable, I was resigned to the unavoidable.
Accordingly, I thought nothing of it when the second inning commenced with a Shaun Lehmann flyout and a DeJesus pop-up; I knew better than to think the Diamond Dogs were going to claw their way back into the contest, so I was emotionally equipped to accept Cowgill's and Strieby's respective home runs in back-to-back at-bats to give the Bat Cats six runs in the game ere Coughlin popped up to give them their sixth out of the game.
I accepted it as par for the course when Josh Morris grounded out to begin the bottom of the second stanza and I felt the same way when Bobby Felmy walked to give the home team its first baserunner of the night. Not even Jason Jacobs's single to center field in the next at-bat gave me cause for confidence. A comeback was unthinkable, so, when a Kyle Keen groundout advanced his teammates one bag apiece, I gave no consideration to the possibility that one or both of them might score.
I was pleasantly surprised when Ryan Peisel put a double into right center field to cut the lead to 6-2, but, when Matthew Dunn grounded out to send the contest to the third inning, I had no illusions about Georgia's prospects for avoiding embarrassment.
By the end of the second stanza, I knew we were looking at a disaster.
I took no solace from Shelby's subsequent strikeout and I saw my most dour expectations confirmed when Bertram put a base hit into center field and Scutchfield put a double into that same area to reclaim half of the ground Kentucky had lost in the preceding half-inning. It hardly mattered that Wilkes and Lehmann each got outs in their respective at-bats.
A Wildcat error in the bottom of the third allowed Side to advance as far as second base, but he remained stranded at inning's end, at which point Stephen Dodson came on in relief of Westphal. This appeared to be a wise move on the Bulldogs' part, as the top of the Kentucky order grounded out, lined out, and flied out in succession, but I was moved no closer to confidence by this result. The rapid retirement of the Red and Black in the bottom of the frame confirmed the correctness of my dour viewpoint.
A Shelby double and a Bertram single combined to pad the Bat Cats' lead in the top of the fifth inning and a Wyatt walk in the bottom of that same stanza was as close as the Bulldogs came to closing the gap. Accordingly, I was unmoved when Dodson allowed only a base hit to DeJesus in the opening half of the sixth frame, so certain was I that the visitors' lead was insurmountable.
It mattered little to me when Beckham led off the bottom of the inning with a single to center field and it changed my opinion not at all when Morris put a pitch over the right field wall to double the Diamond Dogs' run production. Granted, the dinger made the score 8-4 and, when coupled with a base hit by Felmy, it chased U.K. starting pitcher Aaron Tennyson from the mound, but three quick outs followed and the Red and Black did no additional damage.
'Tis better to have left a runner on first with no one out in the sixth than never to have pitched at all.
The hits just kept on coming for Kentucky in the seventh inning. Strieby led off by grounding out, but that was followed by a Coughlin home run, a Shelby double to right center field, and a Bertram base hit. Dodson struck Scutchfield with a pitch to load the bases, whereupon Trevor Holder came on in relief and was called upon to live up to his nomenclature.
This he managed to do, throwing a called third strike to Wilkes and coaxing Lehmann into grounding out to second base. Still, that only prevented the floodgates from opening further and the visiting squad's 9-4 advantage offered no hope that redemption was forthcoming, so Dunn's single to left center field to start the bottom of the inning did not impress me.
That the Georgia second baseman advanced to his accustomed spot on the field when Wyatt grounded out likewise failed to provide me with any renewal of faith in the Diamond Dogs, as it obviously was not their night. I persisted in that belief even after Side singled to short and Beckham walked to put a trio of Bulldogs aboard with two outs remaining to be gotten.
I think I read somewhere that Georgia shortstop Gordon Beckham may be married to a Spice Girl, but I couldn't swear to that or anything. (Photograph courtesy University of Georgia Athletic Association.)
I must confess, however, that I began having doubts about my doubts when Morris picked up his third, fourth, fifth, and sixth R.B.I. of the contest on a grand slam to left center field, giving the Red and Black eight runs on eight hits. I wavered in my conviction that the Diamond Dogs were doomed when Felmy and Jacobs put consecutive base hits into left field to bring Matt Olson to the plate as a pinch hitter for the Bulldogs' designated hitter.
Kentucky reliever Matt Robinson was then yanked in favor of Andrew Albers, who immediately induced Olson to fly out and bolstered my shaken certitude that the sky, indeed, was falling. By the time Peisel hit into a fielder's choice to end the inning, my sense of resignation had been restored, despite the fact that it was now a one-run ballgame.
Along came Rip Warren to succeed Holder as the hurler for the home team. The first two batters registered outs, but I would not be fooled; I stood firm in my belief that victory was impossible, so I was not surprised when the next two Bat Cats drew bases on balls. Still, I couldn't help but feel the slightest twinge of faith in the Red and Black when Shelby went down swinging to send the contest to the bottom of the eighth inning.
Well, Al, since you asked, yes, I do believe in miracles!
Nominally, Matt Robbins led off as a pinch hitter for Dunn, but, in practical consequence, his at-bat produced a pinch flyout. Then, though, Wyatt singled, as did Side. Beckham reached on a fielder's choice and Morris drew an intentional walk.
With two men out and three men on, Felmy knocked a base hit through the middle and brought Wyatt and Beckham around to score. The inning ended one batter later, but, for all my naysaying, the fact remained that, at that juncture, Kentucky led in hits (14-13) yet Georgia led in runs (10-9).
At the outset of the final scheduled stanza, I threw caution to the wind and started to trust in my team to finish the drill. Joshua Fields came on to pitch the ninth inning and persuaded Bertram to pop up for the first out. Pinch hitter Billy Grace strode to the plate in place of Scutchfield and proceeded to swing at strike three for out two.
Improbably, the Diamond Dogs were one out away from recording a victory in a game in which they had trailed 8-2 at the halfway mark. I couldn't help myself; I could no longer pretend that I questioned the grit and heart and tenacity of the Red and Black. Against my better judgment, I believed. When Wilkes struck out swinging, the deed was done: Fields had his 14th save and Georgia had its 13th consecutive win to keep pace in the conference race.
This was a great win over a great team. It's impossible to doubt any longer and it's great to be a Georgia Bulldog.