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Is David Perno Getting the Job Done with the Diamond Dogs?

Mercifully, the Diamond Dogs' maddening 2007 campaign is done. The Red and Black finished the season with a 23-33 record, including an 11-19 mark in conference play that had them in last place in the Eastern Division, 11 games out of first place.

At no point during the season were the Classic City Canines above .500 and the Bulldogs' last day without a losing record was March 1. Georgia's overall winning percentage of .411 was the only one in the league below .500 and the Red and Black posted losing records at home (16-20), on the road (6-13), and within the division (3-12).

Georgia had 10 wins against top 25 teams, tying the Diamond Dogs with the Razorbacks for the conference's second-most victories over ranked opponents (behind only Mississippi's 14). However, the Red and Black also had 14 losses to top 25 teams, giving the Classic City Canines the league's second-most setbacks suffered at the hands of ranked squads (behind only Tennessee's 16). We should note, of course, that this also means Georgia was 13-19 against unranked opponents.

To their credit, the Red and Black put together a semblance of a late-season run, going 9-7 after April 23, but even that limited stretch of success was marred by games that got away and poundings administered by superior squads. It was one thing to suffer such setbacks at the hands of three of the top four seeds in the S.E.C. tournament, but Georgia should not have been beaten like that by a Kentucky team that posted a 13-16-1 conference ledger and finished in fifth place in the Eastern Division.

Admittedly, a picture of Kristin Davis is completely irrelevant to the topic under discussion, but, come on, you know you were wondering where it was two paragraphs ago.

Following the Diamond Dogs' final epic collapse in a game that was a microcosm of the Red and Black's entire season, David Perno was heard to observe:

We played well for the first seven innings and then couldn't get out of the eighth. Our season in a nutshell was that eighth inning. The guys coming back are going to remember that inning. Overall, we played well down the stretch, playing just for pride. This team has been through a lot, and I'm not going to let half an inning ruin it for us because we did play pretty well down the stretch and we're still excited about the future. We'll be back.

I believe Coach Perno is right to be excited and I generally share his optimism for the future, but, ere tomorrow arrives, we would do well to pause and assess where the Diamond Dogs are today. Obviously, at an elite athletic institution like the University of Georgia, such results as these fall far short of the excellence expected of Bulldog sports teams. Where, then, do we go from here?

In an effort to answer that question, I recently posed this question: "How good a job is David Perno doing as the coach of the Diamond Dogs?" The overwhelming majority of the votes (63.2%) were cast in favor of the proposition that Coach Perno was the man to lead Georgia baseball into the future. Nevertheless, a sizeable minority (26.3%) thought that, if the Red and Black did not make it to Omaha next year, Coach Perno should be replaced, and another 10.5 per cent took the view that a change was needed now.

Is Bulldog Nation correct in this assessment? Let us begin thinking through a proper response by taking a look at David Perno. Coach Perno and I are contemporaries, as we each graduated from high school in 1986 and transferred to the University of Georgia in 1988; in Coach Perno's case, he arrived at our alma mater by way of Clarke Central and Middle Georgia.

Also, the Bulldogs' baseball coach may have been the namesake of the fictional world created by Anne McCaffrey.

Coach Perno played on the Diamond Dogs' 1990 national championship baseball team before receiving his baccalaureate degree from the University of Georgia in 1991. His subsequent coaching stints included time spent at Marshall University and with the Northeastern Collegiate Summer League's Cortland Apples. After serving as an assistant at Middle Georgia, Coach Perno returned to Athens as a member of the baseball coaching staff. Five years later, he was tapped to be the 24th head coach in the history of the Georgia baseball program after Ron Polk returned to Mississippi State.

In 2002, Coach Perno's first squad went 32-29. Although this represented a disappointing finish for the defending Southeastern Conference champions, the 2001 professional baseball draft had taken a heavy toll on Coach Polk's final Red and Black squad, as six players were taken, including four in the first 10 rounds. Despite particularly heavy losses in the infield, on the mound, and behind the plate, the Diamond Dogs finished their first season under Coach Perno with a winning record and made it to the Atlanta Regional to post the first back-to-back N.C.A.A. tournament appearances in program history.

The 2003 Georgia squad went 29-26, but the 2004 Diamond Dogs put together a 45-23 record, won the Athens Regional and the Atlanta Super Regional, and finished tied for third place in the College World Series. Following a 30-25 finish in 2005, the Red and Black again made it to Omaha last season, hosting a regional and a super regional before being eliminated by eventual national champion Oregon State and finishing with a 47-23 record.

Never before 2007 has Coach Perno had a losing season, although only two of his six squads ended the year with more than 32 victories.

For the visual learners among you, here is a picture of Musa Smith to help you conceptualize the number 32.

Coach Perno is an Athens native and a Georgia alumnus who has been a part of four College World Series teams at his alma mater . . . one as a player, one as an assistant, and two as the coach. He is an experienced recruiter who has upgraded the Bulldogs' baseball facilities, augmenting Foley Field with a new playing surface and drainage system, a new scoreboard and sound system, improved lighting, additional chair back seating, and renovations to the locker room, training room, and players' lounge. After claiming a share of the S.E.C. title, Coach Perno was named the 2004 College Coach of the Year by Baseball America.

Obviously, these achievements matter a great deal . . . but there is no getting around the fact that Coach Perno's six seasons at the Georgia helm have been like "Star Trek" movies: the even-numbered ones are good and the odd-numbered ones are bad. Three regional appearances, two super regional championships, and a pair of trips to Omaha in half a dozen years on the job represent real accomplishments, yet we have to wonder whether the Diamond Dogs are doomed to be an every-other-year team for the foreseeable future.

Actually, "every-other-year" may be too generous. It is more like half of every other year, as Coach Perno's squads seem to specialize in second-half comebacks every second season. The 2006 campaign, for example, featured just such a late-spring hot streak following a midseason slump.

While this is, of course, exciting, it is worth wondering why we cannot see the Red and Black put together a complete season, playing as well out of the gate as down the stretch, as a prelude to making N.C.A.A. tournament appearances in consecutive campaigns. Georgia's baseball teams seem to run hot and cold over the course of a year in exactly the same manner that Georgia's baseball players seem to run hot and cold over the course of a game. Do we really want to sound a tepid echo of the Brooklyn Dodgers' familiar refrain by making our rallying cry, "Wait 'til after the midpoint of the year after next year"?

This shortcoming has been somewhat mitigated this season by the youth of Coach Perno's club. On May 6, when Vanderbilt hammered Georgia for 23 hits and 15 runs, the Bulldog pitchers encountered by the Commodores included a sophomore starter and five freshman relievers. Of the six hurlers used by the Red and Black in Saturday's 15-hit, 14-run meltdown in Columbia, three were freshmen and two were sophomores.

They were merely freshmen.

The 2007 Classic City Canines undoubtedly suffered from the fact that such mainstays of the 2006 Diamond Dogs as Brooks Brown, Bobby Felmy, Josh Morris, and Joey Side all are playing minor league baseball today.

This year's team lacked experience more than it lacked talent, so Coach Perno is right to assert that the future appears more bright than bleak. A glance at the roster shows just how youthful the 2007 Diamond Dogs really were. Here, by class standing, are the Classic City Canines who saw meaningful playing time during the season just concluded:

Position Players
Seniors: Matt Robbins, Jonathan Wyatt
Juniors: Blake Cannady, Jake Crane, Matt Olson, Travis Parrott, Ryan Peisel
Sophomores: Gordon Beckham, Miles Starr
Freshmen: Clayton Cain, Matt Cerione, Mike Freeman, Joey Lewis, Rich Poythress, Luke Stewart

Senior: Adam McDaniel
Juniors: Joshua Fields, Nick Montgomery
Sophomores: Stephen Dodson, Trevor Holder, Jason Leaver, Nathan Moreau, Iain Sebastian
Freshmen: Justin Earls, Steve Esmonde, Alex McRee, Dean Weaver, Ryan Woolley

Now take a look at the stat sheet. Realistically, the list of underperforming upperclassmen is limited to senior Adam McDaniel (6.75 earned run average), senior Matt Robbins (.237 batting average), junior Jake Crane (.222 batting average), and junior Joshua Fields (1-6 record) . . . but even their efforts are tempered by the fact that McDaniel had a 2-0 record and Fields had seven saves and a 4.46 E.R.A.
There are worse ways to waste the later years of a college education.

Five of the six highest batting averages on the team belonged to senior Jonathan Wyatt (.323) and juniors Matt Olson (.317), Travis Parrott (.308), Ryan Peisel (.295), and Blake Cannady (.290). While sophomore Miles Starr's .180 average is difficult to stomach, his classmate Gordon Beckham batted .307 and, despite their struggles, such freshmen as Rich Poythress (.282) and Luke Stewart (.274) showed promise. Likewise, Stephen Dodson (4-6, 3.56), Trevor Holder (2-3, 4.50), and Nathan Moreau (6-2, 4.65)---sophomores all---demonstrated that the potential is there, even if its fulfillment yet remains lacking.

I am willing to be patient with a bullpen that is topheavy with freshmen, but the batting averages of the Bulldogs' upperclassmen did not translate into the only thing that ultimately matters in baseball: run production. The Classic City Canines suffered from a serious power outage in 2007.

Gordon Beckham's 13 home runs made him the only Diamond Dog to go yard more than half a dozen times this season; the Georgia shortstop's 51 R.B.I. made him one of only two Bulldogs to drive in more than 37 runs. The Red and Black's opponents outperformed them in home runs (43-42) and R.B.I. (287-267).

In 56 games, the Classic City Canines hit .279 as a team in 2,001 at-bats, putting the Diamond Dogs 15 percentage points and 66 at-bats ahead of the opposition, which hit .264 in 1,935 at-bats against the Red and Black. Despite those substantial advantages, though, Georgia plated 21 fewer runs than it allowed to the teams it faced, scoring 289 runs to the other side's 310.

What accounts for that disparity? Anyone who has been following the Bulldogs this season knows the answer to that question: men left on base. As a team, the Red and Black stranded 475 baserunners in 2007. That's an average of nearly eight and a half men left on base per game. When you're failing to bring home approximately 17 baserunners per two-game span, you're going to lose a lot of close ones you ought to win . . . and so the Diamond Dogs did.

Some fans of the show "Lost" believe that, in the final episode of the series, it will be revealed that the island is really second base and the characters have been stranded there because Matt Robbins was at the plate throughout the show's run.

In light of that crucial fact, it is unsurprising that Georgia not only was 0-15 when allowing eight or more runs, but the Classic City Canines also were 2-6 when their opponent scored four runs. The Diamond Dogs were just 9-9 even in games in which they committed no errors and they had a losing record (9-10) in games in which the Red and Black scored in the first inning.

Due to offensive inconsistency, the Bulldogs were 4-5 even in games in which they hit two or more home runs, were 3-13 even in games in which they gave up only one home run, and were 2-5 even in contests which were tied after six innings. Over the course of the campaign, the Red and Black were outscored in the second (32-30), third (41-22), fourth (38-28), seventh (36-31), eighth (41-30), ninth (26-18), and extra (13-4) innings.

Georgia trailed after six innings 25 times in 2007 . . . and lost 22 of those games. Georgia trailed after seven innings 25 times in 2007 . . . and lost 23 of those games. Georgia trailed after eight innings 25 times in 2007 . . . and lost 24 of those games.

This demonstrable inconsistency in the Diamond Dogs' play at the plate was both a cause and an effect of the inconsistency of the Georgia lineup. Jonathan Wyatt was cast in the role of leadoff hitter at the outset of the season, but the top spot in the batting order later devolved temporarily upon Matt Cerione before those duties ultimately fell to Ryan Peisel. Travis Parrott even got a crack at batting first, going hitless in five at-bats in a loss to Kennesaw State on March 7. The pitching rotation similarly underwent continual reshuffling as the Red and Black attempted in vain to find a winning groove.

If I'm not mistaken, I believe this guy may have led off at least one of the Diamond Dogs' losses to Gardner-Webb back in early March.

We are left to wonder why the ingredients for success could not have been cobbled together sooner. Speaking of freshman outfielder Matt Cerione, Coach Perno observed in late February:

He had a slow fall, and we didn't know where he would be until January, when he came back to the team as a different guy. Mentally, he's figured out what it takes to play at this level.

That seems reasonable with respect to a player who was a student at Chattahoochee High School and recovering from a knee injury a year ago. Why, though, did it take so long to figure out where to play Peisel? The junior infielder started all 70 games during his sophomore season, batting .310 in 2006 and ending last season on a tear as he hit .375 in College World Series play and hit safely in 31 of the Classic City Canines' final 38 games. Why was Peisel batting fifth in the first game of the season?

These are the sorts of questions that need to be answered adequately. I am willing to cut Coach Perno some slack for a season that fell far short of expectations, in light of the fact that the Diamond Dogs fielded just three seniors of note (Adam McDaniel, Matt Robbins, and Jonathan Wyatt). (I would, however, point out that some Georgia coaches have won national titles with no senior starters.)

No such excuses will be available to the Georgia baseball team in 2008. Next year, barring departures for the professional ranks, Blake Cannady, Jake Crane, Joshua Fields, Nick Montgomery, Matt Olson, Travis Parrott, and Ryan Peisel will be seniors. Next year, Clayton Cain, Matt Cerione, Justin Earls, Steve Esmonde, Mike Freeman, Joey Lewis, Alex McRee, Rich Poythress, Luke Stewart, Dean Weaver, and Ryan Woolley no longer will be freshmen.

I want to count myself among the 63.2 per cent of Dawg Sports readers who believe David Perno is the man to lead Georgia baseball into the future; I fervently hope that, a little over 13 months from now, I will have been given good cause to come around to that way of thinking. For the moment, though, I must voice my agreement with the 26.3 per cent of Dawg Sports readers who believe that, if the Diamond Dogs do not make it to Omaha next season, Coach Perno should be replaced. The pieces all are in place and next season should be the Classic City Canines' time to shine.

Go 'Dawgs!