The Georgia Diamond 'Dawgs were scheduled to take the field for their 2014 opener yesterday against the Georgia Southern Eagles. Unfortunately weather intervened with a vengeance. Now they'll start the year with a double header today, with the first pitch at noon.
There are a lot of question marks surrounding this year's Bulldogs. After 12 seasons at the helm, 3 of which produced College World Series appearances, Dave Perno was relieved of his coaching duties and replaced with Kent State skipper Scott Stricklin.
There's no sense in denying that the last couple of seasons of the Perno era were played under a cloud. The squad played inconsistently, Perno was often frustrated, appearing to know what the problems were but remaining wholly unable to fix them. Perno is a great baseball coach, but it seems at times that the pressure on him to produce transferred over to his players, who played tight at times and at other times just didn't seem to be having a lot of fun.
That's to say nothing of the tragic injuries to star players Chance Veazey and Johnathan Taylor.We may never know what effect that had on the team. But it's pretty safe to say those didn't make Perno's job any easier.
Enter Stricklin, a proven winner who'll be tasked as much with changing the atmosphere surrounding Georgia baseball as teaching the fundamentals. Stricklin's a winner. He spent 9 seasons at Kent State, and his first season was the only one in which his squad didn't win their division or conference.They made 4 NCAA Regional appearances and 1 CWS appearance. At Georgia Stricklin will have recruiting advantages he didn't have before, and he'll benefit from an upcoming facilities upgrade which will move the program closer to SEC peer schools.
Not a lot is expected in the inaugural year of the Stricklin era. The Bulldogs were picked by conference coaches to finish sixth out of seven SEC East squads, and don't have any obvious All-SEC candidates. They do return opening day starting pitcher Sean McLaughlin. The sophomore right hander was a Freshman All-SEC selection following a season which saw him post a 5-6 record and a 3.28 ERA. Georgia will also rely on senior left hander Patrick Boling, who pitched well at times in 2013 despite a disappointing 3-7 record.
The Diamond 'Dawgs also return junior Nelson Ward, a perennial starter at second base who'll move over to shortstop to make room for junior transfer Cody McCance (who hit .365 and stole 18 bases in 49 games last year for Georgia Perimeter). Ward set the UGA career mark for fielding by a second baseman in 2013, posting a .987 fielding position and accruing only 3 errors in 56 games. Hopefully his steady presence in the infield will rub off on his mates. Ward is also a solid performer at the plate, having hit .306 during 2013, including a torrid series against the visitors from Statesboro in which he had a 4 hit outing and batted .500 for the series.
I'll also be interested to see what Coach Stricklin gets from freshman center fielder Stephen Wrenn. Wrenn, a 28th round pick by the Braves in the 2013 MLB draft, will start in center and bat leadoff against GSU. He'll likely be joined later this year in the lineup by freshman Mike Bell, another MLB draftee who nevertheless came to the Classic City. Bell is rehabbing a broken hand, but if he's able to return he may be able to take over at shortstop, allowing Stricklin to shift Ward back to second and figure out a place for McCance's bat.
As usual, the Bulldogs' schedule includes perennial top 25 squads like Florida State, South Carolina, LSU and Mississippi State. I'm not expecting the 'Dawgs to do a whole lot, but I like what I'm hearing from Athens. Stricklin has emphasized competition, in the weight room and in practice. If that pays off in more consistent effort on game day, the Diamond 'Dawgs just might surprise some people.
We'll be back later to wrap up the action, until then . . .