ATHENS - As far it getting itself in a pretty good position goes, Georgia couldn’t be in a much better place going into Monday’s final round of the Athens Regional.
For the second day in a row, the Bulldogs bats came alive in a big way as the game went along. This time, the offense from the Georgia dugout paved the way to an 11-7 victory against Troy, moving Georgia to the regional final. The Bulldogs will play the winner of Sunday night’s game between Troy and Duke on Monday at 1 p.m. with the ‘if needed’ game set for 5 p.m.
“That’s been our approach the whole season, just do what we have to do as an offense,” Georgia left fielder Keegan McGovern said. “We just know we’re never out of it, we keep grinding and keep on inning after inning.”
With one win on Monday, Georgia will advance to the Super Regional against the winner of the Texas Tech regional and host at Foley Field.
The long ball continued to be the name of the game on Sunday. The two teams combined for seven homers, and Georgia’s McGovern and Michael Curry, in addition to Troy’s Brandon Lockbridge each hit a pair of dingers. Curry and Lockridge each homered in the second inning with solo shots for the first run of the game for either side.
It turned out to be a sign of things to come. McGovern gave Georgia a 3-1 lead in the top of the third on a two-run shot. The Trojans hit right back in the bottom of the third. Not only did a Drew Frederick two-run blast tie the game up, but Lockridge doubled for a 4-3 lead for the Trojans, who also got a sacrifice fly to lead 5-3 through three.
Georgia didn’t just have to weather starting pitcher Kevin Smith being touched up for five runs through three innings. Also in the inning, third baseman Aaron Schunk tumbled into the Troy dugout while going for a foul ball, breaking his nose in the process.
Georgia head coach Scott Stricklin said that Schunk, also a relief pitcher for Georgia, is day-to-day and would need to wear a facemask of some sort on Monday if he plays.
Given that Schunk also is a key a part of Georgia’s late-inning rotation, it put the Bulldogs in a bit of a lurch on Sunday.
Down 5-3 and with Troy having momentum, the Bulldogs called of Zac Kristofak, normally a short-duty reliever, to not only hold the Trojans at bay but also get the game to the later innings and hand it over to another reliever.
“When we went to Zac in the fourth, the bottom line is to get two, three or four innings out of him and get the win any way we can,” Stricklin said.
The hurler rose to the occasion, pitching three innings and giving up two runs, one being a Lockridge solo homer, his second of the game. In fact, Kristofak and Ryan Webb combined to give up only two runs on five hits through the game’s final five and a third of an inning.
That effort started with Kristofak, who helped stall the offensive outburst by the Trojans and kept Georgia in the game as it trailed 6-3 through five innings.
“I think Zac Kristofak picked up Kevin Smith,” Stricklin said. “Smith’s been our man out of the bullpen, he’s given us some great starts and maybe he was a little bit rusty from not starting in Hoover, but he battled and competed.”
Troy starter Levi Thomas held Georgia at bay to a degree through five innings, but that ended going into the sixth thanks to, yet again, the long ball. Back-to-back solo homers from McGovern and Curry trimmed the Troy lead to 6-5, enough to prompt Troy to bring reliever CJ Carter in. McGovern’s blast was a mammoth one to saw the least. It cleared the hitter’s eye in dead center field.
“Michael Curry and Keegan McGovern hitting three and four in the lineup is a pretty scary thing for a pitching staff. The ball has been jumping the last few days and that’s a scary thing to think about when you have to face these guys back-to-back,” Stricklin said. “Our offense won this game for us. Kristofak shut it down, Ryan Webb was great, but it was our offense led by these guys that won this game for us.”
After retiring two Bulldogs to start the inning, the Trojans violated a cardinal rule of baseball. They kept an inning alive with an error. The result was three unearned runs that swung momentum clearly to Georgia’s side. A miscue by first baseman Brody Binder allowed Tucker Bradley to reach base, and Ivan Johnson followed by drawing a walk. Keegan McGovern may not have followed with a homer that the Foley Field crowd was likely anticipating, but his seeing eye single through the right side knotted the score at 6-6. Curry then followed with a double, scoring Bradley and Johnson for a two more unearned runs.
“We didn’t play our best game and when you are in the host site playing a host team in a 1-0 game, you have to play your best. Unfortunately, we did not do that (Sunday)” Troy head coach Mark Smartt said. “We didn’t defend well enough and did not pitch well enough after the sixth inning. They have a good offensive club and that was obvious (Sunday).”
Georgia tacked on two more insurance runs in the eighth and one in the ninth to make the job easier for Ryan Webb, who relieved Kristofak in the seventh to close the game out.
Pitching-wise, the Bulldogs are in a good place going into Monday. Stricklin said after Sunday’s game that Emerson Hancock is the likely starter for Monday’s 1 p.m. contest, and a handful of others should the ready to go if needed.
“We have got Emerson Hancock, CJ Smith and Will Proctor, all who have started game for us, so we feel good about that. Ryan Webb was really efficient and could probably come back. Tony Locey, could probably go tomorrow, at least that’s what he’s going to tell us, that’s how Tony works and we’ll see how Aaron feels,” Stricklin said. “We’re in good shape, as good of shape as you can be in going into the winner’s bracket final. Chase Adkins might be available, he had a low pitch count. It’s all hands on deck, but we’re in a really good spot.”