Tempting as it may be to jump the gun so early in SEC baseball play, it may just be time to pay close attention to this Georgia baseball team.
The question lingered coming into the season. Was last year’s run to the regionals a sign of more to come or the top end of a wavelength? So far, it’s the former. Now, 21-3, the fourth-ranked Diamond Dawgs are on their best start since 2009 and the 5-1 league mark ties them for first in the conference at this stage.
Georgia is coming off a weekend in which it found itself in a big moment and thrived within it. With two top-ten teams at Foley Field and a packed house...yes, on Kudzu Hill as well...a novice fan would have walked into the ballpark mistaking it for a Super Regional. It absolutely had that kind of feel, and the play on the field reflected that.
But how would this team handle that spotlight? After all, last May, with a Super Regional berth at stake, the Diamond Dawgs fell short of what they felt more capable of.
As it turned out, this team, even already riddled by injuries, handled the stage mightily. After Emerson Hancock was the hard-luck loser in Friday night’s pitcher’s duel, Georgia bounced right back on Saturday, winning a pitcher’s duel of its own behind the arm of CJ Smith and six shutout innings in a 2-0 victory.
To say that Georgia’s starting pitchers have been on point as of late is an understatement. As a staff, the Dawgs 2.54 ERA is good for fifth in the country. Last weekend, Georgia starting pitchers Hancock, Smith and Tony Locey on Sunday gave up a combined two earned runs in 19.1 innings.
Having a capable bullpen hasn’t hurt either. Even with key experienced hurlers Ryan Webb and Will Proctor currently shut down, this group has stepped up, bridging the starting pitching to the late-game stretch for Aaron Schunk to close things out - he is nine of nine on saves so far.
In fact, Justin Glover came on in relief of Smith on Saturday, fighting through to get his first SEC win.
Battling back from adversity looks to be a theme of this team. On Sunday, after leading 6-1, Georgia saw its lead shrink after leading 6-1, a lead sparked by a John Cable grand slam. Austin Biggar’s big two-run homer responded to LSU having cut the lead to 6-5. Even in the ninth, with the Tigers within two runs, Randon Jernigan’s straight-up web game robbed LSU of scoring even more runs, helping to close out the series win.
What’ next for Georgia? Firstly, its battling the adversity of injuries. In addition to Proctor and Webb, catcher Mason Meadows, first baseman Patrick Sullivan and left fielder Tucker Bradley are out with injuries as of now.
The pitching injuries make things more contentious. Fewer pitchers mean more wear and tear on the bullpen, and the potential concern of stamina eroding by late in the season.
That factor could show up big on Tuesday night at Georgia Tech. The midweek game, typically used to give bullpens work, may not shake out in this case given the need for the Bulldogs to rest to depth of their pitching staff. That’s where Tim Elliot will come in, as he may be needed to extended out from the start of the game and possibly eat up more innings than usual.
Tuesday’s tilt in Atlanta starts a six-game road swing. After facing Tech, it’s a short turnaround to play at Kentucky Thursday through Saturday, at Clemson on Tuesday and at Kennesaw State next Wednesday. Georgia returns home April 5-7 against Vanderbilt.