DIGGIN' IN Baseball Preview: Infield

Feb. 5, 2015

DIGGIN' IN PREVIEW SCHEDULE:
Outfielders: Monday, Feb. 2: Story | Podcast
Infielders: Thursday, Feb. 5: Story | Podcast
Catchers: Friday, Feb. 6: Story | Podcast
Bullpen: Monday, Feb. 9: Story | Podcast
Starting Pitchers: Wednesday, Feb. 11: Story | Podcast

By Jon Cooper

The double play is known as the pitcher's best friend.

Last season's Georgia Tech infield got quite chummy with the pitching staff, as the sure-handed, acrobatic unit turned an NCAA-leading and school record 77 double plays.

  • PODCAST: COACH HALL, SMITH DISCUSS TECH'S INFIELD

    Expect a similarly good relationship this year, as the Yellow Jackets return three-fourths of the group that started the majority of ACC play, the entire ACC Tournament and the Oxford Regional, in first baseman Thomas Smith, shortstop Connor Justus and third baseman Brandon Gold. While the one loss is a big one -- Mott Hyde not only anchored second base but was a mentor to Justus -- the 2015 infield could be even better than 2014.

    They're two-deep at every position -- three-deep at the corners -- and are hungry.

    "I think it's good for our team because I think competition brings out the best in everybody," said head coach Danny Hall. "It's going to make it difficult on our coaching staff to decide who starts that first game, which is a good problem to have. We have a lot of guys capable of playing, we'll play a lot of guys early just to kind of see who should be going where and then, hopefully, by the time we start playing in the conference we have a pretty good idea of what guys' roles could be and who can help and who can contribute."

    The Jackets have the luxury of talent to juggle and don't have to go back too far to find precedent that proves that given time they'll find the right combination.

    Simply go back to last season.

    In search of the right combination, and while breaking in freshmen Justus and Gold, amongst others, Tech used eight different infield combinations over the first 17 games. They treaded water, going 9-8, with the infield play turning 18 double plays and having two error-free games.

    But they found the right combination shortly thereafter and the season turned around.

    The combination of Smith at first, Hyde at second, Justus at short and Gold would play 32 of the team's final 45 games of the season -- Justus played all 45. They'd turn 59 double plays and play clean 21 times. The Jackets went 28-19, winning the ACC Tournament and reaching the NCAA Regional.

    The pitchers must be thinking, "Welcome back!"

    Smith has the inside track at first. The former walk-on was Second-Team All-ACC in 2014, committing only two errors (his only two over the last two years), while pickin' `em at a .996 clip. He also hit, batting .301, third on the team, while leading the team in on-base percentage (.392), tying for the team lead in walks (26), and finishing tied for second in RBIs (36).

    "I really don't know [where I'll be playing]," said Smith, who also could see some time at second, where he started his career. "I don't know if Coach knows yet, either. I've been playing both. It will definitely be one of the two, either first or second."

    Smith was eager to get better for his final season and worked hard to prepare himself at both positions.

    "I wanted to work on turning double plays at second this year," he said. "I really take pride in my defense. I've always been good at defense but I really want to take my defense to another level and be the total package. Offensively I think I could always develop more power. I'm not the biggest guy but anytime I can put on some pounds or pick up some power that's what I tried to do over the summer."

    Senior A.J. Murray, who has plenty of power, also could see action at first base. He's a big bat that the Jackets would like to keep in the lineup. He tied for the team lead with four homers last season and was second on the team with a .426 slugging percentage.

    Should Smith play second and Murray at either DH or catcher, that could open the door at first base for power-hitting freshman Kel Johnson. Smith and Murray have been working with Johnson to get him up to speed at first, something that shouldn't take long.

    "He's a great hitter. He's got a lot of power, a lot of upside. He's real exciting to play with," said Smith. "We're just trying to teach him the mental aspects of the game, mostly on defense. He's already a great hitter. Most of the situational stuff on defense is the thing we try to help him out with."

    Taking over for Hyde at second base likely will be freshman Wade Bailey. The 5-9, 175-pound freshman hit a robust .545 (6-for-11), with a homer, a double, two RBIs and three runs scored for the victorious Gold team in the White-Gold Series. His six hits and 10 total bases were second behind Johnson. Smith also could see some time at second and surely will be a positive influence on the Villa Rica, Ga., native.

    The Jackets are strong at short, where incumbent Connor Justus will see the majority of the time. Justus moved in at short with Hyde sliding to second and Smith to first when Tech took off a year ago. He looked like a veteran, committing only two errors in ACC play. Justus finished the year fielding .968 and took part in 51 double plays. Offensively, he held his own, hitting .254, with two homers, six doubles and a triple, while driving in 30 runs. Justus had a nine-game hitting streak, the highest among freshmen, and came up big in big spots, recording five game-winning RBI and scoring five game-winning runs. He batted .400 with the bases loaded and hit .309 against top-20 teams.

    Justus feels much more comfortable coming into his sophomore year and is ready to do some big things.

    "Last year I had no idea where I was going to be playing, what I was going to be doing, what my role was. So I was just competing for a spot," he said. "You still have to compete for a spot -- nothing's ever guaranteed -- but this year I feel like I'm more of a leader. Out there I try to be the best role model for everyone that I can be and just try to play with confidence and set the tone."

    Fellow sophomore Brandon Gold should pick up in 2015 where he left off in 2014, cooling off the hot corner next to Justus. Gold had his difficulties at the plate (.246, 12 doubles, 16 RBIs), but was rock solid at third, where he made only five errors and fielded .963. He's come back stronger with a more relaxed attitude.

    "Over the off-season it was just about getting stronger, faster in the weight room, working on that as a team," he said. "Individually, having more fun, relaxing. It's the GAME of baseball. Just go out there and enjoy it. You work hard every day in the cages, taking ground balls. Don't think about too much when you're getting that big ground ball in the ninth inning, when you're two strikes in the ninth inning. You've done it so many times. Just take it easy."

    Of course, taking it easy doesn't mean slacking. Gold won't do that, as he's serving as a role model for freshman Blake Jackson.

    "I think, especially for me, having a freshman with me at third base in Blake, just watching over him, seeing him watch me, it lets me teach him, learn some stuff, see some stuff, mistakes I made," said Gold, who also may see some time on the mound. "We all make mistakes and just helping him because helping him, seeing his mistakes most definitely helps me learn from them and fix them."

    Jackson hit .273 (3-for-11), with a double and four RBIs in the White-Gold Series. The four RBIs tied for second in the series.

    Also in the mix at third is versatile junior Matt Gonzalez. Gonzo, who has third base in his background, is one of the big bats in the middle of the order. Last season he batted a career-high .314, and led the team with an ACC-leading 21 doubles and 37 RBIs. Gonzalez also was clutch, as witnessed by his eight game-winning RBIs.

    Gonzalez likes all the depth on the infield. He thinks the pitchers will as well.

    "I'm not a pitcher but speaking for the pitchers, if you have a good defense behind you then they're just worried about throwing strikes and let the defense work," he said. "That's something we have. We have a lot of experience everywhere at every position and with experienced guys that are really good."

    So while stability is a good thing, so is having the plethora of talent the Jackets bring can put on the field in 2015. That should be fun for everybody, fans and players, alike.

    "Everyone's versatile," said Justus. "We don't know where everyone's going to be playing so I think it's going to be fun to see the outcome of that."