#TGW: Ready for the Challenge
Georgia Tech baseball is excited for season-opening Atlanta Challenge this weekend
by Jon Cooper | The Good Word
With temperatures nearing 70 degrees, Atlanta weather is a little out of season for February, but it’s perfect in season for baseball. There’s certainly no complaints from Georgia Tech, which opens their 2017 season with games Friday afternoon against Brigham Young University, Saturday against Marshall and Sunday against Western Michigan in the Atlanta Challenge.
First pitch is 4 p.m. on Friday, 2 p.m. on Saturday and noon on Sunday.
“It kind of makes you feel like baseball is coming, which it is,” said head coach Danny Hall, who brings a 961-477-1 record (a .668 winning percentage), into his 24th season on The Flats (it’s his 30th season overall as a head coach). “We’ve been very blessed the whole preseason to have really good weather. We hope it lasts.”
The Jackets would like to see their trend of season-opening and home-season-opening success in the Hall Era last another year as well, as the Jackets are 18-5 in season-openers and 22-1 in home openers in the Hall Era. That includes a perfect 3-0 in last year’s Atlanta Challenge, where they topped Purdue (5- 2), Western Michigan (13-0) and VCU (9-1).
“Anticipation’s been building for a while,” said junior outfielder Kel Johnson, a second-team Preseason All-America selection and the Jackets’ leading returner in hits, homers, RBIs, total bases and slugging percentage. “We couldn’t be more excited. We’re ready to get things rolling and have high expectations for this season.”
“I’m super-excited to get out there,” said sophomore catcher Joey Bart, an ACC All-Freshman and 2016 NCAA Gainesville Regional All-Tournament Team honoree. “We’ve been going against each other for the past month and the whole fall so it’s going to be fun to get someone else out there and hopefully get to whoopin’ on someone else.”
That someone else they want to whoop up on are a pretty formidable group -- two of which, BYU and Marshall, the Jackets have never played before (they’re 3-0 all-time vs. WMU). The Cougars slugged their way to a 37-17 season, tying for a West Coast Conference regular season championship in 2016. Picked fourth in the WCC, the Cougars feature WCC Preseason Player of the Year, junior first baseman Colton Shaver, and sophomore outfielder Keaton Kringlen, the WCC Freshman of the Year last season. Marshall, which last year set a school record with 34 wins, including 21 in Conference USA play, finished one game off the pace. The Thundering Herd, picked to finish eighth in C-USA, are led by ‘16 C-USA Newcomer of the Year in senior Tommy Lane and ‘16 All-Freshman lefty Joshua Shapiro. The weekend concludes with another look at the Broncos, who finished (22-34) last year but turned it on late, won the MAC Tournament and made the NCAA Tournament. Sophomore shortstop Connor Smith, the MAC Freshman Position Player of the Year in 2016, leads WMU.
The Jackets will have to replace some key cogs from last season – wins leader Brandon Gold (9-3, 2.48), closer Matthew Gorst, who set a school single-season ERA record (0.55), and key big bat Matt Gonzalez, who either graduated or left to play pro ball. Louisville Slugger Freshman All-American and All-ACC First-Teamer Tristin English, another big bat and arm in the rotation, is out for the year having undergone Tommy John Surgery.
It’s a lot to overcome, but the Jackets, who return 22 letterwinners, including seven starters and four pitchers that made at least five starts last season, believe they have the talent to fill those spots.
The heart of the order should still beat strong.
“I think with Kel Johnson still sitting there, hitting in the middle of our order, Joey Bart certainly will get in there, Trevor Craport will be somewhere in there and even Brandt Stallings,” said Hall. “Bart was a Freshman All-American last year so I feel like we have some capable guys and then there are a couple of sleepers that kind of have come on and have done a nice job in these preseason scrimmages.”
“There are some replacements to be made any time you lose guys like Matt Gonzalez and Connor Justus,” said Johnson. “The guys are going to have to step up, but I think we have the guys to do it. I think we’ve got a lot of talent up and down the lineup. So I think we can step up and replace those guys.”
Amongst the freshmen that could contribute right away are catcher Kyle McCann, Austin Wilhite, who likely will start at short, replacing three-year starter Connor Justus, and Xzavion Curry, who has earned comparisons to Brandon Gold for his hitting and versatility on the infield.
Of course, Curry, the 5-10, 185-pound Atlanta native (Mays High School) hopes to earn his closest comparison to Gold when he takes the hill on Friday in the season opener. It’s the first time the Yellow Jackets have started a true freshman in the season opener since Kris Wilson, Georgia Tech Athletics Hall of Fame, Class of 2009, did so in 1995.
“He's real valuable to us pitching. He could be valuable to us in the infield if somebody gets hurt,” said Hall. “But right now I’m probably treating him like I treated Brandon Gold last year in that he’s going to be a primary pitcher. Everybody has a lot of confidence in him and I feel like he deserves the chance.”
Tech could have a logjam on the mound with a talented group featuring steady senior lefty Ben Parr, sophomore righties Jake Lee and Keyton Gibson, the return of a healthy redshirt senior lefty Jonathan King, who pitched only five innings last year in the opener before having to shut it down due to shoulder issues, redshirt freshman righty Jonathan Hughes, who pitched only five games before being lost to injury and redshirt junior righty Ben Schniederjans, who is coming back from Tommy John surgery. Hughes will start Saturday against the Thundering Herd.
“It can be really strong. We’re going to have a pretty deep bullpen, the starting rotation’s not set yet but we have a lot of guys vying for it,” said Parr. “There are a lot of guys battling for spots and it’s going to be interesting how it’s going to play out.”
“Some of the young guys that have come in have really looked good,” agreed King. “You’ve got guys like Xzavion Curry who’s throwing the ball extremely well, Jonathan Hughes has looked strong coming off his injury, a couple of other guys that come to mind. Jared Datoc has really looked good, Zac Ryan looks like he’s back to his normal form. So we’re pretty excited about what our pitching staff holds for us.”
Ryan could have the biggest shoes to fill, as he’ll start as the team’s closer. Ryan has experience in the closer’s role, going 9-1, with seven saves, a 3.59 ERA and a near-3:1 strikeouts-to-walks ratio as a sophomore two years ago.
Hall feels the back of the bullpen should be in good hands even when it’s not in Ryan’s.
“You’ll probably see Ryan being more the way we used Gorst down the stretch last year in that he won’t just pitch in the ninth inning,” Hall said. “He may throw in the eighth inning or the seventh inning. If the game looks like it’s kind of hanging in the balance early, he could be in that game early. Then we’ll use Micah Carpenter or Jared Datoc, somebody like that, to close the next day if we have to pitch Zac more than one inning.”
Bart has confidence in the entire staff, as there have been a lot of arms that have make the glove pop.
The Jackets are looking at big things for themselves in 2017 -- bigger than those that picked them to finish fourth in the Coastal Division, even though they also were picked 21st in the nation.
“Well, I think that’s how deep our conference is,” said Hall. “Ten ACC teams got in the NCAA Tournament last year and I think it could probably even go to 12 or 13 teams. Everybody’s getting better, everybody has good players and you have to play well every weekend to survive it. So you look at it and say, ‘Boy, fourth in the Coastal and maybe eighth or ninth overall, that’s not so good,’ but then you look at some of the teams in here and you realize there’s not a lot that separates one team from another in any given game and that’s what makes our conference great.”
The players point to the home series last April 29-May 1, when they swept Coastal Carolina. It was the last time the Chanticleers lost back-to-back games the rest of the season, as they’d finish 24-4 and win the College World Series. The Jackets are thinking, ‘Why not us?’
“Coach Hall has mentioned it before that it’s all about getting hot at the right time,” said Craport. “They had come in, they were playing well. Then they kind of kick-started it from there and turned everything around and started playing really well and got really hot and didn’t lose two games in a row from then on.”
King feels that their ranking within the Coastal will make the Jackets hungrier and give them something to feed off all year long.
“We can’t be surprised by it based on how we finished last year but that kind of gives us a chip on our shoulder and makes us a little hungry because it shows they don’t think we’re going to play as well as we know that we can,” he said. “But we know that we can go out there and compete with anybody. We know that we can beat any team that steps on the field with us. So it kind of gives us a good chip on our shoulder.”