By Jon Cooper | The Good Word
It’s about three hours by bus from Atlanta to Statesboro.
While that may seem like a long way to ride just to play one game, Georgia Tech has no issue with making the 200-plus-mile pilgrimage to play what has become its traditional midweek opener against Georgia Southern. (First pitch is set for 6 p.m.).
What’s also become a tradition is Georgia Tech coming home with a win.
J.I. Clements Stadium has been a “Field of Dreams” for the Yellow Jackets, who have won three straight, seven of the last nine and 15 of the 20 games all-time at the field -- that even includes the Clements Stadium debut on Feb. 12, 2005.
Seniors Wade Bailey and Kel Johnson are especially eager for this game, as they’ll look for a clean sweep in their final trip to Statesboro. The tandem has done its part over the first three years, hitting a combined .367 (11-for-30), scoring seven runs, and driving in 12, with four home runs, helping the Jackets outscore the home team, 23-12, in the three wins.
“I just think they’re comfortable playing down there,” said head coach Danny Hall. “It’s a nice ballpark, it’s a great place to play because they always have a good crowd and they’re very enthusiastic. I think sometimes that makes our guys enjoy playing just because their crowd is into it every time we go down there.”
The duo of Bailey and Johnson has done its damage in very different and very dynamic ways.
Bailey has been a pest, recording seven hits (five singles and a pair of doubles) in 13 at-bats (a .538 batting average). He has a .600 on-base percentage, scored three runs and driven in three. The last two years he’s done his part as a table-setter at the top of the order.
Johnson has been the prodigious slugger, bringing a career .941 slugging percentage into this final game, crashing four home runs, including a monster, go-ahead grand slam in the seventh inning in 2015 as a freshman, then playing “Home Run Derby” in last year’s visit, blasting three round-trippers. In between, as is the nature of the beast with any slugger, Johnson endured a tough 0-for-7, with three strikeouts, although he still drove in a run in the seventh inning as Tech rallied from a 3-1 deficit after six to tie the game in the ninth, then outlast GS, in a thrilling 16th inning, for a 6-5 win.
Bailey feels it’s always a thrill to play in Statesboro.
“I think it’s just the atmosphere. I love their fans,” he said. “It’s so much fun to play there with their fans. They’ll talk to you a little bit. It’s always a good time.”
He especially enjoys silencing the fans.
“That’s the fun part,” he said, with a laugh.
The Jackets aren’t surprised at the way he’s taken on the challenge of being a human “Mute” button for the crowd.
“I think if you’re competitive, people getting on you, that just makes you want to do well to kind of keep them quiet,” said Hall.
“He’s a gamer,” agreed Johnson. “He’s a guy you want at the top of the order to get on and set the table for the power bats. We’ve got Joey (Bart), Tristin (English), and myself and Baron (Radcliff), as a freshman, has come on strong as a power hitter. So we’ve definitely got a lot of run-production there in the middle of the order. It’ll be exciting to watch once we get rolling.”
While Bailey has quieted the crowd, Johnson, has taken its breath away, with the long ball.
It’s just doing what comes naturally.
“I’ve had a couple of nice games in the past,” Johnson said. “When I go down there I just do the same things I normally do, the same routine and hopefully I can find some pitches to drive. It’s hard to explain. It has been good to me in the past and hopefully it will continue this year.”
Bailey admits watching Johnson has been fun.
“(The grand slam) was a fun one. Also when he had three in one game was pretty cool, too,” he said. “Kel’s just going to do what he does. He’s a very good power hitter and that’s a park that suits him pretty well.”
Johnson’s wary that it may not be as friendly following off-season renovations.
“Some parks are definitely more friendly to the hitter. Southern actually moved its fence back so I don’t know that that’s necessarily it,” he said. “I think it’s definitely not the biggest park we play in but I’ve just found some balls to drive and get the barrel on. Hopefully that will continue.”
As they take their last licks in Statesboro, Johnson and Bailey also will be on a mission to lay the groundwork for the next generation of Yellow Jackets, especially the freshmen, who will get their first taste of road adversity and face their next test.
“No doubt, our freshmen will have their eyes opened a little bit just because people are going to get on them when we go down there,” he said. “But our team will rally and do a good job.”
Bailey feels the kids will be better just for having gotten through Opening Weekend.
“I think it’s just getting it out of the way,” he said. “You get Opening Day done and the jitters kind of go away and you can relax and just play baseball again. That’s the biggest thing for them. They’re obviously talented enough to have success and they can just go out and do their thing now.”
Everyone doing their thing would go a long way to keeping this senior class, which also includes Patrick Wiseman and Jared Datoc, perfect against Georgia Southern and in Statesboro -- in fact only one player, redshirt senior Ben Schniederjans, is the only player on Tech’s roster to be on the field for a Georgia Tech loss to Southern and at Clements (4-3, in 2014).
More important, however, is leveling the Jackets’ record after a 1-2 opening weekend and putting the brakes to a two-game losing streak.
“It would be nice but what's important right now, I just want to get a win and get back on track,” said Bailey.
“We’re going to go down there and give it all we’ve got,” said Johnson. “We’ll be ready to play.”