March 7, 2011
By Jon Cooper
Daniel Palka knew coming into the 2011 season that he and his fellow freshmen would be counted on to shoulder a large burden to keep Georgia Tech successful.
After 12 games, Palka's broad shoulders and loud bat have proven more than capable of carrying his share.
"Things are going pretty good," he said. "We've got to pick it up a little bit. But I think everything is going good."
Things are going even better following the weekend series with Rutgers, which the Jackets swept, taking both ends of the Friday night double-header with the Scarlet Knights, 10-0 and 9-5, then adding the finale 14-3.
Palka had quite a series, going a combined 7-for-14, with three homers, six RBIs and seven runs scored in the sweep.
It's a nice turnaround for Palka, who has hit .485 (16-for-33) after starting the year 2-for-14. He feels that he, like others in his freshman class may have come out of the gate a little too pumped up.
"I think we all came in so excited to play. That might have affected us some, playing wise," said the 6-1, 220-pound freshman from Lyman, S.C., who will bring an eight-game hitting streak into Tuesday night's game with Kennesaw State (a 6:00 p.m. start at Russ Chandler). "But now everybody's settled down and gotten used to it."
"He's relaxed and getting better pitches to hit," added Head Coach Danny Hall. "The biggest thing with those young guys is just getting them enough at-bats. I think they understand how they need to play and how to they need to approach their at-bats."
"To see them, in the first series, playing in front of 4,000 people was so cool," Palka said. "Seeing how patient they stayed, I was just so anxious and wanting to hit everything perfect. Just realizing that if I play like how I do, exactly how they are I'll be just fine. Just not being so anxious, being relaxed."
That relaxed approach paid off on Feb. 23 in the game at Georgia Southern, which may turn out to be a turning point for Palka, and the team. The Jackets were 2-2 and had lost two straight -- including a heart-breaking series opener, 6-5, to the Eagles. With two out, two on and the game scoreless in the third inning, Palka broke the ice by going yard off Southern's Justin Hess. The blast gave Tech a 3-0 lead in a game they would hold on to win, 7-4.
His first collegiate homer also was the first of the year for the Jackets -- a factor due perhaps as much to new bat restrictions as the youth of the club. Most important for Palka was that he accounted for Tech's first runs of the day.
"It was exciting," he recalled. "It just felt good getting one under my belt, not pressing, having something like that in my head.
"We had gotten beat the day before, and it put us up," he added. "I didn't have a good day the day before, so I was just glad to come out ready that day and be able to contribute. It was exciting putting us on the board."
Palka, who had two more hits that day, has taken off since.
Through Sunday, he is leading the team with four homers, 13 RBIs, and 33 total bases and is second on the team with 18 hits (tied with Jacob Esch) and slugging (.702), while batting .383.
He's become as comfortable on the field as he's always been in his decision to come to Georgia Tech. He was a key piece to this year's recruiting class, having been rated the No. 2 recruit in South Carolina and being selected in the 19th round of the 2010 June Draft by the Philadelphia Phillies.
"It wasn't too difficult a decision," said the business management major, who was two-time all-state (2008, '10) and four-time all-area (2007-10) at Greer High School. "When I found out I had a chance to play here I knew this was where I wanted to play. Coach Hall and Coach Prince and Coach Kinkelaar, just getting to know them and seeing what they've done in the past, the players that have come here, the coaches were a big deal to me."
Palka is becoming a big deal to them.
"He's a great kid, works very hard and is a great competitor," said Hall, who also credited former Tech alum Mike Fowler, Palka's summer ball coach for pointing him toward Tech.
Palka's power appears to have cemented his place in the clean-up spot, where he's made eight of his 12 starts, including five of the last six, and his versatility has allowed him to play at first base (four starts) and right field (two starts), although he DH'ed in the entire series against Rutgers.
"I just want to be in the lineup," he said. "Definitely playing in the field is more exciting, but being able to DH is just fine with me."