April 7, 2011
By Jon Cooper
It's barely one week into April, way too early for Georgia Tech Baseball to start talking about being in the College World Series.
But this weekend at Russ Chandler Stadium it won't be too early to start thinking about it or at least about how it feels to be in it, as the nation's top-ranked team, the University of Virginia will be in town. First pitch is scheduled for 7:00 tonight, a rare 6:00 p.m. start time on Saturday and the finale begins Sunday at noon.
The Cavaliers (29-2, 11-1) and the No. 8 Yellow Jackets (23-7, 11-1) face off, with the series winner gaining the inside track on the Coastal Division lead, and, If precedent means anything, the ACC regular-season championship -- the last two years the winner of this series has taken the crown.
"It definitely gets your competitive juices flowing," said Georgia Tech Baseball Head Coach Danny Hall. "You realize that your team's got to be prepared, they've got to play well, they've got to execute because you know the other team is going to be prepared well and do a good job of executing. So it definitely gets your attention. It's kind of in the middle of the league season but it's about as big a series as there is."
Both the Yellow Jackets and Cavaliers will throw some of the best pitching in all of college baseball at each other over the next three days, as the six scheduled starting pitchers -- Mark Pope, Jed Bradley and Buck Farmer for Georgia Tech, Danny Hultzen, Tyler Wilson and Cody Winiarski for Virginia -- combine for a record of 29-2 -- a .935 winning percentage.
The series opens with the marquee match-up of Pope (7-0, 0.66 ERA) against Hultzen (6-0, 1.36, 78 strikeouts in 46 1/3 innings), the 2010 ACC Pitcher of the Year.
It's a dream match-up -- unless you're a hitter. It's a match-up Pope has looked forward to for a long time.
"This year, as soon as they told me I was going to be the Friday night guy, the first thought was 'I'm going to be pitching against Danny Hultzen,'" said Pope, who has allowed four earned runs in 54 2/3 innings. "It's exciting just knowing that he's going to come out and be competing on every pitch. I feel our pitching can match up with anybody, me, Jed and Buck going to the mound, we compare with anybody."
One will find a lot of similarities when comparing these two staffs. So dominating are these two teams' pitchers that they boast the top three winners in the ACC in Pope, whose seven wins set the pace, then Hultzen and Will Roberts, he of perfect game fame, and mid-week starter status. The staffs make up five of the top eight in strikeouts (Hultzen, Tech's Saturday starter Jed Bradley is second, Virginia's Saturday starter Tyler Wilson is third, Pope is seventh and Roberts is eighth) and account for four of the top six in the conference in lowest opposing batting average, as Pope and Hultzen are 1-2, Roberts is four and Bradley sixth.
The one Tech pitcher not in the conversation among ACC league-leaders, however, is sophomore Buck Farmer, who ironically, enters the game as the pitcher with the most innings pitched against UVA.
Farmer was heroic in last year's Saturday game, relieving starter Brandon Cumpton in the first inning and giving up only one run and four hits over six innings. Farmer's ability to hold the Cavs in check allowed the Jackets to fight back from a 5-0 deficit and take a 9-7 victory. It would be their only win in the series.
This year, Farmer (5-1, 2.11) goes Sunday against Winiarski (4-1, 3.05). He believes that this year's freshmen need to take the kind of even-keeled approach that he took last year and will take in this year.
"You've just got to go out there and treat it like every other game," he said. "Sure it's something that can relate to a College World Series-type of atmosphere but it's not to that point. You've just got to go out there and treat it like every other series, just do what you know how to do and go out there and perform to your best."
"You just have to force yourself to not get too excited because then you want to try to do too much and you want to try and exceed your capabilities when, in reality, you're at your strongest when you're going about things the way you normally do," agreed Bradley. "You have to find a way to look at it the same way you do every other series, every other game you throw."
That's easier said than done, even though the Jackets have made mental focus a part of their preparation.
"It's a case where you never want to personalize your opponent. You should play the game the same way every day," said Hall. "Human nature says they're going to be excited but what you try to tell them is that they're not going to get a hit every time they go up there. They're not going to get somebody to strike out if they're pitching. There's going to be a lot of ups and downs in the game. They've got to manage those ups and downs and keep trying to compete at a high level and hope that they end up succeeding."
There will be batters in this series and they won't just serve as sacrificial lambs. Both teams can score, as they rank 2-3 in the conference in scoring, with Virginia having plated 228 runs, and Tech only four runs behind them.
Georgia Tech leads the ACC in batting with a .328 average, while Virginia is fourth, batting .300. The teams also boast six of the ACC's top hits leaders. Tech freshman Kyle Wren leads the conference with 54 hits (second in the nation), followed by UVA's John Hicks, who is tied for second. Yellow Jacket Jacob Esch is fourth, followed by Matt Skole and Cavalier Steven Proscia, who rank fifth and Chris Taylor, who is ninth.
Skole, who also is in the top five in the conference in RBIs, on-base percentage, total bases, slugging, batting, and doubles, believes that the hitters who take best advantage of opposing pitchers' mistakes will come out on top.
"I go in thinking you're going to get one pitch to hit an at-bat with [Hultzen] and their pitching staff because they nip at the strike zone and they don't make mistakes," he said. "We just can't miss that pitch. We have to mentally prepare ourselves to hit at the right pitch at the right time and not help them out at all, maybe get his pitch count up a little bit. But other than that, we have to play our game, don't change to the way they play, because it's a little different. We just have to play our game and we'll be fine."
Hall also is looking at defense as a key to the series. Virginia comes in as the best fielding team in the conference (.984 fielding percentage), having made 18 errors, the fewest errors of any ACC team. Tech is ninth in fielding (.966) and in errors committed (40) but also leads the conference having turned 28 double plays.
"We have to play defense. One of the things that's happened the last week or so is that we haven't played as good defense as we need to play," said Hall. "So you just hope you don't walk guys, that your pitchers throw the ball well and make the plays and then it comes down to getting some guys on and scoring them and hope that you end up on that winning side."