#TGW: Sophs Up!
Sophomores turned the tide against Clemson, continue to help Tech ride wave of momentum
By Jon Cooper
The Good Word
Heading into the 2015 season, last year's freshman class had quite the tall task in trying to top its freshman-year accomplishments.
With three weeks remaining in the regular season, the group of 11 appears hasn't let up one bit and continues to shine.
Never was the class' impact more obvious and wide-reaching than last weekend in the dramatic series win over Clemson at Russ Chandler Stadium. In the Jackets' two victories, 4-2 Friday night, and 5-4 in 10 innings on Sunday, the sophomore class played a crucial role in deciding the games.
In those games, second-year players accounted for both wins -- both being awarded to closer Zac Ryan, while pitchers allowed only four earned runs in 12 ⅓ innings (a 2.93 ERA), allowing 11 hits, while striking out nine and walking two. The lion's share of those innings were pitched by Brandon Gold, who threw a career-high nine innings in Sunday's rubber game, allowing three runs (all earned) and eight hits, striking out seven while surrendering just one base on balls. On Friday night, Matt Phillips got the final out of the seventh in relief of starter Jonathan King and kept things tied. Both Gold then Phillips handed the ball off to Ryan.
On offense, shortstop Connor Justus and outfielder Ryan Peurifoy were involved in decisive rallies in both wins, the three-run eighth on Friday that turned a 2-1 deficit into a 4-2 win, and the two-run 10th on Sunday that brought Tech back from the precipice of a 4-3 defeat and lifted the team to victory. On Friday, Justus drew a two-out walk and Peurifoy followed with an RBI single, driving in an insurance run, while on Sunday, Justus singled in the tying run and Peurifoy followed by bringing home the game-winner.
"We don't want to give up and we never give in," said Peurifoy, who is hitting .303, good for second on the team. "We battle all the way through. We score more runs in the latter half of games than we do in the first half. It's a team that doesn't give up and even when we get two outs we're still going to battle and do everything in our power to try to win the ballgame."
"Obviously, Ryan and `Cono' (Justus) and Zac Ryan and then myself all had big weekends," said Gold. "But other sophomores contributed as well under the radar. Both Matthew Gorst and Matt Phillips are doing tremendous this year. So there are a lot of underrated sophomores that are helping us out tremendously."
Outfielder Keenan Innis also has been quietly contributing. Innis is hitting .310, second on the team and is among the leaders in runs, hits, on-base percentage, slugging percentage and stolen bases, while fielding .985.
"Unfortunately for him, he was battling a really bad injury last year but he's healthy now," said Gold. "Keenan has just proved to Coach this year that whether it's a righty or lefty he's going to give his all and his all has been pretty good for us this year."
Justus is a true behind-the-scenes guy, as he's second on the team in walks (23), and is tied for the team lead in sacrifice hits (5), tied with classmate, catcher Arden Pabst.
An even more profound impact by the class can be found on the mound, where three sophomores Ryan, the team's closer, has a team-leading seven wins, followed closely behind by Gold, the Sunday starter, and Ben Parr, who jumped on the opportunity to become the midweek starter. Ryan also leads the team in appearances (22) and is limiting opponents to a .220 batting average and is pitching to a 2.72 ERA. Gold leads all starters in innings pitched (68 ⅓), ERA (3.03) and opponents batting average (.225). Coming out of the pen are Matthew Gorst, Matt Phillips and Tanner Shelton, who have 21, 17 and 11 appearances.
Gold, who last season played primarily at third base, is a big reason why Tech is 7-1 (5-1 in ACC play) in rubber games of series and was recognized by being named to the John Olerud Award Watch List, awarded by the College Baseball Hall of Fame to the nation's top two-way player. He already was at the top of Justus' watch list.
"Every time he's on the mound it's so fun to play behind him," said the Jackets' shortstop. "He's a tremendous competitor. He's going to go out there and you know what you're going to get from him. He's consistent and he's just an athlete. He's a stud. We know exactly what we're going to get and we feel like we can win anytime he's on the mound."
The Alpharetta, Ga., native and high school teammate of Gorst, gave the Jackets a huge boost in the finale against Clemson, as his nine innings came the day after the bullpen was taxed, having used five relievers in an 11-3 loss to Clemson.
He is especially appreciative of the work done by the guys he hands the ball to.
"I don't want to leave out anyone. Shelton and Parr are also doing the same exact thing that Phillips and Gorst are doing," Gold said. "They're just waiting for their opportunities and are taking advantage when they get them. Gorst has been our go-to guy whenever King's done Friday nights. If Gorst gets in any trouble it's usually Zac Ryan or Phillips that fills in. Our sophomores are stepping up huge."
Of course, you don't have to be a starting pitcher to appreciate the work of the guys in the bullpen. Being a starter will do.
"Right when they come in the game, it changes the whole mentality," said Justus. "If the starters give us even five strong innings we feel like we can win any ball game. Those guys come in and they throw strikes. We're going to make the plays behind them. So it gives us confidence that they know that they have our backs and we have theirs. Then, when we get to the ninth inning, we feel like we're set with Zac Ryan. He's our go-to guy."
Parr also must be included as a weapon coming out of the pen. He showed his value on Saturday, in the 11-3 loss, as he ate 2 ⅓ innings in the middle of the game in relief of starter Cole Pitts. He allowed one earned run and three hits.
"He goes out there, he pounds the zone. He's got real funky arm-delivery, kind of a low-3/4s that you don't really see from a lefty," Gold said. "He comes in and gets the job done. He gives it his best on Tuesday nights and he'll come in there whenever he's called upon on the weekends, and gets outs there, too."
Exams will be over by the time Georgia Tech opens a home weekend series against Presbyterian, its final non-ACC series but that's when the testing really begins for the Jackets. They'll have two ACC series left, home for Pittsburgh then at No. 3 Miami -- the bottom and top teams in the Coastal. There's also the 13th annual Kauffman Tire Spring Classic for Kids against Georgia, on March 12 at Turner Field.
"It really is about getting hot at the right time and I feel like we're starting to play our best baseball right now," said Justus. "This past weekend we started doing a lot of things better than have been as far as pitching and playing defense and getting big hits when we need to, as far as situational hitting goes. If we peak at the right time and we keep getting better every day I think we can play with anyone in the ACC or in the nation."