#TGW: A Dance to Remember, Forget
GT's SunTrust Park debut vs. Georgia in Kauffman Tire Spring Classic resulted in a night of mixed emotions
Jon Cooper | The Good Word
"Clean, Old-Fashioned Hate" is about moments. You needn't look any further than Qua Searcy's launch last November 26.
Tuesday night's baseball game between heated rivals Georgia Tech and Georgia -- the finale of this season, the 370th in the series, the 15th renewal of the Kaufmann Tire Spring Classic for Kids and Georgia Tech's first game at SunTrust Park -- had plenty of those. Some were spectacular, some were controversial, some were downright bizarre. But it will be remembered more for where the game was played than how Georgia Tech played it.
That's fine with Yellow Jackets head coach Danny Hall.
"It's a disappointing loss, quite honestly," said Hall, following the 8-7 loss. "I thought we did a really good job of coming back, getting back in the game but we just made too many mistakes to come out of here with a win."
Despite overcoming a pair of three-run deficits, the loss was a downer for the Yellow Jackets, who were shooting to finish 4-for-4 in their four-games-in-four-nights stretch that began with a three-game ACC series sweep over Pittsburgh.
Hall refused to blame fatigue from the schedule.
"I don't think that was a factor at all, honestly," he said. "I think the fact that we were playing in here gave our guys a lot of energy. We were playing Georgia."
SunTrust Park, the new home of the Atlanta Braves, opened up on March 31 and was quite the attraction -- boardering on distraction -- heading in. The Jackets did their best to put the uniqueness of the situation aside (the Bulldogs didn't share that awe, having played at SunTrust on April 8, a 6-1 loss to Missouri).
"It was my first time seeing SunTrust Park, so you have to get over the awe factor when you first come out and see it," said junior first baseman Kel Johnson, who went 2-for-5, including an opposite-field RBI double that capped a four-run, fifth-inning outburst that gave the Yellow Jackets a 4-3 lead. "It was incredible walking out of that tunnel and looking out at the stadium. You're going to be excited. It's just human emotion. You're going to be excited to play in a stadium like that and in front of a crowd like that but you can't approach the game itself any different. It's the same preparation and getting your mind right."
Freshman shortstop Austin Wilhite had to overcome a double-dose of `Wow!'. It was his first taste of the Kauffman Classic as well as his first game at SunTrust.
"You just treat it like another game," said Wilhite, who reached base three times, going 1-for-3 and drawing two walks. "I've played at Coolray Field, where the Gwinnett Braves play. (SunTrust) was a little bit bigger but you just go in there and play like every other baseball game, just in a little bit bigger park."
The Jackets did a lot of things right. Center fielder Ryan Peurifoy matched season highs with three hits and three RBI while extending his hitting streak to 14 games, the current team high. Third baseman Trevor Craport also stayed hot, going 2-for-3, good for his seventh multi-hit game in the last 10 games (he's hit .395 -- 17-for-43 -- during that 10-game stretch). He also made a spectacular running catch to save an extra-base hit in left-center field.
On the pitching front, freshman Connor Thomas made his collegiate debut, recording a dazzling three-pitch strikeout on his first hitter, UGA junior left fielder Keenan McGovern, who finished 3-for-5 with a pair of doubles and three RBI. Thomas entered the game in relief of starter Ben Schniederjans in the top of the fourth, with a runner at third, two out and Tech trailing 1-0.
"Having so many people here for my first outing as a college player, and especially playing in `Clean, Old-Fashioned Hate,' there's nothing like it," said the 5-11, 156-pound lefty, who would pitch two innings. "I didn't expect to pitch until I got in the clubhouse today back at Tech. It definitely was nerve wracking. Having a guy in scoring position as soon as I come in and facing a guy like Keegan (McGovern), the guy's been hot all year. Just to come in and do what I can do best, I just loved it. It was great. I don't think I could have drawn it up any better. It was definitely memorable. I'll never forget."
The Jackets would prefer to forget the ninth inning -- especially a three-pitch sequence in the top half.
With two outs and the bases empty, pitcher Micah Carpenter appeared to strike out Georgia third baseman Mitchell Webb. But home plate umpire Craig Barron ruled that Webb's foul-tip hit the ground before Tech catcher Kyle McCann caught it -- an account backed up by first base umpire Doug Vines but disputed by Hall, McCann and Carpenter.
After an uncharacteristically heated debate from Hall, play resumed. Webb walked on the next pitch then McGovern lined Carpenter's next offering into center for a single. Peurifoy made a slight bobble then lofted the ball into the infield. Webb, running hard all the way, came all the way around from first, sliding in ahead of second baseman Wade Bailey's relay throw home for the go-ahead run.
"That's where we made the big mistake," said Hall. "We need Ryan to just throw the ball into the cut-off man. He kind of lobbed it. You give their runner credit. He didn't stop. Their third-base coach did a good job of sending him. But that was a mistake. Ryan will be the first to admit that he's got to throw that ball in there firm to Wade and if he does that they're not going to send him. It's rare, very rare. It was a mistake on our part and they took advantage."
The Jackets could not take advantage of a pair of walks in their half of the ninth. Austin Wilhite walked with one out and his brother, Nick Wilhite, who entered the game as a pinch-runner two innings earlier following a pinch-single by Friday Night starter Xzavion Curry, reached on another base on balls after a dramatic nine-pitch at-bat, the last five pitches coming with two strikes. But the Jackets would strand the Wilhites, the 10th and 11th runners they left on base, and came up a run short.
In a game where Tech hit .438 with runners in scoring position (7-for-16), getting three more RISP hits than UGA, they could not get that last one.
"I got up there, put together a good at-bat, got on and then brother put together a great at-bat, fought off a lot of pitches and also got on," said Austin Wilhite. "I was like, `Okay, here we go.' I thought we had something going."
He does believe that the team has something going, even with the setback.
"We're getting a little more confident, our pitchers are being more in the zone, limiting walks and our defense is doing real well," he said. "So I think we're building up confidence as we go into this next series."
That next series -- Georgia Tech's final road series of the season -- begins this afternoon in Durham, N.C. against Duke. The Jackets come in to the pivotal series tied with Duke for the 10th spot in the fast-approaching ACC Tournament. Tech has put itself back into contention for a tournament spot by winning five of its last six ACC games.
After getting a day-off on Wednesday and traveling Thursday, they're confident that they'll regroup from Tuesday night's loss and draw inspiration from last weekend's sweep of Pittsburgh.
"The conference games were huge because that's what we have to do," Hall said. "We have to play well in the conference from here on out but [Tuesday's loss to UGA], it stings a lot."
Longer lasting than the result of Tuesday night's game will be the lifelong memory of that first game at SunTrust Park, a place they can't wait to get back to next year.
"It is an incredible place to play ball," said Johnson. "Playing at Turner Field was always an awesome experience and I know we got to play the final [GT-UGA] game at Turner. But then getting to play the first Georgia Tech-Georgia game at SunTrust Park was a great memory for all of us."
"It was a really good experience, getting to play on the same field as a lot of great players that are in the big leagues right now," said Wilhite. "It was my first time seeing it. It was way better than I thought it was going to be. Getting to be on the same field the Braves play on all the time was pretty special."