#TGW: News at 10
Yellow Jackets take first step in making history at ACC Tournament in the 10 spot
By Jon Cooper
The Good Word
In 2012, Georgia Tech was the first team to win the ACC Baseball Championship as an eight seed.
In 2014 the Yellow Jackets were the first team to win it as a nine.
In 2015, they attempt to be the first team to win it as a 10.
The 10th-seeded Jackets (32-22, 13-17) open their quest to make history and defend their crown in the 2015 ACC Championship on Tuesday, when they take on seventh-seeded Virginia (33-19, 15-15) in the play-in game at Durham Bulls Athletic Park, in Durham, N.C. First pitch is at 11 a.m.
"We're really excited to be here and we're looking forward to playing Virginia, which might be one of the hottest teams in the league," said Head Coach Danny Hall, whose Yellow Jackets have never missed an ACC Tournament in his 22 seasons at the helm.
The Jackets got to Durham the hard way, losing their final four games (including a series sweep at Miami), by a 48-5 margin then having to wait to clinch the tournament's final spot until Wake Forest fell at Duke, 8-1.
But that's in the past, as they hope is Virginia's season-ending hot streak that saw the Cavs win their final five games and six of their last seven.
"We, obviously, would have liked to have gotten in without the help of the other teams but we're glad we were able to get the help," said redshirt sophomore lefty Jonathan King (4-4, 3.24), who gets the ball for Tech. "We're excited to hopefully play well tomorrow and continue our run at another ACC championship."
While their road to what would be a record-setting 10th ACC Championship isn't the one Coach Hall and his staff charted for the team, it wouldn't be one that is unfamiliar to them, either.
In 2012, Tech lost five of its final seven games, two of those at Virginia. Then, last season, dropped four of their last five conference games, including getting swept at Virginia.
But both years they got hot in the ACC's, last year winning the first ever 9-10 play-in game against Wake, putting up a five-spot in the second inning and holding off the Demon Deacons, 5-3, then doing what they needed to do to bring home the crown.
It's little wonder, that the Jackets aren't concerned about the final regular season weekend in Miami. They'd prefer to focus on the 7-4 all-time record in ACC Tournament play against Virginia and the two of three they won during the season.
"We're not dwelling so much on what happened this past weekend," said senior 1B/DH/C A.J. Murray. "We went back to work [Monday] and had a really good practice. We've been in this position in the past and succeeded multiple times. So that just shows you anything can happen at this time of year."
Murray, a co-captain and one of four Jackets to be named All-ACC -- junior third baseman Matt Gonzalez, sophomore pitcher Brandon Gold and freshman outfielder Kel Johnson also made it -- was far more predictable, making things happen all season long. His career-high 15 homers ranked second in the ACC and he finished in the top 10 in the conference in doubles, slugging percentage and RBIs. He leads the team in all four categories.
"It was good to hit in the middle of the lineup every day, have a lot of guys succeed in front of me every day and below me in the order," said Murray, who had nine career homers coming into the season, finished on a home run tear, blasting eight over the team's final 15 games. "I had a lot of opportunities to hit with guys on base. I was very pleased with the season but I know there is definitely more to come in the postseason."
Johnson, who also was named to the All-Freshman Team after leading all freshmen with 10 homers, also is eager for postseason to begin. He hit .302, with the 10 homers and 34 RBIs for the season and batted a team-best .314 in ACC play. About the only thing that could stop him was an ankle injury that cost him 13 games -- he was hitting .379 (.457 in Conference play) at the time of the injury. He's optimistic about his first collegiate postseason.
"I think every aspect of our game has a good chance of improving this week and that's what we're going to make an effort to do," said Johnson, who missed the season series with Virginia -- coincidentally, Virginia played without a superstar, as 2014 All-ACC and 2013 Freshman All-ACC outfielder Joe McCarthy was injured -- and expects to DH Tuesday. "We had a great practice [Monday]. I feel like everything was clicking and I feel good going into the game [Tuesday]. I like our chances and I know we're going to hit them with our `A' game."
While Johnson looks forward to his first action of the season against Virginia King relishes another shot at the Cavs, who roughed him up for nine runs (seven earned), both career-highs, in 5 ⅔ innings in the series opener on April 10 at Russ Chandler Stadium.
King has put that start behind him and may be the Jackets' hottest pitcher.
In his five starts since the loss to UVA, King has pitched to a 1.03 ERA (four earned runs in 34 ⅔ innings), he has pitched at least six innings and hasn't allowed more than two runs (earned or otherwise), striking out 18, while walking seven.
"We learned a lot from that start and since then I feel like like I've had a little bit more success," he said. "I feel comfortable facing their hitters."
King similarly feels comfortable in postseason, as in 2013 postseason, he had two quality starts, including losing a tough 3-2 decision to Virginia Tech in the ACCs, despite allowing only three earned runs in 6 ⅓.
"The experience helps with staying calm and not letting the moment overwhelm you," said King, who followed up the Hokies start by allowing only two runs over six in a no-decision against Illinois in that year's Regionals. "It's a big game but I've been here before. So the surroundings are familiar. I feel pretty comfortable out there."
He's even more confident coming off his start last Thursday at Miami (7.0, 2ER, 3H) and trusts himself more than ever.
"It just gives me a little more confidence to be able to trust my stuff," he said. "I don't have to try to make pitches I'm not capable of making. Just go out there and pound the zone and keep the ball down and make them get themselves out, which I've been doing the last couple of times out there. The worst thing you can do at this point is beat yourself. You've got to go out there and make their hitters beat our best pitches."
A strong start Tuesday would be enormous, with closer Zac Ryan looming. Ryan has an ACC-leading nine wins and seven saves (sixth), anchoring a bullpen that has keyed the Jackets going 18-9 in games decided by three-or-fewer runs and 21-1 in games when leading after six.
They've also held the line, allowing Tech to come back and win 18 times when trailing at some point, five times when trailing in the eighth, and four times when down to their final three outs, outscoring opponents 80-40 from the eighth inning on also has helped.
Murray sees similarities with this year's team and last year's
"There are a lot of parallels," he said. "The character of this team is a lot like last year's. We're very resilient. We've had that `Cardiac Jackets' name tagged to us this whole season. So I have no doubt in this team's character at all."
Nor does he doubt the ability of the team to get things going offensively.
"I wouldn't call it turning it on and turning it off," he said. "I know in people's subconscious something just clicks on in the playoffs and teams hit a roll like that. We've hit a roll multiple times where things just clicked and everything went well. Once the momentum gets swinging it's very contagious for everyone to just hop on."