By Jon Cooper | The Good Word
There’s something special about the first day of practice.
It’s a chance to resume from where you left the previous season or to wipe the slate clean and restart. Regardless, it’s something players and coaches eagerly await.
It’s understandable, then, why Wednesday afternoon was so special for Georgia Tech baseball. The Yellow Jackets took Russ Chandler Stadium as one after not only waiting through the entire summer but also sitting as pretty much the entire ACC started up its fall slate.
There was nothing punitive going on. Quite the opposite.
“It was actually the idea of Steve Tamborra, our strength coach, ‘Let’s take some time on the front end to kind of get everybody healthy again, get everybody back in what we think is really good shape,’” said head coach Danny Hall, who began his 25th Fall Practice as Georgia Tech’s head coach. “We were able to have them lift three times a week, condition them. We were only allowed to do baseball-specific stuff two hours a week but we felt like we got everything in early that we needed to get in and now we feel like our guys are in great shape, the guys that have kind of been banged up, for the most part, are healthy, ready to go and the weather’s always good in the fall here, so it felt like it was something to definitely do with the best interests of our players in mind.”
Hall was willing to try something new to shake things up following the 2017 season, the first losing season he’d EVER been involved in and the first time since 1989 -- his second season as a head coach at Kent State -- that his team didn’t record at least 30 wins.
“We were 27-28. So when you go 27-28 it makes you evaluate everything you’re doing, whether it’s me personally or our coaching staff or the way we’re training guys,” he said. “I think everything got evaluated over and above probably.
“But that was really one of the reasons we wanted to try to do something a little different this fall,” he added. “Try to get our guys fundamentally sound and that’s really going to be the emphasis moving forward is that we have to be fundamentally sound in all areas and we have to be a team.”
Getting back to basics was fine with the players. They just wanted to get back on the field, period. They got a good day to do so.
Day one was pretty much perfect, although it was a little toasty for Oct. 11 with temps in the low-90s. Yet even THAT was tempered by a comforting breeze that consistently poked its way into Russ Chandler Stadium, sticking around as if it, too, had missed baseball.
So what if sunscreen was more of a necessity than a sleeve?
“As long as it’s warm and I’m playing baseball I’m happy,” said senior second baseman Wade Bailey, with a laugh. “We’ve definitely done things a lot differently this year. I’ve wanted to get out here, seeing all the other schools starting up, but our individuals have gone great. I think everyone’s improved and gotten the instruction they needed for us to go into the fall. So it’s new. I’m still getting used to it but I’m excited to see where it goes.”
“A lot of people were thinking we might be a little colder, it feels like it’s mid-July,” said junior catcher Joey Bart, who described the team’s mood as ‘Very antsy.’ “We had a little longer individuals, which was all limited so we were just getting a little bit of taste. But now that we’re out here as a team, with no restrictions, we can get going and we can really work on some things and not have to worry about time.”
About the only time anyone has to worry about is playing time.
There will be auditions for three of the four infield spots, as last year’s third baseman Trevor Craport is playing pro ball, shortstop Austin Wilhite is temporarily on the shelf following hand surgery (he expects to be ready for the start of the season), and first baseman Coleman Poje is graduated. Two of three outfield spots also are open, as last year’s center fielder Ryan Peurifoy was drafted in June and Brandt Stallings has transferred. There’s also the closer role that needs filling, with Zac Ryan gone.
That means lots of competition. Again, no complaints.
“There are a lot of positions open,” said Bart. “We lost a lot of key players but ultimately it’s up for these guys and hopefully they’re ready to come in and take some spots.”
“I think we’re a lot deeper out there,” said Bailey. “We have a lot of infielders that, I think defensively can replace Craport. We have Carter Hall in center field. I think he can hold it down, kind of like Peurifoy did. There are a lot of guys that really want to play and get out there. I’m excited to see what happens come the first game.”
Hall is expecting a lot of leadership from Bart and Bailey to get the team to that point and beyond.
“To have those two guys back, they’ve both played a lot, they’ve been through a lot. They can set the example for everybody else,” said Hall.
Bart, the team’s leader in home runs, RBIs, and slugging percentage despite missing the final 11 games last season, is eager to make up for the time he lost to a freak, season-ending hand injury.
“I’m very excited. I’m coming out here trying to win some more games with my team and make everyone around me better,” he said. “Obviously, just enjoying every day with my brothers out here on the field is what I’m looking forward to. I hope I get better, certainly at the plate, plate discipline, behind the plate as well and with my teammates, getting to know everyone a little bit more and getting to know my pitchers better.”
He’s ready to take on a leadership role.
“It’s a big role, for sure. I think a lot of guys on our team need someone like me or Wade or anyone else who wants to step up and lead,” he said. “We have a lot of young guys and we’re putting them in some big roles. A lot of these guys are going to be thrown right into the fire. I’m certain me and Wade can kind of help them out, kind of guide them through it.”
Bailey plans to continue to lead by example. Donning a Charlie Blackmon-esque beard, he has his own grist for the mill heading into the fall and the 2018 season. The Jackets’ leader in just about every offensive category Bart didn’t lead, Bailey was more focused on what he did NOT do last season.
“I’m still a little upset about the Louisville series. I didn’t get a hit all weekend in that series. That one’s still with me a little bit,” he said. “I think I can still do a lot better. There were a few weekends where I struggled in stretches. I want to limit that. I want to keep building on last season and have a better one this year.”
Bailey displayed his displeasure over that weekend -- the only series all season in which he did NOT get a hit -- over the remainder of the ‘17 season, finishing on a 17-game hitting streak, with seven multi-hit games -- five of those in his final seven games.
Ideally, the Jackets will show that same kind of resilience and exact that kind of revenge for 2017.
It began Wednesday and will continue until the White & Gold World Series in November. What transpires next leading up to that promises to be interesting and telling.
“The next two weeks we’ll have a good idea of who wants to come out and wants to practice,” said Bart.