by Jon Cooper | The Good Word
Fall is considered the perfect time to plant spring-blooming bulbs.
Georgia Tech baseball head coach Danny Hall has shown that he has a green thumb when it comes to growing things that bloom beautifully in the spring, most notably his Yellow Jacket baseball teams.
Based on what he saw in fall practice, which concluded with the White vs. Gold World Series, Hall, who will coach his 25th season on The Flats beginning in February, is expecting a bumper crop to celebrate his silver anniversary.
“I commended our guys on how competitive they were all three games,” said Hall of the best-of-three series, which the White Team, won, 2-1. “I felt like our guys competed against each other real well. I think definitely we have more position-player depth and a lot of guys capable of playing. I think that we have much more pitcher depth as well. It felt like guys that we needed to see, particularly the freshmen, all kind of held their own and our upperclassmen, particularly in the series, kind of carried the weight of pitching well.”
A great sight to see was sophomore right-hander Xzavion Curry, who picked up where he left off last season, setting a strong tone right away. Curry, the team’s Friday night starter a year ago, recorded eight strikeouts in his three-inning stint in Game One for the Gold Team, allowing a run, a hit and three walks. His final seven outs came via strikeout, his last two looking.
“‘Zay’ had one inning where he kind of lost command of the strike zone but other than that, it felt like he dominated,” Hall said. “He’s just a much better pitcher now than he was last year. Last year he had a really good fastball. Now he has a really good breaking ball to go with his fastball. It’s just going to make him a better pitcher. He’s a great competitor. So I was very impressed by him this fall.”
Another bright spot on the hill was Curry’s classmate, lefty Connor Thomas.
Thomas, who got a late start last season then struggled, pitching to an ERA over 11.00, pitched to a 1.50 ERA (one earned run in 6.0 innings) over two starts this fall.
“It felt like he commanded everything really well and I think he has gotten back to being Connor Thomas,” said Hall. “He pitched really well all fall but in particular in the World Series. It felt like he had really, really good stuff.”
Redshirt sophomore righty Jonathan Hughes (5.0 scoreless innings, one hit, three K’s, three walks) and junior righty Keyton Gibson (5.1 scoreless innings, four hits, five K’s, one walk) also found their form and could battle for spots in the rotation.
“I think those two guys will be guys that we need to count on,” Hall said.
The pitching was good but the hitting held its own. Among the top hitters were the usual suspects -- junior catcher Joey Bart (White Team’s leader in average, .455, slugging .545 and on-base percentage, .600, and a series-best six runs) and Gold Team’s senior second baseman Wade Bailey (.308, 385, .333). The sophomore class stepped up, led by outfielder Chase Murray (.417, .667, .462, Gold-team-high four RBIs, eight total bases), Gold sophomore center fielder Nick Wilhite (.364, .364, .500) and sophomore Kyle McCann, who led the Gold Team in hitting (.455) and OBP (.583) and was second in slugging (.636).
While neither White nor Gold managed a homer in the three games that may have been as much because of who did not play, as those sitting out the series were senior Kel Johnson, redshirt sophomore Tristin English and sophomore Austin Wilhite.
“Joey Bart had a tremendous fall. He has worked extremely hard to be a more consistent hitter,” said Hall. “He hit a bunch of home runs before he got hurt last year and I think he’s a guy that will hit some home runs. Certainly Kel is going to have power, I think that Tristin is going to have power.”
Hall pointed to Murray and McCann as legitimate power threats and is excited to see what 6-4, 228-pound incoming freshman Baron Radcliff can do.
“Baron Radcliff probably has more power than any of those guys,” said Hall. “We just need to keep getting him more reps and get him up to speed, with certainly, the speed of college baseball and everything that goes into being a good hitter. But I think that’s one area that, we feel like we’re going to have some power. How it all ends up shaking out in the lineup we’ll just have to see.”
Hall sees sophomore Carter Hall, the team’s fastest player, and Bailey as the team’s table-setters.
“Wade Bailey will be a guy that the decision is going to have to be made, are we going to lead him off or are we going to hit him more two-hole, three-hole,” he said. “I think in any combination to have those two guys at the top of the order is definitely going to put some pressure on pitchers right out of the gate.”
About the only area that wasn’t glowing for Hall was on the defensive side. The two teams combined for 18 errors in the three games, resulting in nine unearned runs. He pointed to the series as a learning experience for freshmen shortstops Luke Waddell and Oscar Serratos.
“Our two shortstops made way too many errors,” said Hall. “Both of those guys just didn’t catch the baseball the way that I know they’re capable of.”
The return of Austin Wilhite, who was taking ground balls when fall practice ended, should shore up the defense.
Seeing how the freshmen come of age in the spring is exciting. The signing of a first-rate recruiting class adds to that excitement.
There’s at least one pitcher coming in that Hall is especially eager to see.
“We have a left-handed pitcher named Will Shirah. He’s already over 90 and has a good breaking ball, a good changeup, really smart kid,” said Hall. “He’s coming out of high school early, he’s going to enroll in January and he’ll be eligible to play. He would be the under-the-radar guy that nobody has seen or knows anything about but he’ll enroll in January and be part of our team.”
Perhaps the best thing Hall saw from the fall and the Series was pretty much everyone walking away as good as better as the way they walked in -- some even better.
“We came out of the fall very healthy,” he said. “Austin got back in there and is able to catch ground balls now, Kel was actually taking batting practice, and we chose not to hit Tristin so that he can keep rehabbing his arm. But he has had live sessions of facing some hitters and will continue that through January, so everything seems to be a go with him. To get those three guys back in our lineup really lengthens us offensively.”
Hall also was happy with the results of the experimental late starting date for the fall.
“I thought it was very successful and I think it’s something that we’ll consider down the road,” he said. “We accomplished a couple of things. I thought we got a chance to get our guys in shape, get in the weight room, guys that were on the shelf early were able to get back healthy and participate. So I think it gave us a better opportunity to get more guys playing this fall and have them in good shape. I think the biggest thing that we probably want to see is maybe how it works out in the spring.”