Opening Weekend on the Flats has finally arrived! Get yourself ready for this weekend’s slate of games with a three-pack of previews for Tech’s opponents: Illinois-Chicago, Richmond, and WVU.
The Flames (seemingly the second time that Chicago has named a sports team after a natural disaster) finished 2018 with a strong 30-18 record and runners up in the Horizon League tournament, but missed out on a second consecutive NCAA Regional appearance with a RPI ranking in the 200s. As Ethan mentioned earlier this month, Tech faced UIC early last March, with the Flames avoiding the sweep with a 12-5 win in the finale.
The Flames bring back the vast majority of their roster from last season, including a solid pitching corps hailed by the NCAA as “the best pitching staff you may not know about”. Flames junior RHP Jacob Key, Friday’s probable starter, had a breakout sophomore season, hurling 72 strikeouts in 74.0 IP (leading the UIC staff and ranked sixth in the Horizon League), posting a 3.77 ERA with a 8.76 K/9, and collecting a second-team all-conference selection for his efforts. Typically-shutdown closer Alex Padilla, named a 2018 preseason all-American by the NCBWA, had spots of trouble last season, with his ERA spiking to 4.56. However, he more than made up for it with his ridiculous 11.92 K/9. The Jackets will have to watch out for Padilla late in Friday’s game in case he comes out of the bullpen fiery hot.
The Flames’ position players also posted big numbers in 2018 — outfielder Scott Ota slashed .283/.351/.481 and led UIC with 53 hits, fellow outfielder Dominic Smith placed top 10 in the Horizon League in HR and RBIs, and infielders Alex Dee, Matt Bottcher, and Ryan Lin-Peistrup all provided ample firepower to a Flames lineup that lit up the Horizon League in 2017 en route to an NCAA Regional appearance.
This will be a good tuneup for the Jackets as they get back into the thick of competitive baseball for the first time in 8 months. Ethan figured this one would be won on the back of Tech’s usual opening-day starter Xzavion Curry, and I have to agree - if Curry comes out strong, he should be able to keep the Flames’ hot bats at bay (ok, I’ll stop with the fire puns now).
UIC: Jacob Key (Jr - 0-0)
Georgia Tech: Xzavion Curry (Jr - 0-0)
The Spiders (what a name) finished a respectable 32-24 in 2018, good enough for a RPI ranking of 117 and a 4th-place finish in the Atlantic 10. Along with posting a 15-9 conference record, Richmond also stole wins from ACC foe Virginia and former ACC foe Maryland. Suffice to say, this is a pretty strong Richmond team.
However, the loss of power-hitting shortstop Vinny Capra to the pros is a huge blow to the Spiders’ offense — Capra slashed .327/.435/.485 with 66 hits, 41 RBI, and 5 HRs in a very Joey Bart-esque 2018 at the dish. Someone in Richmond’s lineup is going to have to step up in 2019 because no one came close to touching Capra’s numbers in 2018 and a bat of his power is going to be sorely needed if the Spiders have postseason aspirations in 2019. To make matters worse, Daniel Brumbaugh and Kyle Adams, two more of Richmond’s top five batters (in terms of at-bats), have also graduated.
And as if to add insult to injury, the Spiders also lost reliable starting pitcher Robbie Baker to the draft — Baker posted a lights-out final season for Richmond, going 9-2 in 15 starts (with three complete games and one shutout) with a 2.55 ERA, 78 strikeouts, and a K/BB of 3.39 over 84.2 innings pitched. Just take a moment to read that stat line over one more time. That is an incredible amount of solid pitching that the Spiders will be missing in 2019.
But the Spiders do have shutdown senior closer Layne Looney (again, what a name), who posted a ridiculous 0.60 ERA and 15.30 K/9 in 30.0 IP over 23 games. Numbers don’t always tell the whole story, but I’m willing to bet that if Looney enters a game, he’s gonna wrap it up in short order.
Infielders DJ Lee and Sage Bruhl (the final two of Richmond’s top five batters from 2018) also return for 2019, bringing some solid hitting to a lineup that sorely needs it. Overall, It’ll be an interesting rebuilding year for manager Tracy Woodson and his Spiders, who were picked to finish 6th in the A-10.
This will be another good bout for the Jackets; Tech’s probable starter Cort Roedig should have a field day with a relatively-weak Spiders lineup. But if the game’s close in the ninth, be wary of Looney out of the pen — he could make things interesting.
Richmond: Lowell Schipper (Jr - 0-0)
Georgia Tech: Cort Roedig (Fr - 0-0)
The Mountaineers finished a disappointing 29-27 in 2018 — their dreams of another NCAA Regional berth plagued by a 9-15 record and a 7th place finish in a hotly-competitive Big XII that featured three teams that finished in the Collegiate Baseball Top 25. However, along with their run to the Big XII tournament semifinals, WVU did finish 52nd in RPI, which given the tough schedule they played and the competitiveness of their conference, means that the boys from Morgantown were a much, much better squad than they looked like in 2018.
The Smoking Musket, SBNation’s West Virginia blog, notes the loss of three major contributors from 2018’s squad — 2B Kyle Gray, INF Jimmy Galusky and RHP BJ Myers — plus the veteran leadership of RHP Michael Grove, who was sidelined for the entire year with an elbow injury. The loss of Gray and Galusky creates a massive hole in the Mountaineers’ lineup; Gray slashed a ridiculous .374/.462/.677, producing 74 hits, 14 HR, and 38 RBI, while Galusky complemented him with a comparatively-pedestrian .253/.332/.412 slash-line, 49 hits, seven HR, and 30 RBI. Myers was an integral part of the WVU rotation, posting a 2-2 record in 19 total appearances (14 of them starts) and 77.1 IP, a 4.19 ERA, and a solid 6.87 K/9. If the Mountaineers want to claw their way back into the tournament, coach Randy Mazey is going to have to find a way to replace all of this production and improve on what he already has.
Junior starting pitcher Alek Manoah looks like the Mountaineers’ immediate replacement for Myers, and, with all due respect to Myers, he might be a solid improvement in the WVU rotation. After a meh 2018, Manoah was a revelation for the Chatham Anglers, his summer ball team; en route to being named to the Golden Spikes Award Watch List and Baseball America’s preseason all-American second team, he was a monster on the mound, handing a league-high 48 batters their marching orders over just 33.1 innings pitched.
Outfielders Darius Hill and Brandon White, along with 3B Ivan Gonzalez, will be expected to pick up where Gray and Galusky left off in 2018, and the good news for the Mountaineers is that all three hit very well in 2018 — especially Hill, who slashed .329/.362/.479 with 79 hits, 4 HR, and 36 RBI.
This game is going to be Tech’s first real test of the season. These two programs are at similar places in their respective conferences: mid-tier, but with enough talent to break out, give perennially-good teams some trouble, and make a run at the NCAA tournament. If Tech can get past WVU, that win will go a long way in defining the season the Jackets are poised to have and the team they will become over its course. Ethan predicted a close loss in a barnburner, but I think Connor Thomas has the skill and control to hold off the powerful bats of Hill, White, and Gonzalez and finish the Atlanta Challenge 3-0.
West Virginia: Kade Strowd (Jr - 0-0)
Georgia Tech: Connor Thomas (Jr - 0-0)
Ready for Opening Weekend? Excited about the season? Tell us what you think is gonna happen this weekend in the comments below!
2/15/19 9:43am: This article was edited to reflect the probable pitchers as published by Georgia Tech Athletics.