Ed. Note: One of our own community members has agreed to help out with our baseball coverage! A huge thanks and welcome to the staff to Bill Brockman, otherwise known around here as user chb2c!
I appreciate the opportunity offered to me to write on Georgia Tech baseball (or "Beesball" as it’s fondly known). Briefly, I am a long ago alumnus of The Institute who became a serious fan of Beesball about 15 years ago – "The Glory Years" – when the Jackets went to the College World Series in 2002 and 2006 and seemed to automatically host a Regional every year. I foolishly imagined that was the natural state of things, and while the decade since has been consistently good with many memorable players, greatness has eluded the team. We haven’t advanced beyond a Regional since 2006 and failed to make the NCAA Tournament at all in 2015. This year promises better, but the Jackets entered this week facing a grueling stretch of 5 games in three cities that could make or break the season.
Following a depressing series loss at home against a very beatable Duke, the Jackets had a somewhat rare two midweek games – a visit to Mercer on Tuesday and at home against Kennesaw on Wednesday. I attended the KSU game; more on that later. My account of the Mercer game is from the excellent WREK coverage by Wiley Ballard.
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The Mercer game marked the halfway point of Tech's 56-game regular season. With 40 wins being a rough bookmark for hosting a Regional, the 20-7 Yellow Jackets looked to stay slightly ahead of that pace. Mercer is a power-hitting team that also has struggled recently, losing their most recent weekend series to Samford. The Bears spotted the Yellow Jackets to 5 runs on only 2 hits in the top of the first, with Freshman catcher Joey Bart providing a 3-run double after Mercer loaded the bases on walks. Wade Bailey added a solo homer in the 4th inning, but the Bears answered with multiple long balls and by the time starter Cole Pitts completed his season-long six innings, the Jackets' lead had been cut to 6-5. Reliever Micah Carpenter kept it that way until the bottom of the 9th, when closer Matthew Gorst gave up a leadoff double and saw the runner move to 3rd on a groundout. Fortunately, Gorst struck out the final two batters to give the Jackets the big win, earning his 7th save and moving Tech to 5-0 vs in-state teams for the 2016 season. Particularly heartening was the improvement in the pitching, which had given up 24 runs to Duke in two games just days before. It was mainly due to the Bears’ HR-friendly park that 5 runs were surrendered Tuesday.
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Kennesaw State made the short trip to Atlanta to finish their 2016 home-and-home against the Jackets on Wednesday night. Though he normally pitches out of the bullpen, Ben Parr got the start against the 11-18 Owls, whom the Jackets had beaten 13-2 two weeks earlier in Kennesaw. The Jackets still were missing Matt Gonzalez after his hard collision last Friday, giving Keenan Innis the start in left field for Danny Hall's 25th different starting lineup of the season in only 29 games. The Owls went with right-hander Tony Dibrell out of Alpharetta for their starter. Kel Johnson welcomed him rudely and started a new hitting streak with a HR shot off the batter’s eye in dead center, scoring Connor Justus and himself for a quick 2-0 lead. (Johnson's previous 22-game streak had ended at Mercer the night before.) KSU answered with one run in the 2nd, scoring on a balk after a lead off double. The Jackets threatened in the 3rd, but Kel Johnson was thrown out at the plate after a not-deep-enough fly out to right by Brandt Stallings. The Owls tied the game at 2 in the 6th inning on a one-out triple and a groundout RBI. The tie was short-lived, though, as Johnson got another chance to score from 3rd on Arden Pabst’s deep fly in the bottom of the 6th – this time succeeding. Johnson had reached on an error before advancing on Brandt Stallings’ single. Stallings then stole 2nd and scored easily on Ryan Peurifoy’s double to right. After 6 innings it was 4-2 Jackets.
After six strong innings, Parr was relieved in the 7th by Freshman righty Burton Dulaney, who worked two strong innings. KSU also went to the ‘pen in the 7th and again in the 8th, with both pitching scoreless innings. Dulaney was helped in the 8th by the Jackets' nation-leading 43rd double play, when SS Connor Justus converted a line out and threw to first before a runner was able to tag. The Jackets brought in Zac Ryan, who had a very ineffective start on Saturday, for the 9th. Ryan had pitched an good inning against the Owls in Kennesaw two weeks ago and did so again on Wednesday, earning his first save of 2016 on 3 fly ball outs. So, in a game that lasted barely over two hours, the Yellow Jackets improved to 22-7 overall and 6-0 against teams from Georgia to kick off the second half of its season. The effective six innings by Ben Parr was a big lift for the pitching staff, especially after the six strong from Cole Pitts Tuesday.
Scoreless relief by four different pitchers in the two games kept the bullpen fresh for this weekend's ACC matchup against Pittsburgh. Matt Gonzalez will reportedly be able to play this weekend and should provide a big boost back to the Georgia Tech lineup. Hopefully the weather in Pittsburgh will be better than 2014, when a forecast of snow forced a 9 AM start for the Sunday game and the Jackets suffered a sweep. The current forecast is not promising for getting all three games in.