Bulldogs ‘fightin’ for their lives’ in SEC tournament

Credit: John Kelley / UGA Sports

Credit: John Kelley / UGA Sports

There is a crude drawing on 8-by-11 paper tacked up in the dugout and on every bulletin board in Georgia’s baseball complex. It depicts a shore bird with a frog half-swallowed in its beak. Only by closer inspection can one see that the frog has its hands wrapped around the bird’s neck.

Above the scene is a hand-scrawled message: “Fightin’ for our lives.”

It’s a spot-on portrayal of Georgia’s situation as it enters postseason play this week. The Bulldogs are alive and still playing, but their season is ever so close to being swallowed whole.

Georgia (26-28-1, 11-18-1 SEC) qualified for the SEC tournament after a one-year absence, but just barely. They secured the 12th and final position on the merits of an 11-10 win over Kentucky on Saturday after they were shut out in the first two games and nearly blew an eight-run lead late in the third. They edged Auburn for the last spot by a 1 1/2 games.

“Coach (Charley) Whittemore gave that to us right before the South Carolina series,” first-year coach Scott Stricklin said of the drawing. “It’s pretty fitting when you look at it. I got a good chuckle out of it. So it’s hanging on every bulletin board and it goes with us on the road.”

The drawing will be with the Bulldogs on Tuesday when they take on No. 5 seed and 22nd-ranked Mississippi State (35-20, 18-12 SEC) at 8 p.m. (or 30 minutes after a 5:30 p.m. game is completed). The first round features single-elimination play-in games, with the winners advancing into the double-elimination tournament. No. 6-ranked South Carolina (42-14) awaits the victor.

For the Bulldogs, it’s all about perspective. The team is happy about returning to the postseason and is excited about the future.

“The next step was to make the SEC tournament,” junior outfielder Conor Welton said. “Whether we make a (NCAA) regional or go further than that is in the air. But the first step was making the SEC tournament and we did that and that’s a big deal after not being in contention for it last year.”

Georgia missed the conference tournament after going 21-32 (7-20) last season. That resulted in the dismissal of 12-year head coach David Perno. The improvement has been slight, winning five more games overall and four more SEC games with three additional opportunities.

But there has been much to overcome. The Bulldogs played more games against top 25 teams (29) than any other SEC team, going 9-19-1 in those contests. There have also been injury issues, with Sean McLaughlin unable to pitch due to an arm injury, power hitter/pitcher Jared Walsh missing most of the season with a back problem and Hunter Cole sitting out a late-season stretch with a rib issue.

Starting pitching has been strong. Freshman Robert Tyler and sophomores Ryan Lawlor and David Sosebee combined for a 3.34 ERA. But the Bulldogs desperately need some pop at the plate. They hit only 13 home runs all year and were shutout in three straight games before finally busting loose for 17 hits and 11 runs on Saturday.

“Hopefully will get some offensive momentum going,” junior shortstop Nelson Ward said. “Our pitching has been great all year. They got bumped around a little this weekend, but we know how great they are. We have a lot of energy going into the tournament.”

Said Strickland: “I think we’ve made progress. Not as much as I’d like or other people would like, but we’ve made a positive step. And that’s what this is going to be about, continuing to improve year after year until we can get ourselves to winning on a consistent basis.”