Jonathan Hughes came to Georgia Tech in 2015 with stratospheric expectations in his wake. Presumably, few of those expectations had to do with him coming on in relief to pitch in an ACC tournament semifinal game 3 ½ years later.
Hughes, from Flowery Branch, enrolled at Tech after having been drafted in the second round by the Baltimore Orioles. He was the highest draft pick to spurn pro ball and come to Tech in more than a decade. But he suffered an arm injury early on in his freshman season – the possibility of a damaged arm had a lot to do with him not signing with the Orioles – and he underwent season-ending surgery. He has been working to regain his form ever since with varying degrees of success.
As such, rather than May 2019 finding him in his second season of minor-league ball after leaving Tech as a high draft pick last June, as might have been forecast for him back in 2015, Hughes was instead suited up for the Yellow Jackets. Saturday night at Durham Bulls Athletic Park, he came into Tech’s semifinal game against N.C. State as a reliever.
A redshirt junior, Hughes came through with a career-defining performance to help the Jackets secure a 9-2 win over N.C. State and propel them into Sunday’s championship game against North Carolina.
Coming in on relief of starter and classmate Keyton Gibson with two on and two out in the fourth, Hughes got the final out of the inning and didn’t stop until coach Danny Hall finally lifted him with two outs in the ninth. Hughes gave up just one run – in the ninth, when the game was well out of reach – and repeatedly made winning pitches against the Wolfpack.
“I still can’t put a word on it,” Hughes told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “I mean, Keyton started, did a great job, and us being seniors, it’s just like we wanted to win this game, and every inning, it was just like, alright, finish the next one, finish the next one, finish the next one.”
There was no certainty of how Hughes might do when he entered the game in the fourth with the game tied at 1. He had been effective enough this season to have a 7-2 record in 23 appearances, but he had also allowed opponents to hit .322 and had walked 20 batters in 44 1/3 innings. In Tech’s first game of the tournament, Notre Dame banged him for three hits and four runs in just a third of an inning.
“It’s tough to come back, of course, but I think after that happened, it’s just, Hey, it’s another day,” Hughes said. “Baseball’s baseball. You can’t live what happened.”
Saturday, Hughes powered through an N.C. State lineup that entered the game leading the ACC in doubles and was third in scoring. He put down the Wolfpack in order in the fifth. He stranded one in the sixth. Another 1-2-3 inning in the seventh.
He finally ran into trouble in the eighth, when the Wolfpack’s 3-4-5 hitters were due up. He gave up a double to Evan Edwards and then walked Brad Debo to put two on with two out. That brought the tying run to the plate, No. 7 hitter Lawson McArthur.
Hughes said he heard N.C. State fans yelling “Bullpen!” at him, suggesting it was time for him to be replaced.
“That doesn’t do anything but fire me up,” he said. “Hearing that, I really said, ‘Dig in, finish the game, finish this inning, and just focus up.’ The biggest thing for me was to focus.”
Focused, he struck out McArthur on four pitches to end the threat. Tech broke the game open in the bottom of the eighth, scoring five to raise the lead to 9-1. Hughes went back out for the ninth, getting the first two outs before a walk and a double scored a run and brought Hall out of the dugout to call on Jake Lee (another classmate of Hughes’) to finish the game.
All told, Hughes went five innings, tying his season long, threw 72 pitches (47 for strikes) and gave up two hits and three walks against four strikeouts. Hughes earned a well-deserved win and, by going five innings, kept the rest of the bullpen fresh for Sunday’s final. In front of a raucous Wolfpack crowd, on a night when his teammates absolutely needed him, Hughes did the job.
“You just have to sit back and go, ‘Wow,’” Hughes said. “I’m extremely blessed to be able to go out there and throw.”
The 2019 season has been a thrilling ride for the Jackets, but perhaps especially so for Hughes and his classmates, who arrived at Tech ranked as the No. 4 recruiting class in the country. While catcher Joey Bart was an undisputed star, getting selected No. 2 overall in the draft, the class overall had not delivered on its promise in the win column until this season. For various reasons, the Jackets fell short of the NCAA tournament in 2017 and 2018 and came into the conference tournament having lost seven games in a row over the previous three seasons.
“You kind of heard Tristin English talk about it (Friday) night, that our seniors had never won a game in their career in the ACC baseball tournament,” Hall said. “And so as a group, I think they’re very focused on trying to win as many as we can here.”
That would include Hughes.
“It’s been a long time running,” he said. “Four years has been a long time and, like you said, the senior class hasn’t won a game here at all. (Not entirely true – the Jackets won a play-in game in 2016) And every time we go back disappointed, but I think this group of guys has really come together and worked hard and we all want to end it here.”
It’s not clear what the future holds for Hughes. While his numbers don’t sparkle, he can still hit 96 miles per hour, which means a team may well spend a draft pick on him in the June draft.
“God has a plan,” Hughes said. “Everything with that, I trusted with the ups and the downs. You can’t get too down on the downs and you can’t get too up on the ups. You’ve just got to stay on that path. That’s what I’m trying to do.”
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