As Georgia Tech’s baseball team labored through workouts leading up to the start of preseason practice, coach Danny Hall had a plan for each day that he presented to Yellow Jackets players.
“Well, the plan for the day just happened to have a picture of Steven Williams with his helmet off, getting ready to hit home plate,” Hall said.
For Tech fans unscarred by the memory, Steven Williams would be the Auburn outfielder whose two-out, two-strike, three-run home run gave the Tigers a walk-off victory over Tech in an NCAA regional last year, a crushing loss that helped usher the Jackets' unexpectedly successful season to an end.
The Jackets began practice on a wintry Jan. 24 afternoon, but Hall hopes that the bitter conclusion to the 2019 season will at least have some value in propelling his team forward. Linchpin shortstop Luke Waddell hates looking at the picture, but draws inspiration from it. Mostly, he wants to again experience the thrill of the NCAA tournament, particularly having an NCAA regional in his own stadium, but also remembers the work it took to get there.
“We won, like, nine (ACC) series in a row,” Waddell said. “That’s tough to do. It’s not just an easy walk in the park. You try to beat on the guys, ‘Hey, man, we’ve got to work for this. It’s not just going to come easy again.’ ”
While the final chapter was unpleasant, the 2019 season was a stunning surprise. Picked to finish fifth in the Coastal Division, Tech won the division for the first time since 2011; finished 43-19; earned the No. 3 national seed in the NCAA tournament; and put six players on the All-ACC team as Hall was named ACC coach of the year for the fourth time.
This season, preseason expectations are considerably higher. Tech is ranked in the preseason top 25 of at least three polls. Given what the Jackets have lost, however, there are plenty of questions about whether the Jackets can meet them.
Four of the six All-ACC players — pitchers Connor Thomas and Xzavion Curry, catcher Kyle McCann and two-way player Tristin English — are now playing professionally. Additionally, two more key pegs also are gone — midweek starter Amos Willingham (pro ball), and superb center fielder Nick Wilhite (left team to concentrate on school) — and weekend starter Brant Hurter will miss most of the season recovering from Tommy John surgery.
Tech tied for 31st nationally last season with 69 home runs, but 48 of them were produced by players no longer on the roster. Right fielder Baron Radcliff, a breakout player last season as a sophomore with 12 home runs, will bear weight to provide power.
Hall is hopeful in power contributions from members of the freshman class and growth from returnees like Waddell and outfielder Colin Hall, but acknowledged that “we may have to manufacture (runs) more than we have, or we did last year.”
Including Hurter, 70.2 % of the innings pitched last season will have to be replaced. Hall is counting on Jonathan Hughes and Cort Roedig to start. Andy Archer, who had a 3.64 ERA in 47 innings in 2018 but missed last season rehabilitating shoulder and elbow injuries, is eager to test himself. Archer said that he threw his fastball 90-92 miles per hour before surgery, sometimes 93, but now he’s hitting 92-94. He now weighs 230 pounds, up from 200 pre-surgery.
“So a big difference is I have a Cook Out right next to my apartment,” Archer said. “I don’t know how much I’ve kept them in business — maybe more so than others — but I’m bigger, stronger, I feel healthy and I think the velocity is a product of that.”
Hall puts hope in having three-fourths of a quality infield back (third baseman Jackson Webb, second baseman Austin Wilhite and Waddell) and the infusion of a 19-member freshman class that has been ranked as high as No. 4 nationally.
Switch-hitting Drew Compton impressed Hall in the fall with his power. Outfielder Tres Gonzalez was a 37th-round draft pick of the Dodgers. Pitcher Zach Maxwell (6-foot-6, 245 pounds), a 30th-round pick of the Yankees, has had his fastball measured as high as 98 miles per hour.
Hall said that he “has a better arm than anybody we’ve had here in a long time.”
The hire of pitching coach Danny Borrell, whom Hall hired away from his position as the minor-league pitching coordinator for the Yankees, could prove as significant an addition as any.
“I think he’s done a tremendous job with development,” Hall said. “I think guys are way better than they were in the fall, and we have more choices on the mound than we’ve had.”
Given the mix of inexperience and potential, it’s a group that could well be significantly better in May than in February, when the Jackets open at home against Saint Peter’s on Valentine’s Day.
“You’re happy that you were in the mix,” Hall said of 2019. “You were the No. 3 national seed, we do feel like it gives us a lot of momentum going into this year. But this will be a totally different journey that these guys are getting ready to go on.”