Georgia Tech will have to replace the premier catcher in college baseball, is counting on a pitching staff that was inconsistent last season and is coming off a season in which it missed the NCAA tournament for the second season in a row.
Coach Danny Hall, whose team opens the season Friday against Illinois-Chicago, sees a team that can meet its challenges regardless.
“Our thing right now is we want to be the best team in our state, we want to be one of the best teams in the ACC and we want to host regionals,” said Hall, at the start of his 26th season with the Yellow Jackets. “So that’s kind of what we’re shooting for. I think we’re in position definitely to do that.”
Tech does have a preseason All-American and two-way player in Tristin English. Hall has experience and depth on a pitching staff that figures to be better than last season. And his lineup, while it did lose catcher Joey Bart (taken second overall in the draft), lost only one other regular starter from last year’s team. The bulk of the offense that finished second in the ACC in batting average returns.
“We definitely have a chip on our shoulder,” said English, a two-time first-team All-ACC selection going into his junior season. “We had our first losing season (since 1981) two years ago. We didn’t make an regional (in the NCAA tournament). That’s back-to-back years, and we know we’re better than that.”
Hall expects more consistency from his pitching staff. His top two starters, Xzavion Curry (.224 opponent batting average last season) and Connor Thomas (first-team All-ACC, 10 walks allowed in 97 innings pitched), were both durable and combined to pitch 37 percent of the Jackets’ innings last season. While Tech has lost top reliever Andy Archer for this season after elbow-ligament surgery, 10 of the 12 Jackets with the most innings pitched on last year’s team are back.
“I think (pitching) was better last year, but still not great,” Hall said. “I think we’re in much better shape now than we have been in the last five, six years, in terms of depth. And not only depth, but talent.”
Said catcher Kyle McCann, “Our bullpen this year compared to last year is night and day.”
That includes junior Jonathan Hughes, whose career has been an odyssey. He came to Tech after he was drafted in the second round by Baltimore, suffered a season-ending injury as a freshman and struggled to regain his form in his redshirt freshman and sophomore seasons. Hall reported, though, that Hughes’ fastball was up to 94 mph. He could be a significant piece of the bullpen puzzle.
“He’s kind of finally back where he was,” Hall said.
While losing Bart – who hit .359 with 16 home runs and was the ACC’s player of the year – will hurt, the lineup has some pop. Bart’s replacement behind the plate, McCann, actually had a higher rate of home runs per at-bat than Bart did. Outfielder Chase Murray hit .343 with an on-base percentage of .410. Utility player Michael Guldberg hit.368, but missed much of the season with a shoulder injury.
“We’re pretty enthusiastic about it,” English said. “This is kind of the most energy I’ve seen out of a team since I’ve been here going into the season.”
Hall’s optimism about his pitching staff is no small development. In recent years, Tech’s issue rarely has been scoring runs. The Jackets ranked 28th last year nationally in slugging percentage, for instance. The problem has been pitching, as the Jackets have in various season been hit by injuries, lacked depth in the rotation or were unstable in the bullpen.
Curry and Thomas give Tech a solid 1-2 punch to start weekend series, and Hall likes freshman Cort Roedig. Brant Hurter, junior-college transfer Amos Willingham and English are all possibilities.
There will be tests throughout. UCLA, ranked No. 4 in the National Collegiate Baseball Writers Association’s preseason poll, will be at Russ Chandler Stadium for a three-game series Feb. 22-24. There are league series against No. 7 North Carolina, No. 9 Louisville, No. 17 Clemson and No. 25 Duke. There’s two midweek games with No. 19 Auburn and the annual series with No. 12 Georgia, which has won six in a row over its archrival.
“If we lose to them one more time, I’m going to freak out,” said McCann, presumably echoing the sentiments of Tech fans. “That’s what I think about that.”
Tech’s struggles against its archrival are another indicator of the growing distance to the Jackets’ days as a national powerhouse. In Hall’s first 18 seasons, the Jackets had a winning record in ACC play every year but one. In the seven years since, the Jackets have had a losing ACC record in every year but one. Hall led the Jackets to 19 NCAA tournament berths in his first 21 seasons, but one in the past four.
A number that indicates the Jackets may be coming back: By the ranking of D1Baseball, a college baseball website, Tech has seven of the top 350 college prospects, which is tied for second most in the country.
“We know we have the talent,” English said. “It’s all about showing it on the field, kind of loosening it up. I think that our preparation coming into this season has been better than it has in the past, so we’re not worried about, are we good enough? We know we’re good enough.”
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