Danny Hall gives season preview

The Georgia Tech baseball team began preseason practice last Friday. Coach Danny Hall, beginning his 20th season at Tech, spoke that day about where the team stands after fall practice and heads into its defense of the ACC championship.

1. Hall sounded confident about the state of the pitching staff, despite the fact that expected starter Matt Grimes suffered a season-ending elbow injury in fall practice.

He spoke well of changes made by new pitching coach Jason Howell, hired last summer after the dismissal of Tom Kinkelaar.

“I think the biggest area that we needed to attack is just having a more complete pitching staff,” Hall said. “I think that we have that. We’re going to find out when we start playing, but I’ve seen a lot of things implemented to make that better.”

2. The Jackets will have the bulk of the pitching staff back, headed by All-ACC pick Buck Farmer (8-4, 3.54 ERA). Of the team’s 64 starts last season, returning pitchers started 51 of them.

Farmer stands to be the Friday starter. Were the season starting now, Farmer would be followed by Dusty Isaacs (6-4, 6.55) and Cole Pitts (6-4, 4.50) on the weekend. Josh Heddinger (3-4, 6.39) and Jonathan Roberts (16 appearances, 7.89) are also in the picture. Roberts “probably had the best fall of everybody,” Hall said.

Said third baseman Sam Dove of Roberts, “He’s one of those guys that, even the experienced guys, we still haven’t quite dialed in on him, at least I haven’t. He kind of always keeps you off balance a little bit.”

Sam Clay and Jonathan King are two freshmen who could also challenge for starts.

Pitcher/infielder Alex Cruz (8-3, 1.83), a revelation as a long reliever last season after a torrent of injuries forced him to the mound, will likely stay in relief. Hall said he’s considering giving catcher/pitcher Zane Evans (.295, 3.68, 7 saves) more opportunities to close, which could mean fewer innings behind the plate.

3. Hall has decisions to make as he puts together his lineup. Outfielders Brandon Thomas (.360, .481 OBP) , Kyle Wren (.256, 16 stolen bases)  and Daniel Palka (12 home runs, .550 slugging), all starters for the past two seasons, will play. So will infielders Dove (.340), Mott Hyde (.266) and, most likely, freshman Matt Gonzalez, who could play either shortstop or third base. If Hyde stays at shortstop, where he played the majority of last season, then Gonzalez probably would go to third and Dove would likely end up in the outfield and Palka might either DH or play first. A.J. Murray, a sophomore who came to Tech as a catcher but played little as a freshman, impressed in the fall and could end up at first also.

Hall is also mentioned Daniel Spingola (.349) and freshman Dylan Dore as other possibilities in the outfield.

The surplus of outfielders “is a good problem to have,” Hall said. “If there’s a place where we’re thin, it’s the infield. I worry a little bit about that.”

4. Gonzalez is probably the most highly-touted freshman. The Harrison High grad was drafted in the 11th round last June by Oakland.

“He’s an aggressive hitter,” Dove said. “He’s a guy that, in BP, he’ll get his money’s worth. He’s not up there finessing the ball, which is exciting. If he connects on one, you’ll know.”

5. Hall: “We’re an older team and a lot of times, older teams just have a way of overcoming a lot. They’re much more battle-tested and so hopefully we can compete better, but if I wanted to look at last year and us trying to compete against who we had to compete against with the pitching staff we had, you’re not going to compete at a high level with what we had. It’s nothing against the pitchers we had, nothing against our pitching coach. It was just we didn’t have enough depth to certainly overcome injuries. I think we’re in a better position to handle what we’re getting ready to try and take on.  It’s a long season and you need a lot of pitchers to contribute to do well.”

6. Dove: “I feel like, fourth year here, we’ve kind of seen every team that you could. My freshman year, we were stacked both sides of the ball. Sophomore year, we were real young, had a good pitching staff and ended up doing well and then last year, we went through a bunch of injuries and ended up winning the ACC tournament, which we didn’t even do well at all in in the first two years when we really had a better team. This year, we’re just excited. We feel like we’ve got a lot of depth on the offensive side of the ball and just excited to see where all the pitchers fall and excited to get going.”

7. Tech’s preseason rankings: No. 12 (Perfect Game), No. 16 (Baseball America), No. 17 (Collegiate Baseball), No. 21 (USA Today).

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