Georgia Tech counting on defense at NCAA regionals

If ESPN3 needs a hook for its online broadcast of Friday afternoon’s Georgia Tech-Washington matchup in the Oxford, Miss., NCAA regional, its search is over — the Yellow Jackets and Huskies are two of the better teams in the country at turning double plays.

Solid defense may not be much of a head turner, but it’s part of what will give the Yellow Jackets a chance in Oxford. In a departure, the Jackets’ offense has at times been lacking, but their play in the field has been the best in perhaps several years. After setting a single-season fielding percentage record last season, at .973, the Jackets have the same percentage this season.

“We always try to emphasize it, but I just think more than anything, it’s our personnel,” coach Danny Hall said.

Tech’s fielding percentage has actually been .980 in the past 44 games, and the Jackets didn’t commit an error in their five-game run to the ACC title. Tech also ranks first in the country in double plays with 73 (the Huskies are tied for sixth with 63) and is second in the country in outfield assists with 22.

To Hall, Tech’s defense began to improve when freshman Connor Justus took over at shortstop early in the season and Mott Hyde settled in at second base. They team with converted middle infielder Thomas Smith at first base and Brandon Gold at third, with Elliott Barzilli occasionally subbing.

It won’t be a surprise if the No. 3-seed Jackets have to scrape for runs against No. 2-seed Washington (No. 48 in the country in ERA at 3.23) or, if they meet, against top-seeded Ole Miss (No. 17 at 2.76). No. 4 seed Jacksonville State (188th at 4.61) has been a little more generous. Starting with the 4 p.m. matchup with the Huskies, Tech’s defensive prowess can help keep the Jackets in games.

The Jackets’ 2-0 win over Georgia on May 13 at Turner Field provided a notable example of the difference that superior defensive play can make. In the bottom of the sixth, left fielder Matt Gonzalez threw out Conor Welton at home plate for the third out to keep the score 0-0. After Tech took a 1-0 lead in the next half inning, Hyde went far to his left to field a ground ball and make the throw to first for the out. Center fielder Daniel Spingola made a diving catch for the second out. Right fielder Daniel Peurifoy threw out Georgia’s Skyler Weber at second as he tried to stretch a single for the third out.

At that point in the throes of a hitting slump, the Jackets scored their two runs on two wild pitches for the series-clinching win.

Tech’s 3.26 ERA is a run better than last season, and the pitchers deserve most of the credit. But playing in front of this defense has obviously played a factor.

“Those two things (pitching and defense) more than anything has gotten us into a good position,” Hall said.

Justus’ play, among other things, has allowed Gonzalez, previously a shortstop and third baseman, to make a home in the outfield. His nine outfield assists are fourth most in the country.

“He has two of the best hands I’ve seen on any infielder since I’ve been here,” Hyde said of Justus. “His arm’s pretty good, too, but he gets rid of the ball quickly and gets it to first base.”

To advance out of the regional as a No. 3 seed will be a tall task. In the past five NCAA tournaments, across 80 regionals, only eight have been won by third- or fourth-seeded teams. If Tech is to do it, undoubtedly the Jackets’ glove work will have to play a part.