In a game that meant nothing in the framework of the ACC tournament but perhaps something in seeding for the NCAA tournament, Georgia Tech took care of business.
In their first game at the conference tournament, the Yellow Jackets handled Notre Dame 12-6 on an overcast Wednesday afternoon at Durham Bulls Athletic Park. No. 2 seed Tech wrung five runs out of the No. 11 seed Irish in the fourth inning to break open a 1-1 game.
In Tech’s last two regular-season games, the Jackets had not had an inning in which it scored more than a single run.
“So offensively, it’s just kind of like, take a breath, kind of a sigh of relief,” said third baseman Jackson Webb, who delivered a two-run double in the inning. “O.K., we’re back, we’re rolling.”
Tech will play No. 7 seed Duke on Friday, with the winner taking the three-team pool and a spot in Saturday’s semifinal. Wednesday’s game did not matter in the outcome of the tournament after the Irish lost to Duke on Tuesday night. In the tournament format, if all three teams finish at 1-1 in a pool, the highest-seeded team advances, which in this case would be Tech.
As a result, after the Notre Dame loss on Tuesday, Tech could have lost to the Irish Wednesday and still advanced to the semifinals as long as the Jackets beat Duke on Friday. All-ACC pitcher Connor Thomas will be the starter against the Blue Devils.
Still, coach Danny Hall approached it as a must win. He had closer Tristin English ready to go until the Jackets added two runs in the eighth and another in the top of the ninth.
“We wanted to win this game,” Hall said. “We feel like we need to win every game we’re playing right now.”
Tech improved to 39-16 as it continues its pursuit of a top-eight national seed in the NCAA tournament, a distinction that would enable the Jackets to be at home for the regional round and, should they advance, the super-regional round. Notre Dame’s season ended at 24-30.
Tech subdued the Irish, whose Tuesday night game did not end until 1 a.m. Wednesday, by draining starter Tommy Sheehan’s fuel tank. Sheehan threw 66 pitches in the first three innings and then Baron Radcliff and Colin Hall squeezed another 15 out of him in drawing back-to-back walks to open the inning.
“I just felt like he was starting to get underneath the ball and just felt like he looked a little bit tired,” Notre Dame coach Mik Aoki said. “His velocities started to come down.”
Tech’s Austin Wilhite followed with a well-placed bunt to load the bases and then Webb dropped a double down the right-field line to score two for a 3-1 lead to chase Sheehan and get into the Notre Dame bullpen.
Nick Wilhite’s groundout to third, Luke Waddell’s flyout to left and Kyle McCann’s one-handed double off the left-field wall scored three more for a 6-1 lead.
Tech’s patience at the plate has been a strength this season, a strategy designed to wear out starters and exploit opponents’ bullpens. Hall, son of the coach, is an expert practitioner. He faced 17 pitches in his first two at-bats, fouling off nine balls.
“Having him in front of you, he always works deep into at-bats and you get to see a pitcher’s stuff, see what he likes to go with in certain counts,” Webb said. “And especially if there’s a righty (Hall is a left-handed hitter and Webb is a switch hitter), I’m going to see how he approaches a left-handed hitter, so that’s big having him up there.”
For Tech, starter Amos Willingham gave the Jackets six innings to earn the win and improve to 7-2. He limited the Irish to two runs (both earned) on six hits. He struck out four and walked none. It was a useful start for Willingham, who had struggled in recent starts in place of the injured Xzavion Curry, and also limited Hall’s need to use the bullpen. Willingham figures to be a starter in regional play next weekend.
“Probably my biggest thing that’s hurt me this year has been walks and free bases, and so I just went into (Wednesday) with the mentality that I wasn’t going to allow walks to beat me, and if I was going to get beat, it was going to be by them and not by myself,” Willingham said.
Tech ran into trouble after Willingham departed, as the Irish scored four times in the bottom of the seventh to close to 9-6. Notre Dame had the bases loaded with one out before reliever Keyton Gibson came in the game to douse the threat with a strikeout and flyout. Gibson stayed in for the final two innings and did not give up a hit or walk.
“Give Keyton Gibson credit,” Danny Hall said. “He kind of bailed us out in a tough spot against (Eric) Gilgenbach, who’s one of their home-run guys.”