Georgia Tech leans on makeshift staff in NCAAs

Cole Pitts had modest goals for his first season at Georgia Tech. He wanted to pitch some innings of relief and show his potential as a starter in seasons to come.

The proper verb for what Pitts has done to his goals might be “obliterate.” When the Yellow Jackets begin NCAA regional play Friday in Gainesville, Fla., Pitts will take the mound as Tech’s starter against College of Charleston.

“I’m here because a couple of guys, they’ve been hurt,” Pitts said. “I’ve just been blessed with getting a spot, but just trying to soak it in.”

Pitts, who has a 2.91 ERA in his past four starts, exemplifies the transformation and patch-up job that have lifted the Jackets into their 26th NCAA berth in 28 years, and perhaps their most unlikely. With a pitching staff that has been carved up by injury, the Jackets shuffled and scrapped their way to their first ACC title since 2005 last weekend and now face the task of trying to upset national top-seed Florida in its own regional.

“It seems like we’ve been the one getting hunted the last few years,” coach Danny Hall said. “This year, maybe we’ve been a little bit more of the hunter.”

Losing the No. 2 starter (Matthew Grimes), a top-notch closer (Luke Bard) and two more valuable relievers (Devin Stanton and DeAndre Smelter) to season-ending injuries, not to mention lesser injuries to other pitchers, has a way of turning prey into predator. Voted as high as ninth in preseason polls, the Jackets wobbled through much of the regular season, rendering ACC and NCAA berths questionable. They lost series to Boston College and Wake Forest for the first time since 2006 and 2002, respectively.

Hall and pitching coach Tom Kinkelaar resorted to trying out field-position players and rushing freshmen like Pitts into the rotation.

“This has probably been the hardest year for me as a pitching coach in all my years of coaching with all the injuries that we’ve had,” Kinkelaar said.

With ACC and NCAA tournament berths still in doubt on the final day of the regular season, Pitts secured Tech’s ACC tournament berth on the final day of the season in a 2-1 win over Miami. The Jackets then rolled to the ACC title to secure an NCAA invite behind revived hitting and sharp pitching.

In Tech’s 34 innings in Greensboro, N.C. — the win over Virginia was shortened to seven innings because of the 10-run rule — staff ace Buck Farmer pitched the first six innings. Of the remaining 28, 26 of them were covered by pitchers who are either freshmen or were strictly field-position players a year ago. (That includes first baseman Jake Davies, who faced one batter last season.)

Those pitchers — Pitts, Alex Cruz, Davies, Jarrett Didrick, Zane Evans and Josh Heddinger — combined for a 2.77 ERA and opponents’ batting average of .220 against four teams that all earned NCAA berths. Davies, making his fourth career start, locked down Clemson with one run and two hits over six innings.

“Early on, I think, middle of the season, we really didn’t know what to do with the injuries and things like that,” said Davies, named the ACC tournament MVP with four home runs and 11 RBIs in addition to his pitching start.

“We were just kind of throwing guys out there and hoping they did something. But I think we’ve figured it out a little bit better in the way we need to use the pitching and things like that.”

Before this season, Didrick, a sidearm-throwing righty, hadn’t pitched since 2008, his senior season in high school. Cruz came to Tech as an infielder, but his reliability (.183 opponents’ batting average) has made him indispensable. In the ACC final, Evans delivered a clutch two-run single against Miami and retired nine consecutive Hurricanes to close the game. Like Pitts, Heddinger has delivered clutch starts for the Jackets in his freshman season.

It’s not the ideal staff for slaying the Gators, who reached the College World Series championship game a year ago and boast one of the more talent-laden rosters in the country. It’ll have to do.

“I think it’s a tough challenge,” Hall said, “and, again, nothing’s been easy for this team, so [we] can’t expect it to be easy now.”