In its first NCAA tournament game since 2016 and its first postseason game at home since 2011, Georgia Tech was not at its sharpest. But, up against an opponent making its own share of miscues, the Yellow Jackets moved into the winner’s bracket at their NCAA regional with a 13-2 win over Florida A&M on Friday night at Russ Chandler Stadium.
Tech treated a raucous, sold-out crowd of 3,718 to a low-stress win.
“I think some of it might have been guys trying too hard,” Tech coach Danny Hall said. “And I do feel for (Florida A&M coach) Jamey Shouppe, because you kind of think you should make some of those (plays) and then you don’t get ’em done. To our guys’ credit, when they made mistakes, we made them pay.”
The No. 1-seed Jackets will play No. 2-seed Auburn at 7 p.m. Saturday. The Tigers hammered No. 3-seed Coastal Carolina 16-7 in the opening game of the regional Friday afternoon.
Tech (42-17) made mistakes on the base paths and on the field and stranded 13 runners, not the norm for a team that won the Coastal Division and earned the No. 3 overall seed in the tournament. However, Florida A&M (27-33) put itself in a hole with two walks to lead off both the first and second by starter Kyle Coleman and run-yielding errors that to fall behind 4-0 after two innings, a lead that the Jackets maintained for the remainder of the game.
“The first few innings, the control wasn’t there,” Coleman said. “I’m not using it as an excuse, but, the first time being on a field like that, with that atmosphere, (I was) just trying to calm my nerves and get through the innings.”
Hall’s team also lost shortstop and leadoff hitter Luke Waddell for the game when he wrenched his left knee fouling off a pitch in the bottom of the third. Waddell, who injured the knee previously this season, tested out his knee before leaving the game, walking gingerly off the field. Hall moved second baseman Austin Wilhite to short (where Wilhite was the starter the previous two seasons) and inserted Charlie Benson at second. Benson, a freshman who had had eight at-bats before Friday, was 0-for-1 with two walks.
Hall said after the game that Waddell didn’t suffer any structural damage to his knee and that he was “walking around after the game was over, so we’ll see how he feels (Saturday) and see if he can go.”
The early lead, added with another run in the bottom of the third, provided Tech and starter Amos Willingham the margin to withstand the only turbulence the Jackets encountered, in the top of the fifth.
Ahead 5-0, Willingham started the inning by loading the bases with a hit batsman, single and walk. Florida A&M scored runs on a sacrifice fly and a bunt to close to 5-2, the latter turning into a single when first baseman Tristin English fielded it, but neither Willingham nor second baseman Charlie Benson were covering first.
After an unassisted putout by third baseman Jackson Webb for the second out, Willingham hit his second batsman of the inning to reload the bases. Willingham then engaged No. 3 hitter Tucker Rayburn in the at-bat of the game. Willingham got swinging strikes to get to 0-2 to get the sold-out crowd clapping and stomping their feet. Rayburn fought back to 3-2 , fouling off four pitches. On the 10th pitch of the at-bat, Willingham got his strikeout, pumping his fist as he walked off the mound.
“I ended up making it a full count, and he did a really good job of fighting off some tough pitches, I thought,” Willingham said. “And just to get him out and to get us out of the jam was pretty big momentum.”
Willingham hung on for six innings to get the win, minimizing the use of the bullpen as the Jackets venture into the regional. Jonathan Hughes, Jake Lee and Robert Winborne collected the final nine outs.
Tech broke the game open in the bottom of the seventh, when the Jackets benefited from a throwing error that led to two runs and a batter reaching safely on a dropped third strike. Colin Hall delivered the final blow, singling in two runs in a 10-pitch at-bat with two outs. The Jackets added three more in the bottom of the eighth on a two-out double by English.
“They didn’t make any quick outs,” Shouppe said. “They had great at-bats. That was the difference in the ballgame.”
Shouppe knows Tech well. He was the pitching coach at Florida State for 21 years beffore taking the FAMU job before the 2013 season. Among players he recruited to FSU was Tech assistant coach James Ramsey, who was an All-American for the Seminoles and a first-round draft pick. Ramsey’s work with Tech hitters has been widely credited for the team’s improvement this season at the plate.
“The story was the at-bats they threw at us,” Shouppe said. “They grinded out at-bats the whole game. I’ve never seen a Georgia Tech club do that. I’m sure (Ramsey’s) influence had something to do with that.”
Tech figures to have a more stern test Saturday evening against Auburn, which lost two midweek games to the Jackets in April. The game is critical in the outcome of the regional, as the winner will need to win only one more game, and the loser will have to win three in a row, including two on Sunday.
Statistically speaking, the Tigers do not stand out in any particular way, but have an ace in pitcher Tanner Burns (2.80 ERA, .210 opponent batting average, 95/20 strikeout/walk ratio in 74 innings). He did not pitch in the SEC tournament because of shoulder soreness, but is expected to pitch against the Jackets.
Tech will counter with first-team All-ACC selection Connor Thomas (9-1, 3.28 ERA, 97/19 strikeout/walk ratio in 104-1/3 innings).
“They’ve got a good guy going on the mound and we’ve got a good guy going on the mound, so it should be a heck of a ballgame,” Hall said.
Florida A&M will play Coastal Carolina at 1 p.m. in an elimination game. The winner will play at noon Sunday against Saturday night’s Auburn-Tech loser.
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