Georgia Tech pitcher Xzavion Curry is ranked the No. 10 most draft-eligible pitcher by D1Baseball. As a sophomore last season, he had a 4.18 ERA in 92 2/3 innings with 101 strikeouts and 23 walks. (Danny Karnik/Georgia Tech Athletics)

Stern early test for Georgia Tech baseball

About a year ago, Georgia Tech baseball coach Danny Hall needed a weekend series for the second week of the 2019 season. What he found figures to be a three-game top-to-bottom inspection of the Yellow Jackets.

UCLA, ranked No. 3 in multiple polls, will start a three-game series with Tech on Friday at Russ Chandler Stadium. Tech is rated 19th in the Collegiate Baseball Newspaper poll.

“I think we’ll learn a lot about our team, just because I think UCLA will challenge you in every area,” Hall said. “They’re going to pitch good, they’re going to play defense, they’ve got several position players that are supposed to be high draft picks. It’ll be like playing North Carolina or Florida State or somebody like that, where you have to play good in all areas to be competitive and have a chance to win.”

Before ACC play begins, Tech typically plays non-conference series against teams from the Northeast or Midwest, often from a non-power conference. Last year, for instance, it was Dartmouth and Illinois-Chicago.

However, about a year ago, Hall was having a difficult time finding an opponent for that slot, and went onto a college baseball website that lists teams looking for future games. He saw UCLA and gave a call to coach John Savage, a longtime colleague. Savage and Hall agreed on a home-and-home series, with Tech to travel to Los Angeles in 2021.

The two teams hadn’t faced each other since 1998-99, when they also had a home-and-home series.

It adds a bit more juice to the early-season schedule. The Bruins, who have not given up an earned run in starting the season 4-0, will be one of the strongest non-conference teams ever to visit Russ Chandler, according to Hall.

Last season, UCLA ranked sixth nationally in ERA (3.08) and 23rd in on-base percentage (.393). The Bruins’ best player is probably second baseman Chase Strumpf, who hit .363 last season with 12 home runs to earn All-America status.

“I think John Savage has always had pitching and defense, and so they’re very comfortable just trying to beat you 2-1 or 1-0,” Hall said.

In the scheme of this season, the series provides the Jackets a chance to provide early documentation of their capacity to make the NCAA tournament. Tech has missed the postseason each of the past two seasons, but Hall has expressed belief in the team’s ability team to get back. Hall said before the start of the season that the pitching staff is in better shape than it has been in the past five or six years from a standpoint of depth and talent.

Hall also has a preseason All-American in Tristin English, a first baseman/pitcher who has twice been first-team All-ACC.

The Jackets went 2-1 in their first three games last weekend, with wins over Illinois-Chicago and West Virginia and a loss to Richmond.

Ace Xzavion Curry will start Friday for the Jackets. On Friday, Curry pitched five innings with five hits, two runs, nine strikeouts and no walks in a 6-3 win over Illinois-Chicago. Hall was pleased that the junior, now in his third season as the No. 1 starter, was still hitting 94 mph on his fastball in his final inning of work.

“I think his breaking ball is better, so I think he’s got more pitches in his arsenal than he had last year,” Hall said. “That being said, he’s going to face some good hitters this weekend. They’ve seen a lot, as well. It’ll be a great matchup.”

For Curry, and also for his team.

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