Before this week, recent ACC tournaments had not provided much in the way of moments to savor for Tristin English or his Georgia Tech teammates. Before arriving this week at Durham Bulls Athletic Park, the Yellow Jackets had lost seven consecutive tournament games over three seasons, absorbing four defeats in extra innings and/or by one run and then getting shut out two other games.
Further, in 2017 and 2018, the Jackets’ seasons ended at the tournament, slamming the door on disappointing seasons. It was against that droopy backdrop that English and his fellow fourth-year players (English is a fourth-year junior) made a sentimental pitch straight to their teammates’ hearts.
“Most of these guys, it’ll be the last time the team’s going to be together, whether it be the seniors are moving on, the juniors might get drafted,” English said. “We’ll have new guys coming in, fresh faces. This was kind of our last chance for this team to come make a statement.”
On Friday afternoon, facing Duke in Tech’s second and final pool-play game, with a spot in the semifinals on the line, English churned out the highlights in perhaps the defining game of his 165-game Tech career. In the bottom of the ninth with one out and two on, English lifted Thomas Girard’s first-pitch slider high off the 32-foot left-field wall to bring home Luke Waddell from second to give No. 2-seed Tech a walk-off 5-4 win over the seventh-seeded Blue Devils.
It was English’s final contribution of a day that started with a two-run homer that cleared the bull sign (modeled after the one in the movie “Bull Durham”) beyond the left-field fence and also included two innings of hitless relief. His ninth-inning adversary, Girard, entered the game with a .162 opponent batting average and a 1.30 ERA. He was pitching three days after throwing 49 pitches of relief against Notre Dame.
“With a short porch out there in left, my approach for the most part is hit the ball in the air out there and at least give it a chance,” English said. “The guy has a really good slider, so I went up there sitting on it, figured he was going to throw it. He threw it. When I hit it, I was just hoping it would at least be far enough to hit off the wall. And then I really wanted it to go over. Just didn’t have enough juice.”
Tech (40-16) will play No. 3-seed N.C. State at 5 p.m. Saturday for a spot in Sunday’s final. (No. 12-seed Boston College and No. 5 seed North Carolina are on the other side of the bracket.) The win over Duke (31-25) advanced the Jackets out of pool play for the first time since 2014, when they won the most recent of their nine ACC titles.
A season that began with a projection for fifth place in the Coastal Division has accumulated another testament to the tenacity that has defined this team. The win moved Tech to No. 8 in RPI, further establishing its credentials to be a top-eight seed for the NCAA tournament, which would keep the Jackets home for both the regional and super-regional rounds.
English’s walk-off hit graced a day in which the Jackets did enough to merit defeat. All-ACC pitcher Connor Thomas gave up three runs in the first, uncharacteristically giving up a walk, a hit batsman and two run-scoring singles on 0-2 counts. The last time he had given up more than two runs in an inning was in the fifth game of the season.
English’s first-inning home run and a mammoth two-run bomb to right by Kyle McCann in the third leveled the score at 4-4, but then the Jackets stranded two each in the fourth, fifth and sixth and one each in the seventh and eighth. After a leadoff double in the eighth, Colin Hall failed to advance to third on a sacrifice-bunt try and was stranded.
But, with Luke Bartnicki and English limiting the Blue Devils to one hit and no runs after Thomas’ six innings and the defense playing error-free, English had the stage to deliver the Jackets in the ninth. It was Tech’s fourth walk-off win of the season and its 10th one-run win against four losses.
“You knew it was going to come down to somebody getting on and getting in scoring position and then somebody had to get a big hit,” coach Danny Hall said. “Just happy it was Tristin.”
Hall was speaking at the postgame news conference, sitting next to a dirty-uniformed English. His toothy grin indicated he felt the same.