Analysis: Georgia baseball needs to have some postseason success

Credit: Tony Walsh/UGAAA

Credit: Tony Walsh/UGAAA

Editor’s note: This is the first in a series examining the current state of athletic programs at the University of Georgia. Today’s installment focuses on baseball.

ATHENS — If Scott Stricklin has watched five minutes of the ongoing College World Series, he won’t admit it. When you want to be there so bad it hurts, you find other things to do.

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So, as four of his SEC brethren were doing battle in Omaha over the weekend, the Georgia Bulldogs’ baseball coach wrapped up his well-attended youth camp at Foley Field, took on some household chores and continued work on UGA baseball’s future.

To be clear, Stricklin’s future remains with the Bulldogs. There was some social-media grousing from some of the program’s most ardent fans after another quick exit from the NCAA regionals two weeks ago.

But Stricklin, Georgia’s coach for the past nine seasons, signed a contract extension in April 2021 that will keep him in that role at least through the 2026 season.

Meanwhile, the college baseball season continued for more than a quarter of the SEC’s teams. Arkansas, Auburn, Ole Miss and Texas A&M advanced to the College World Series, and three of them will play Wednesday on ESPN.

On that, Stricklin will have to take your word for it.

“That’s what I heard,” Stricklin said of the strong SEC presence in Omaha. “It’s hard to watch. It really is. When you want to be there and you’re not, it’s difficult. You’ve got to turn the page, and the way you do that is to really focus on your team and your kids.”

The narrative is that injuries derailed an otherwise stellar Georgia team this season, and that certainly can’t be denied. The Bulldogs lost starter Dylan Ross and veteran hurler Will Childers early in the season. Jonathan Cannon and Liam Sullivan also missed multiple starts and were left on pitch limits for extended periods because of arm injuries during the SEC slate. Neither was as dominant upon return.

“When Ross and Childers went down within the first two weeks, that was probably a third of innings right there,” said Stricklin, who also saw star shortstop Cole Tate sit out for three weeks because of a leg injury. “We thought coming into the season that our depth was going to be our strength. But when they both went down early, it made us thin in a hurry, and it took its toll.”

The rest of the staff did little to pick up the slack. Strikeouts went down, walks went up and Georgia was leaking oil for the last half of the season. In the SEC, the Bulldogs finished 12th in homers allowed (80), 13th in opponents’ batting average (.567) and last in walks (288). Along with average hitting (6th) and fielding (7th) and virtually no action on the base paths (14th in steals), Georgia simply couldn’t generate enough offense to overcome its pitching deficiencies.

That wasn’t the case early on. The Bulldogs shot into the top 10 in most polls after a hot 18-4 start. Then the injuries plus a tougher slate of opponents saw them wane toward the end. Georgia lost five of its last six SEC series. The worst was losing two of three at home to last-place Missouri to finish 15-15 in league play.

After a one-game exit as the sixth seed in the SEC Tournament, the Bulldogs were blown out by Virginia Commonwealth 8-1 in the first round of the Chapel Hill Regional. They beat an overmatched Hofstra team 24-2, then were eliminated by North Carolina 6-5 on a home-run-robbing final out in center field. Their season ended with a 36-23 overall mark.

It was the third time in three NCAA Tournament appearances that Stricklin’s team failed to advance to a super regional. The Bulldogs hosted regionals the other two times (2018-19). Stricklin believes Georgia “got snubbed” when it was not awarded a bid in 2021, and the metrics beyond 35 wins and 21 losses support that view. Otherwise, Georgia would be working on a streak of four consecutive postseason bids.

Of course, the best team of the Stricklin era didn’t get to prove its worth. The 2020 Bulldogs were 14-4 and headed to Florida with a No. 2 national ranking when the season was canceled because of the coronavirus pandemic. Stricklin is unapologetic about any of it, especially this year’s representation.

“To be honest with you, I thought we had a good year,” he said. “A great year would be we’re still playing. We fell short, but I was really proud of the way our kids fought and stayed together. We were a fun team to watch, sometimes a little frustrating for our fans, I’m sure.”

Georgia has a proud baseball history. The Bulldogs won their one and only baseball national championship in 1990 under coach Steve Webber. He was fired six years later.

With the exception of Ron Polk, who left after two seasons to return to Mississippi State, that has been the fate for every Georgia coach since. Even David Perno, who led the Bulldogs to three CWS appearances and the national championship game in 2008, was let go after the 2013 season.

That’s when Stricklin came in. The Bulldogs immediately put $12 million into Foley Field. Of course, that was trumped almost immediately by most of the league spending tens of millions on new stadiums.

With UGA planning a second multimillion-dollar improvement project for baseball before the 2024 season, next year is going to be an important one for Stricklin. He’s at least going to lose Cannon to the MLB draft and perhaps one or two other underclassmen.

Between signees, transfers and returnees, the Bulldogs likely will be picked to finish in the bottom half of the SEC. Such a result will only intensify the scrutiny.

Of this, the 50-year-old Stricklin is well aware.

“You always feel pressure,” Stricklin said. “At this level, no one puts more pressure on themselves than the coaches, no matter what the sport. We all want to win. But you can only control your ‘controllables’ and that’s your everyday business. That’s recruiting good players, helping them to get better and trying to put them in the best positions to succeed and win.”

Stricklin is well-respected in the business and has had success wherever he’s been, including Georgia Tech as an assistant and Kent State as head coach. In fact, his name came up this year for openings at Ohio State and Clemson. Stricklin, an Ohio native who is not represented by an agent, insists he had no conversations with either school.

Besides, he said, there is no better place to be than at Georgia.

“I’m thrilled to be here,” he said. “We want to keep this thing going and get this program back to Omaha!”

It’s here a cynic might assert, “they better.” That’s the expectation for the baseball neighborhood Georgia lives in:

– Half of the SEC has earned a trip to the CWS in the past two seasons. Georgia was not among those seven teams.

– In the past 10 years, 10 SEC programs have advanced to Omaha. Georgia hasn’t been since ‘08.

– An SEC team has won the national championship seven times since 2009. Not the Bulldogs.

UGA athletic director Josh Brooks will meet with Stricklin in the coming days to discuss the past and the future. That needs to be a productive, positive conversation.

Stricklin expects it to be.

“We’re both excited about the future and about what we’re building and where we are and where we’ve come from,” Stricklin said. “We’re all excited to keep moving forward and keep getting better. Obviously, we all have high expectations. Mine are really high, and so are Josh’s. So is everybody’s at Georgia. They should be.”