Georgia baseball nears full strength for crucial Vanderbilt series

ATHENS — If adversity is part of the equation, Georgia baseball might lead the SEC this season. As it is, the Bulldogs enter this weekend in a four-way tie for third in the league, and the time for separation is upon them.

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Vanderbilt comes to town for a three-game set that begins at 6:30 p.m. Friday. That’s followed by the final two conference series of the season: at No. 1 Tennessee and home versus Missouri.

While the Commodores (29-14, 10-11 SEC) are not as dominant a team as we’ve become accustomed to seeing in recent years, they’re heating up. Starter Chris McElvain and reliever Christian Little recently combined for a no-hitter against Kentucky. Vandy then lost a series against Texas A&M and comes to Foley Field unranked in most opinion polls. But they arrive with a No. 11 RPI and determined to make a case to extend the SEC’s longest consecutive streak of qualifying for the NCAA Tournament to 16 in a row.

“Come on out,” Georgia coach Scott Stricklin said Thursday during his weekly appearance on Athens radio station 960 The Ref. “We need everybody. We need a good crowd. This might be the biggest series of the year.”

Georgia (31-14, 12-9) sits at No. 3 in RPI, an incredible accomplishment considering the slings and arrows it has absorbed to date. After Jonathan Cannon and Liam Sullivan took turns on injury sabbatical, the Bulldogs’ starting rotation has finally settled into a predictable rhythm. Nolan Crisp (1-2, 4.72) will get the ball first for the fifth consecutive weekend, followed by Cannon and Sullivan, who originally went Nos. 1 and 2.

Georgia will get back Cole Tate for this series. The Bulldogs’ senior shortstop with 99 career starts ranks second among the regulars in hitting (.321), but has been out three weeks with a stress fracture in his leg.

“He’s going to play this weekend,” Stricklin said. “If he’s going to play all three games, we don’t know yet. We’re going to have to see how he responds.”

The question is whether Tate plays short or third. Third baseman Josh McCallister moved over and filled in admirably in Tate’s absence, but Georgia’s offense has suffered some in the process. Tate hit No. 2 in the lineup previously, but indications are that Cory Acton will remain in that spot, especially after a three-homer weekend at LSU.

Despite all the lineup juggling, the Bulldogs have remained competitive throughout. They went to the bottom of the ninth inning Sunday leading 3-2 with a chance to win the series against LSU at Alex Box Stadium in Baton Rouge. Unfortunately, Jaden Woods gave up a walk-off homer to second baseman Cade Doughty for a heartbreaking 4-3 loss.

Georgia followed with a Tuesday home game against Kennesaw State and got all it could handle against the scrappy Owls. Stricklin gave the ball to Woods again to start on a staff pitching night, and Woods responded with a perfect inning.

The rest of the night was a struggle as the Bulldogs fell behind 7-2. But Georgia rallied behind 11 hits for a 10-7 victory.

“When you have a big series like we do coming up, you want momentum,” Stricklin said. “Anytime you lose, it takes the wind out of you, especially against an in-state rival, a very good team in Kennesaw State. It was important to get the win to try and keep some momentum going into this weekend.”

The biggest concern for the Vandy series at the moment is the weather. Thunderstorms are in the forecast Friday. The forecast for the rest of the weekend is spectacular.

Again, Stricklin pleaded with the Bulldog Nation to tough it out against elements Friday and come support the team.

“We’re going to play,” Stricklin said. “This is a really good team coming in, and we need everybody there. I can’t stress it enough. If you have tickets and can’t go, give them to somebody who can. ... Let’s fill the place.”

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