Georgia baseball needs to change SEC fortunes vs. Auburn

Credit: Kari Hodges

Credit: Kari Hodges

ATHENS — It’s early in the season, oh-so-early. But if there’s such a thing as a must-win series before the calendar flips to April, the Georgia Bulldogs are playing one beginning Thursday at Auburn.

Georgia played its first SEC series of the year last weekend in Athens. It didn’t go well.

Truthfully, it went about as poorly as it could have gone. Not only were the Bulldogs swept but they were run-ruled after seven innings in the final two games. The aggregate 29-7 losses followed a first game that saw Georgia unable to hold a one-run lead in the ninth inning of what ended as a 5-4 defeat.

Tough stuff.

Now comes a trip to Auburn to complete a set of seven games over nine days. And in the Tigers, the Bulldogs (14-7, 0-3 SEC) will encounter a team as desperate as themselves. Auburn (14-6-1, 0-3) also was swept the opening weekend of SEC play. And, like Georgia, they find themselves staring up from the bottom of a conference that might be its mightiest of all time.

The Bulldogs, Auburn and traditional baseball-power Mississippi State are the only three SEC teams not ranked in any Top 25 polls. Of the remaining 11 teams, LSU, Florida, Arkansas and South Carolina are ranked in the top 4. In total, 10 are among the top 16. Alabama carries the lowest ranking at No. 25 and doesn’t play Georgia this season. With the exception of No. 12 Texas A&M, the Bulldogs draw all the rest.

“We certainly can’t play the way we did last weekend,” Georgia coach Scott Stricklin said. “The team that played against Georgia Tech, that’s the team I think we are.”

The Bulldogs outscored the Yellow Jackets 24-12 while taking two of three games from their archrivals the first weekend of March.

Accordingly, it hasn’t been all doom-and-gloom for Georgia. While it’s easy to point to pitching as the Bulldogs’ bugaboo – they have a staff ERA of 5.82 – they’ve actually gotten good starts from their Nos. 1 and 2 starters, Jaden Woods and Liam Sullivan. The left-handers are 3-0 (2.96 ERA) and 3-1 (2.28), respectively. Woods, who is transitioning into a starting role this season after two seasons as a reliever, actually recorded career highs of seven innings pitched and 11 strikeouts when he was lifted in Game 1 against South Carolina.

Obviously, the issue for Georgia has been in the bullpen and locking down a reliable third weekend starter. The Bulldogs were poised to go with freshman Kolten Smith (1-0, 5.19) on Sunday, but he had to be scratched because of an illness.

As a result of that and a short week, the rotation will have a different look against the Tigers. Georgia will go with Smith for Thursday’s first game, then follow with Woods and Sullivan in their normal Friday and Saturday slots. All will have to be on their games.

Meanwhile, until recently, hitting the ball hasn’t been a problem for the Bulldogs. They’re hitting .323 and have hit home runs in 18 of 21 games. Charlie Condon has hit safely in 20 games and leads Georgia in batting average (.500), home runs (9) and RBIs (36). Condon, Connor Tate (.463, 7 HRs) and Parks Harber (.316, 8) have nearly as many homers among them (24) as Auburn has as a team (25).

Georgia rebounded from the South Carolina sweep with an 8-3 win over Georgia State at Coolray Field in Lawrenceville on Tuesday. So, the Bulldogs aren’t exactly spewing oil as they pull into Plainsman Park for Thursday’s tilt. But they could be looking at an overhaul if they don’t return to Athens with at least a couple of SEC wins.

It won’t get any easier from here. As of today at least, every remaining SEC game will be against a ranked team.

Dawg Tags: The AJC presents a daily look at the one thing you need to know about Georgia athletics today.