Georgia gets test vs. college baseball’s best at No. 1 Tennessee

Georgia outfielder Connor Tate gets a rousing welcome after hitting his ninth home run of the season during a game against Vanderbilt Saturday in Athens. (Photo by Sydney Fordice/UGA Athletics)

Combined ShapeCaption
Georgia outfielder Connor Tate gets a rousing welcome after hitting his ninth home run of the season during a game against Vanderbilt Saturday in Athens. (Photo by Sydney Fordice/UGA Athletics)

ATHENS — For Georgia baseball, its fortunes for the rest of the season essentially come down to what happens on Rocky Top this weekend.

The Bulldogs (32-16, 13-11 SEC) travel to Knoxville for their final road series of the regular season against No. 1-ranked Tennessee. The Volunteers (43-6, 20-4) have put together a team for the ages, featuring a pitching staff sporting a 2.26 ERA, a reliever who throws 105 mph and a team that has hit at a .306 clip with 113 home runs.

ExploreMore AJC coverage of the Bulldogs

Tennessee was humanized this past weekend, losing its first SEC series of the season, two games to one against Kentucky. But that likely has made the Vols even more determined as a talented Georgia team with a lot on the line comes to town.

“Does it dent their confidence or make them angry? I lean toward it probably makes them angry,” Georgia coach Scott Stricklin said Wednesday. “They’re going to be ready to play in front of their home crowd, there’s no question about it. We’re going to have to play really, really well to win the series.”

The three-game series runs Thursday through Saturday, with the first game set for a 7 p.m. first pitch (ESPNU). After that, the Bulldogs have one more SEC set remaining – at home versus Missouri (25-20, 7-17). So, they’ll go from the best the league has to offer to the worst in the matter of a week.

ExploreGeorgia’s Boling and Cavanaugh: Teammates, roommates, champions

All those games count the same, of course. But for the purposes of hosting an NCAA regional and SEC Tournament seeding, the Bulldogs really need to come away with at least one win in Knoxville, then take care of business against Mizzou.

“If we can take two out of three, that would put us in a really good spot,” Georgia’s Connor Tate told reporters at Foley Field on Tuesday.

Georgia’s cause was hurt this past weekend when it failed to win a home series against Vanderbilt. The teams split the first two games before the Commodores secured a 4-0 shutout Sunday.

That was the second consecutive SEC series loss for the Bulldogs. They have seen their RPI drop from third to ninth in the process, and they’re now ranked in the 20s in most college baseball polls.

“If we can take two out of three, that would put us in a really good spot."

- Georgia’s Connor Tate, on the upcoming series against Tennessee

Suffice it to say, they need to make a strong showing these last two weekends.

“Tennessee has run away with (the SEC), but everybody else in the league is really playing for something,” Stricklin said. “Playing for seeding, playing for postseason hosting right; we’re in that conversation. So, we want to be playing well these last two weeks and keep boosting that resume. But we’ve done a really good job up to this point. There’re eight teams in the league that wish they were us.”

There are reasons that Tennessee has been tough to take down. It starts with pitching.

Led by right-hander Drew Beam (8-0, 2.15 ERA), the Vols feature three starters with unblemished records, plus Chase Burns, who is 7-1 with a 2.25 ERA. But their best starter is considered Blade Tidwell (1-1, 3.18), who has been making a slow, deliberate return to the rotation after being shut down early in the season because of shoulder issues.

Georgia expects to see Burns, Tidwell and Beam, in that order. The Bulldogs will counter with Nolan Crisp (1-3, 5.17), Jonathan Cannon (9-1, 2.38) and Liam Sullivan (3-3, 4.91).

But the biggest buzz about Tennessee pitching is around reliever Ben Joyce. The 6-foot-5, 225-pound junior has hit 105 mph on the radar gun this season – the fastest pitch in college history – and routinely throws at more than 100 mph, with a 90-mph change-up to keep batters honest.

At the plate, Tennessee third baseman Trey Lipscomb (.353 BA, 19 HRs, 69 RBIs) likely would be a shoo-in for SEC Player of the Year if not for Auburn’s Sonny DiChiara (.412-16-45). Then there’s outfielders Jordan Beck (.314-13-45) and Drew Gilbert (.362-5-47), both of whom project as first-round picks in the MLB draft in July.

The Bulldogs actually have been hitting the ball fairly well of late. They scored 22 runs in the first two games against Vanderbilt before Sunday’s shutout. And the return of shortstop Cole Tate (.317-2-16) this past weekend from an extended absence because of a leg injury has bolstered the team.

“Offensively, we have been good, even though the box score doesn’t show it,” Stricklin said. “We swung the bats really well on Sunday. We hit several balls I thought were out. It just was a Mother Nature day; the wind was blowing the wrong way. That’s not an excuse. It’s just the way it was.”

Tennessee has been painted as wearing the black hat in the SEC under fiery, fifth-year coach Tony Vitello. The Vols clinched the SEC East title with Georgia’s loss to Vandy on Sunday, but they are aiming for much bigger things this year.

Having lost their first SEC series with the Bulldogs coming to town might not have been the worst thing for the Vols’ cause.

“There’s no way you can be your best unless you go through tough times and then come out on the other side a little bit better off,” Vitello said on Knoxville radio Tuesday. “We’ve had some of those. But this week coming up, you should see some energy out of our guys. Maybe it’s a lesson learned.”