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.”