Georgia, LSU face off in ‘win you’re in’ SEC Tournament game

ATHENS — The Georgia Bulldogs’ Adversity Circus picks up stakes and moves to Hoover, Ala., for the SEC Tournament this week. Still short-handed, all Bulldogs have to do now is knock off LSU, Arkansas and Vanderbilt in succession and they’re in the championship game.

Nothing to it.

They’ll have to do that without leading slugger Connor Tate (.344-10-33), who’s out with a leg injury. Starting outfielder Riley King will play as much as he can on a late-season knee injury. And the pitching staff, well, that has undergone its latest reconfiguration with the loss of left-handed starter Ryan Webb to an elbow injury for the rest of the season.

Nevertheless, whether it’s made up or manufactured, Georgia insists it’s entering the tournament with confidence and conviction. The eighth-seeded Bulldogs (30-23, 13-17 SEC), coming in off a dominant 13-2 win over No. 12 Ole Miss on Sunday, are convinced that a win over ninth-seeded LSU (34-21, 13-17) on Tuesday (5:32 p.m., SECN) will stamp their ticket into NCAA Tournament.

“Well, there’s no arguing that the SEC is the toughest conference, RPI-wise and ranking-wise,” Georgia coach Scott Stricklin explained. “Six different SEC teams have been ranked No. 1 at some point. So, if it’s the best conference, you’ve got to take eight or nine teams. I think it’s a play-in game, essentially, on Tuesday, us and LSU. … I think it’s win and you’re in for both of us.”

The SEC Tournament is single-elimination for Tuesday’s first-round games, then double-elimination thereafter. With the stakes such as they are, the Bulldogs will take an all-or-nothing approach.

Freshman Luke Wagner (3-3, 4.75 ERA) will get the start, fellow freshman Jaden Woods (3-1, 4.93) will be ready to go right behind him and pretty much any other pitcher on the roster will be available after that. Everyone except for Jonathan Cannon, that is. The sophomore flame-thrower is coming off an overpowering start against Ole Miss on Sunday in which he had eight strikeouts on 89 pitches in seven innings to get the win.

LSU will counter with junior right-hander Landon Marceaux (6-4, 2.04), its regular Friday starter. While it’s a down year for the Tigers, they remain a powerhouse program in the league, with 17 overall and 12 tournament championships. They’re trying to earn their ninth consecutive NCAA tournament bid. Georgia is seeking its third in a row, which would be a program record.

The Bulldogs did not play LSU in the regular season. Their last meeting came in 2019 in Athens when Georgia took two of three games. LSU leads the all-time series 68-23-2 including 9-2 in the SEC Tournament. They last squared off in Hoover in 2009 when LSU won a pair of seven-inning matchups.

Tuesday’s winner will face No. 1-ranked Arkansas, the top seed and SEC Champion, at 5:30 p.m. Wednesday.

But count out Georgia at your own peril. Early in the season, the injury-riddled Bulldogs took two of three games from Vanderbilt, then ranked No. 1 in the nation, in Nashville. They took the top-ranked Razorbacks to the brink in Fayetteville, narrowly dropping the series rubber game 5-3, and only after Webb left with what proved to be a season-ending injury.

Georgia has gotten to this point despite missing losing four of five projected starting pitchers to injuries and seeing regulars such as Josh McAllister (.352-9-29) and Corey Collins (.276-7-35) sidelined for extended periods.

“We’ve been responding to adversity all year,” Cannon said. “It started in the fall losing (pitchers) Will Childers and Garrett Brown. That was a tough blow. Then we lost C.J. (Smith) and Logan (Moody) the first few weeks of the season and now Webby and Connor and Riley’s been off and on. We’ve been really beaten up, but our team responds and has played really well the last few weeks.”

Said Stricklin: “Everybody’s dealing with injuries, but I don’t know if anyone has dealt with it the way we have. … For us to play the way we have shows a lot of character.”

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