Georgia’s Jaden Woods back on mound for SEC tourney

Credit: Tony Walsh/UGA Athletics

Credit: Tony Walsh/UGA Athletics

ATHENS – Besides learning this past weekend they had qualified for the SEC Tournament, the Georgia Bulldogs received their best news in a month when it was determined that Jaden Woods has been cleared to play.

Not only is their ace pitcher available to throw for the first time in five weeks, but the junior left-hander is going to get the start in the Bulldogs’ all-important opening game against South Carolina Tuesday at 10:30 a.m. in Hoover, Ala. Woods (3-2, 5.69 ERA) has missed his last five SEC starts with bicep tendinitis.

“Jaden has been throwing for the last few weeks and has gotten himself ready to pitch,” Georgia coach Scott Stricklin said Monday. “Our team is excited to get him back on the mound.”

With a win over No. 5 LSU this past Saturday, Georgia (29-26, 11-19 SEC) clinched the 11th seed and one of the last two spots in the annual 12-team tournament at Hoover Metropolitan Stadium. The Gamecocks (38-17, 16-13) are seeded sixth.

It’s truly a do-or-die situation for the Bulldogs. The first round is single-elimination and Georgia has no other shot at earning an NCAA Tournament bid unless it can generate an extended run in the conference tournament. South Carolina, in contrast, is ranked as high as No. 6 in the many national polls and is expected to get a bid regardless of what happens.

But it’s not beyond the realm of possibility for the Bulldogs to play themselves into the NCAAs. Because of a high strength-of-schedule rating – Georgia’s slate is consensus Top 5 and has it at No. 3 – the Bulldogs carry an NCAA RPI of 37 into the SEC Tournament.

Unquestionably, though, it’ll require a deep run. The winner of Tuesday morning’s matchup will draw No. 5-ranked LSU in the second round, which begins double-elimination play. The Tigers just took two of three from Georgia at Foley Field.

“Play one more day,” Stricklin told reporters after Saturday’s 9-5 win over LSU. “Win Tuesday, then you get two more. This team is more than capable of making a run. They know that and we know that. We just have to go out and finish games.”

Realistically, the Bulldogs need to win the tournament. Since NCAA play expanded to 64 teams in 1999, no SEC team with 11 or fewer conference wins in the regular season has gotten an at-large bid. The conference is 0-15 in those scenarios, so for Georgia to do it would be history-making.

Meanwhile, the Bulldogs have never won the SEC Tournament. They have finished second three times (1985, ‘87, ‘89). Georgia is 3-1 against the Gamecocks in the tourney.

Having Woods on the mound certainly will get South Carolina’s attention. Woods was in line to get the win when the two teams opened SEC play way back on March 17 in Athens. Woods had thrown 102 pitches through seven innings when he left the game 11 strikeouts, one walk and a 4-3 lead. The Gamecocks scored two runs in the top of ninth inning for a 5-4 victory.

Losing late leads has been familiar refrain for the Bulldogs this season. They’ve blown four ninth-inning leads in SEC play, including two against Missouri in the next-to-last series of the regular season.

Woods, a 6-foot-2, 202-pound junior from Warner Robins, earned a degree in sport management earlier this month. He is among the team’s top professional prospects for the 2023 MLB Draft, so this likely will be his final season with the Bulldogs.

Woods spent most of his first two seasons coming out of the bullpen for the Bulldogs. In 2022, he went 1-1 with a 4.80 ERA with 3 saves in 25 appearances and one start.

All tournament games until the final will be carried on the SEC Network. Georgia’s games also will be available on the Georgia Bulldog Sports Network. Sunday’s tournament championship will be televised by ESPN2.