Three freshmen starters on hill for Georgia baseball’s opening series

ATHENS – With star pitchers Emerson Hancock and Cole Wilcox busy somewhere preparing for their pro careers, Georgia knew it was going to have to remake its rotation this season. But the Bulldogs couldn’t have anticipated heading into the opening weekend with three freshmen preparing to take the mound.

Senior left-hander C.J. Smith will get the well-earned, opening-day start when the Bulldogs face off against Evansville in the first of four games at 2 p.m. Friday (SECN-Plus). But after that, coach Scott Stricklin will turn to freshmen Charlie Goldstein, Luke Wagner and Jayden Woods.

It’s a fluke of circumstance that all four starters are left-handers and that they’ll be leading the way in the season’s first baseball weekend. The plan was for sophomore Jonathan Cannon and junior Ryan Webb – preseason All-Americans, both -- to take the baton from Hancock and Wilcox. But, as fortune would have it, Cannon is still recovering from a bout with mononucleosis and Webb from COVID-19.

Coupled with season-ending arm injuries to sophomores Garrett Brown and Will Childers in the fall, that meant Stricklin had to oversee a wide-open preseason competition to fill those spots. It just so happened that three left-handed freshmen emerged from the fray.

“Four consecutive left-handed guys; I don’t if we’ve ever done that,” said Stricklin, who is entering his eighth season as the Bulldogs’ skipper.

“You’re going to see some freshmen come out of the bullpen, too. I wouldn’t be shocked if we see 13 or 14 pitchers this weekend.”

That’s not necessarily a bad thing for the Bulldogs, who are ranked as high as No. 12 in preseason polls. Until Georgia reaches SEC play in the season’s fifth week, Stricklin and pitching coach Sean Kenney won’t mind getting a nice, long look at a deep pool of young talent that has been imported since last year. Twenty-two pitchers populate the Bulldogs’ roster -- the majority of them underclassmen -- and that doesn’t include several position players who also have the ability to step up onto the hill.

“They’re really mature, and that’s the thing that we’re all kind of experiencing,” Stricklin said of the freshmen. “These kids go through so many things at an early age now, with travel baseball and the high-level of baseball they’re playing. They’re all going through draft negotiations and talks with pro scouts, and they’ve been away from home a lot. … So, overall, they’re a really mature group and a really talented group.”

In the meantime, Cannon and Webb won’t be long in making their returns. Stricklin intimated that they might even have been able to go this weekend. But with the hopes of a long season ahead and the long-term well-being of the pitchers in mind, there simply is no reason to rush them back.

Backing up the pitchers is a bevy of experienced position players that should provide them room to grow. Georgia returns its leading hitter in junior center fielder Ben Anderson, who was batting .414 with 24 runs scored when last season ended. Also back are infielders Cole Tate, Garrett Blaylock and Buddy Floyd, infielder/outfielder Riley King, catchers Mason Meadows and Shane Marshall, designated hitter Connor Tate and pitcher Logan Moody, among others.

Among the freshmen, Woods has wowed the Bulldogs with his lively fastball, the receiving skills of Fernando Gonzalez’s might lift him to a starter’s role at catcher and Georgia is eager to unleash the hitting prowess displayed by heralded signee Corey Collins.

“The group as a whole definitely has a bunch of up side, a bunch of talent,” Anderson said of the freshmen. “The biggest thing they need is experience, and I think we’re going to see a lot of them this season.”

Even one of the newcomers is a letterman as well. Sophomore right-hander Nolan Crisp is a transfer from Florida. He made 21 appearances and six starts for the Gators in 2019, going 4-1 as a starter.

The Bulldogs lost some talent in the field as well. Moved on are Tucker Bradley (.397, 6 home runs, 23 RBIs), Patrick Sullivan (.298-0-20) and Cam Shepherd (.268-4-21), among others. They made up the core of what was anticipated as one of Georgia’s best teams ever last season.

Following Friday’s opener, Georgia and Evansville will play a doubleheader starting at noon Saturday and then a noon game Sunday. Attendance at Foley Field will be limited to 600 because of the pandemic, masks and face coverings will be required for entry and moving around inside the facility and seating will socially distanced in groups of two to four. A limited number of student tickets will be available each game on a first-come, first-served basis.

Like most SEC teams, the Bulldogs will stick close to home for the first month of the season. Georgia’s only away games into mid-March are at Georgia State (Feb. 24) and at Kennesaw State (March 2) and against Georgia Southern in Statesboro (March 9). They’ll leave the state for the first time to play Wofford in Greenville, S.C. The Bulldogs’ SEC opening series is against Tennessee begins March 19 and they’ll travel to Texas A&M for a three-game series that gets underway March 26. Out of conference, they’ll play Clemson and Georgia Tech each home and away.

The plan is to play 55 games and reach the SEC Tournament in Hoover, Ala., on May 25. Georgia got in only 18 games last year, winning 14 and achieving a national ranking of No. 2 before the season was abruptly halted on the way to face No. 1 Florida in Gainesville.

“Last year, that team was arguably one of the best teams we’ve had since I’ve been here, if not the best ever,” said Smith, who was 0-1 with a 3.32 ERA in four starts. “Obviously, we couldn’t do anything about that. But the appreciation for how much baseball means to me and the guys was eye-opening. … The goal is always Omaha and winning the World Series, and I think that’s very realistic for us this year.”

Said Blaylock: “There’s a lot of anticipation. Last year ending like it did left us with a sour taste in our mouths. We know we’re a talented team, and we’re really excited to get going.”