Appreciating Luke Waddell’s model career at Georgia Tech

Georgia Tech shortstop Luke Waddell celebrates scoring the game-winning run in the Yellow Jackets' 7-6 win in 14 innings over Georgia at Russ Chandler Stadium on May 20, 2021. (Danny Karnik/Georgia Tech Athletics)
Georgia Tech shortstop Luke Waddell celebrates scoring the game-winning run in the Yellow Jackets' 7-6 win in 14 innings over Georgia at Russ Chandler Stadium on May 20, 2021. (Danny Karnik/Georgia Tech Athletics)

Credit: Danny Karnik/Georgia Tech Athletics

Credit: Danny Karnik/Georgia Tech Athletics

Luke Waddell remembered this week a moment from his freshman season in 2018, a team meeting in the Russ Chandler Stadium locker room. Newly arrived from Ohio, Waddell listened as Yellow Jackets teammates shared one thing that each wanted to do that season.

“I bet all of the upperclassmen just said they wanted to beat Georgia,” Waddell told the AJC. “That was my first real moment of (realizing) how bad guys wanted to beat Georgia.”

The mission was not fulfilled that year, as the Bulldogs swept the Jackets for the second year in a row. But it made Tuesday’s proceedings at Russ Chandler sweeter when the shortstop slid home with the game-winning run to beat Georgia 7-6 in 14 innings. With the win, Tech took the season series with a two-game sweep. Waddell punctuated the moment by flinging his helmet in the air before running up the first-base line to celebrate with Justyn-Henry Malloy, whose sacrifice fly had brought him home.

“Beating them twice this year was huge,” Waddell said. “That meant a lot.”

Waddell’s Tech career almost certainly is down to its final weeks, and it’s one that has had its share of markers such as Tuesday’s that speak to the success that the Jackets have enjoyed, particularly since his sophomore season. After missing the NCAA Tournament in 2018 (his freshman year) for the third time in four years, for instance, the Jackets won the ACC’s Coastal Division and returned to the tournament in 2019 and are in position to do both again this season.

Said coach Danny Hall, “He has a lot to do with it.”

Waddell’s production at the leadoff spot, his solid play at shortstop and the competitiveness and effort that he has provided to the Jackets have set him apart. While he has a season left to play due to the extra eligibility granted by the NCAA because of COVID-19, Waddell is expected to be drafted in July and begin his professional career. Waddell will take part in Senior Day festivities Saturday as the Jackets wrap up the regular season with a three-game home series against North Carolina. After the Jackets lost 3-2 Thursday night, the teams were to play the second game Friday night.

“I think that’s the biggest thing I’ve brought, just that kind of competitive nature and hard work and telling people things that they might not want to hear sometimes,” Waddell said. “At the end of the day, it’s how it has to be. Someone has to do it.”

Pitcher Andy Archer experienced Waddell’s edge during the team’s fall-practice scrimmages. Given that Waddell had been a starter since his freshman season, it might have been easy for him to occasionally slack off.

“But I have never had an easy at-bat with that kid in the four falls that we’ve spent together,” Archer said. “He’s always a tough out, even when it’s cold and even when he doesn’t want to be there. He’s always up there competing, grinding. Just kind of the embodiment of what it means to be a GT baseball player.”

Giving up at-bats is a foreign concept to Waddell. Entering Friday’s game, he was the most difficult player to strike out in the ACC, and 11th most in Division I, with one strikeout for every 13.4 at-bats. He was hitting .309 with a .407 on-base percentage.

Waddell has been similarly unbending in the classroom. Earlier this month, he graduated with a degree in business administration with a 3.9 GPA.

“Everything that you would want out of somebody, he just lives it every day,” Hall said.

Waddell adopted that mentality growing up in Loveland, Ohio, where he was a three-sport star and a record-setting running back and shortstop at Loveland High. Waddell was raised in a home where competitiveness was a defining trait. His mother, Lisa, Waddell said, has been an audible presence at Tech games and has a hard time gearing down even when the games are over.

“Me and my dad always laugh because she gets so fired up over everything,” he said. “It’s just funny. It’s awesome. She is locked in. I don’t think she’s ever missed a game.”

Waddell has started since his freshman season, when he earned a spot in the lineup and started 31 games. Before Friday, he had a career .308 batting average and had started 152 games, including the past 118 in a row. He was selected to play on the USA Baseball collegiate national team in the summer of 2019, the first Tech player to earn that honor since Derek Dietrich in 2008.

Hall has used him at third base, second base and shortstop, becoming a fixture at short since early in the 2019 season, pairing with Austin Wilhite at second base. That season, he hit .322 and reached base in 39 consecutive games.

In 2020, he was voted the team’s solo captain, the first player accorded that distinction since 1991. Waddell called it “surreal” to receive that sort of affirmation from his teammates. He has shared the captaincy this season with outfielder Colin Hall and pitchers Hugh Chapman and Brant Hurter.

“He’s definitely not a rah-rah guy, but he’s a guy that’s going to show up and do his work, he’s going to play very hard, he’s going to compete at a high level,” Hall said.

Waddell’s elevated status has not made him immune from the barbs of teammates, who mostly give him a hard time about his height (he is listed at 5-foot-9) and his thinning hair. His teammates took some enjoyment during the team’s trip to Virginia Tech when Hokies fans were loudly suggesting that he start using Rogaine.

“Just all over him,” Archer said. “And he’s up there trying to hit, laughing a little bit. It was hilarious.”

Hall believes Waddell will be taken in the July draft. Waddell was expected to be taken last year, even when the draft was shortened to five rounds, but he was not picked.

“I’m certain that he’ll be in a good spot, for sure,” Hall said.

His leadership has taken on a pronounced role this season on a team relying heavily on young talent. His numbers in wins vs. losses spell out how impactful his performance in the leadoff spot has been.

Entering Friday’s game, he was hitting .333 with an on-base percentage of .434 in the team’s 26 wins but .275 with on-base percentage of .368 in Tech’s 21 losses. Tech fans can draw encouragement from the fact that he has been hot late, hitting .395 over the 10 games before Friday night’s game.

“There’s never any question of how hard he plays the game and how much he wants to win, but at the same time, he has so much fun doing it,” Archer said. “And I think that’s really, really infectious. For the younger guys to come in and see that, I think it’s just a really, really good thing going forward.”