At NCAA regional, ‘full-circle’ return for Georgia Tech’s Malloy

Georgia Tech's Justyn-Henry Malloy at the plate against Duke Saturday, March 27, 2021, at Durham Bulls Athletics Park in Durham, N.C. (Reagan Lunn/Duke Athletics)

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Georgia Tech's Justyn-Henry Malloy at the plate against Duke Saturday, March 27, 2021, at Durham Bulls Athletics Park in Durham, N.C. (Reagan Lunn/Duke Athletics)

On Monday, Georgia Tech third baseman Justyn-Henry Malloy gathered with his teammates at the team’s new Champions Hall at Russ Chandler Stadium to watch the NCAA Tournament selection show. Malloy’s hunch was that the Yellow Jackets would be sent to a regional at Mississippi State.

Malloy was caught by surprise by an assignment a little closer to Atlanta and far more familiar. The Jackets will begin regional play Friday against Indiana State in a regional hosted by Vanderbilt, where Malloy and relief pitcher Chance Huff played before transferring to Tech after the 2020 season. Both were freshmen on the Commodores’ national-championship team in 2019.

“It was kind of a full-circle moment-ish,” said Malloy, a sophomore from Bergenfield, N.J. “It was kind of a surreal moment, just knowing that our team is going to be going back to the place where it all started for me and Chance Huff.”

Malloy will play a significant role in the Jackets’ effort to win the regional, a pursuit that faces long odds as Vanderbilt is the fourth overall seed in the 64-team tournament and boasts the top 1-2 pitching combination in the country in Kumar Rocker and Jack Leiter.

“I don’t know if much has changed (at Vanderbilt), I don’t know if a lot has changed,” Malloy said. “But, again, I’m just very excited to just be able to go there and be able to compete.”

Malloy said his phone blew up with text messages from former teammates and friends at Vanderbilt after Tech was assigned to the regional in Nashville, Tenn.

“It was just pretty cool that I’ll potentially be able to get to see them, kind of go back to, basically, where my collegiate career started,” he said.

Malloy’s value for the Jackets, the No. 2 seed in the regional, may come as a surprise to Commodores fans who remember him from his time at Vanderbilt. In two seasons, Malloy played in a total of 26 games, hitting .128. As a sophomore in 2020, he did have an on-base percentage of .487, showing a discerning eye that he brought with him to Tech.

Malloy said that while he loved his time at Vanderbilt and that there are people there he counts as best friends, his decision to transfer to Tech was based on looking for a better fit.

“Just being able to get into a new scene and compete all over again, similar to (being) a freshman again,” he said. “It was just the right move to move on.”

At Tech, he has fully capitalized on a chance to start over and earn playing time. He has been nothing at all like a .128 hitter, playing an invaluable role in propelling the Jackets to their second consecutive ACC Coastal Division title. Holding down third base and mostly batting cleanup, he is one of only three Jackets players to play in all of the team’s 52 games, starting 51. Settling into the No. 4 spot midway through the season, he leads the Jackets in home runs (10), RBIs (39), walks (45, second in the ACC), runs (49, fifth in the ACC) and, among regulars, on-base percentage (.426). He has had some adventures on defense, as he has accumulated 17 errors, also a team high and most in the conference. Huff, too, has had an increased role in the Jackets’ bullpen, with 19 appearances, fourth most on the staff.

Malloy also leads the team in game-winning RBIs, with six. They include walk-off winners in two of the bigger wins of the season. He hit a two-out solo home run to beat Clemson 9-8 on May 6 in the bottom of the ninth, a win that clinched the series. On May 18, he ended Tech’s 14-inning marathon with Georgia with a sacrifice fly that scored Luke Waddell for the Jackets’ 7-6 win, a game that secured a two-game season sweep over the Bulldogs.

Malloy was named an All-ACC third-team selection, one of four Tech players to earn all-conference honors.

“He’s played really well,” coach Danny Hall said after Malloy’s game-winner against Clemson. “He’s a hard worker. He’s a great kid. He’s fit right into the culture of our team just tremendously. But behind the scenes, he’s constantly working on his defense, he’s constantly working on his hitting. He’s a great competitor, and he’s a good teammate. I’m just happy for him that he’s taken advantage of the opportunity to get in there and play. He’s been a big, big asset for us the whole year.”

In the event that Tech and Vanderbilt (which plays Presbyterian in its Friday night opener) both advance to face each other in the double-elimination regional, it can’t hurt that the Jackets’ cleanup hitter has familiarity with Rocker and Leiter, both projected to be top 10 picks in the MLB draft. (It also can’t hurt that Malloy is hitting a team-high .366 in road games.) Malloy faced both in fall practice, describing their assortment of pitches as “electric.”

“In terms of being a hitter in the box against those guys, you’ve got to be aggressive,” Malloy said. “You don’t want to get to two strikes against those guys because they know how to put you away early.”

Tech will count on Malloy to deliver, starting Friday against Indiana State. To keep the season going – the Jackets are trying to make it past the regional round for the first time since 2006 – he’ll almost certainly need to. To pull the upset and advance out of the regional – against the team with whom he started his career – would make a satisfying season even better.

“It couldn’t have been better,” Malloy said of the season. “Looking back on it now, obviously still much to do, but being able to just look back at the regular season, I can say that this is one of the better decisions that I’ve ever made, coming here. Just being able to get that opportunity from ‘D.H.’ (Hall), from ‘Rammer’ (assistant coach James Ramsey), just being able to compete on an everyday basis again, I really can’t thank the coaching staff enough.”