When Georgia Tech coach Danny Hall spoke to his team Monday after learning its NCAA Tournament assignment via the tournament selection show, he was careful in his words about facing overall top-seed Tennessee.
“We get a chance to go to a really good regional to play the No. 1 team in the country, hopefully,” Hall said.
He added the caveat “hopefully” because it’s not a certainty that the Yellow Jackets will face the Volunteers. Tech will first have to get past Campbell in its first game of the regional, a noon game Friday. (And Tennessee has to defeat Alabama State in its opener.) And while it might at first glance seem a given for Tech to handle the champion of a conference (the Big South) ranked 23rd of 31 conferences in RPI, a win Friday is not close to a sure thing.
First, Campbell likely will send ace Thomas Harrington to oppose Tech. Harrington is 11-2 this season, one of only four Division I pitchers to reach that win total. Harrington has an ERA of 2.21 (15th in Division I) and a WHIP (walks and hits per inning pitched) of 0.89 (ninth).
“They've had a really good run the last few years of playing great, and that's where our focus needs to be right now."
Harrington hasn’t proved himself only against Big South competition. Before the start of conference play, Campbell faced three power-conference teams (Maryland, Ohio State and West Virginia) and one mid-major that made it into the NCAA Tournament as an at-large invitee (Liberty). Maryland is the No. 15 overall seed in the tournament.
In those four starts, Harrington had an ERA of 1.33 with an opponent batting average of .168 and a jaw-dropping 33/3 strikeout/walk ratio over 27 innings. He went seven innings three times and six innings once and didn’t give up more than two earned runs to any of the four teams. It was with good reason that Harrington was named one of 31 semifinalists for the Golden Spikes Award, given to the top amateur player in the country by USA Baseball, an honor shared with Tech catcher Kevin Parada, among others. Harrington is rated the No. 43 draft prospect by MLB.com.
Remarkably, according to the Baseball Prospect Journal, Harrington didn’t pitch until his junior year of high school and first joined Campbell as a walk-on.
Harrington isn’t the only Camel that Hall and the Jackets need to be wary of. In fact, according to the MLB.com list, he isn’t even Campbell’s top draft prospect. Shortstop Zach Neto is the No. 25 prospect. He leads the Big South in batting average (.398), slugging percentage (.769) and on-base percentage (.506) after leading the conference in all three categories last season.
And No. 2 starter Cade Kuehler is not much of a drop-off from Harrington, with a 3.62 ERA and an opponent batting average of .174.
Tech has been down this road before, as recently as last season. As a No. 2 seed in Vanderbilt’s regional, the Jackets faced No. 3-seed Indiana State in the opener. The Jackets trailed from the top of the first inning and were down 6-2 going into the bottom of the seventh, facing the near-impossible task of trying to win a regional from the losers bracket. The Jackets rallied to win 7-6, keeping their hopes afloat. Tech lost to Vanderbilt the next day (a 4-3 defeat in which all four runs were unearned) and beat Indiana State in an elimination game before falling to the Commodores in 11 innings to be eliminated.
Upsetting Tennessee (presumably twice) would be a challenge unto itself; the Volunteers lead Division I in ERA, home runs per game and slugging percentage. But getting past Campbell will be crucial. In the 80 four-team regionals played from 2015-19, the loser of the game between the No. 2 seed and the No. 3 won the regional only three times. And that likely means taking on Harrington. Still, as Tech has not faced a pitcher like Harrington, he similarly hasn’t seen a lineup like the Jackets’. Tech ranks in the top 10 in Division I in batting average (.324), scoring (9.3 runs per game), slugging percentage (.552) and on-base percentage (.417).
As Hall spoke with media after the selection show assessing the challenge of toppling Tennessee – the Volunteers are favorites to win the tournament and are 34-3 at home this season – he was careful not to leave out Campbell.
“They’ve had a really good run the last few years of playing great, and that’s where our focus needs to be right now,” Hall said.
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