After last season was canceled after 16 games because of the pandemic, the Jackets find themselves in a different place, as has been case the across college athletics. The pandemic opened the door for multiple players to return – namely outfielder Colin Hall, pitcher Brant Hurter, shortstop Luke Waddell, second baseman Austin Wilhite – either through the NCAA’s decision to grant all spring-sports athletes an extra season of eligibility or Major League Baseball’s decision to shorten the draft to five rounds, thereby limiting pro-baseball opportunities.
On the other hand, the shortened season limited the development of younger players. Some haven’t played actual games since March.
“I think everybody on our team is excited to get a chance to play baseball again,” Danny Hall said.
In Colin Hall, Waddell and Wilhite, Tech has a combined 364 starts, one of the premier double-play combinations in college baseball (Waddell and Wilhite) and a gifted outfielder (Hall). Hurter is returning from Tommy John surgery that kept him out of the 2020 season after he had a 2.42 ERA and a .199 opponent batting average in 2019.
“We’re extremely excited to get him back out there,” said Hall, a four-time ACC coach of the year.
Hurter is at the top of a pitching staff that is as deep as Hall has had in several years. Where his bullpen has often been a vulnerability in recent seasons, he has an experienced arm in Luke Bartnicki and a flamethrower in Zach Maxwell, who can hit the high 90′s and last season had a .104 opponent batting average in 14-1/3 innings as a freshman.
While the 2020 season ended before Tech got into the meat of its ACC schedule, the Jackets’ ERA (3.65) and strikeouts per nine innings (10.9) were considerably improved on the 2019 numbers – 4.46 and 8.5, respectively. With Borrell having had more time to work with his staff – Andy Archer and Sam Crawford will join Hurter in making the initial starts against Eastern Kentucky – Tech can build on the solid, if abbreviated, start.
However, a significant variable for Hall is the rest of the lineup after Colin Hall, Waddell and Wilhite. Because of the shortened 2020 season and the departure of multiple-year starters like Baron Radcliff (drafted in the fifth round by Philadelphia) and Michael Guldberg (third round by Oakland), no other player on the roster has more than 75 plate appearances.
There is plenty of potential, starting with freshman catcher Kevin Parada, who was ranked the No. 48 draft prospect by the MLB website last summer but wasn’t drafted because of his intentions to enroll at Tech. Parada is competing with returning starter Jake Holland, whom Danny Hall called the most improved player on the team.
“I think that he is going to hit from the get-go,” Hall said of Parada. “And there’ll be days when he looks like a freshman, but there’ll be days when he looks like a high draft pick and an All-American, as well, with a bat in his hands.”
Such is Hall’s talent level that he shared a dilemma of having to potentially keep one of the trio of Drew Compton, Andrew Jenkins and Stephen Reid – two of whom earned freshman All-American honors last year (Compton and Reid) and the third who may well have had he not gotten hurt – on the bench.
“That’s what keeps you up at night because I think all three of those guys are hitters that can do damage, they can hit with power,” Hall said.
The hope is not solely internal. Tech was picked by the ACC’s coaches to finish third in the Coastal Division behind Miami and Virginia, the same as last season. No fewer than five outlets or polls have placed the Jackets in their preseason Top 25.
The wait continues for Tech to do damage in the postseason – the Jackets have not advanced past the opening weekend of the NCAA tournament since 2006, also the year of their most recent of three College World Series trips, despite nine NCAA appearances in that time.
But, Hall’s plan is for the improvement in facilities and the upgrade in coaching staff to help the Jackets get back there. Hall has brought in three consecutive signing classes ranked in the top 20 nationally. The website D1Baseball rated seven Tech players among the top 25 draft prospects in the ACC for 2022, a group that includes freshman pitcher Marquis Grissom, the son of the former Braves outfielder.
Having a young team that won’t have much time to get on its feet this season, thanks to a shortened schedule, will be an obstacle. The Jackets start ACC play next weekend against N.C. State, followed by Louisville, possibly the two top teams in the ACC.
But, as for the rest of the challenges faced by the Jackets – as Hall indicated, they’re mostly good ones to have.