By BILL BALLEW
When the six major outlets that generate national baseball rankings released their pre-season polls for the 2018 slate, not one included a single vote for the Georgia Bulldogs.
In many ways that’s understandable. After all, the Dawgs have not had a winning season since 2012, when Georgia went 31-26, and have failed to break the .500 mark in Scott Stricklin’s four campaigns as head coach. In 2017, UGA went 25-32 overall, including 11-19 during the Southeastern Conference’s regular season, and was one-and-done in the league tournament after narrowly earning its way into the event.
A closer look, however, would suggest that Georgia could be on the upswing, which should have merited at least the slightest bit of recognition from those casting votes. The Bulldogs qualified for last year’s SEC Tournament by winning their last three league series, all against ranked teams, including two on the road. Georgia’s run featured series triumphs at fourth-ranked Kentucky, versus sixth-ranked Mississippi State in Athens, and at No. 30 South Carolina, a stretch in which they went 6-3. The 2001 slate marked the last time Georgia had posted three consecutive SEC series wins over ranked teams.
What’s more, Stricklin returned his entire lineup from a year ago, which was among the youngest in the country. Four current sophomores are building on impressive freshman showings, a group that includes shortstop Cam Shepherd (.346/.438/.538), center fielder Tucker Maxwell (.333/.409/.333), right fielder Tucker Bradley (.259/.313/.259) and third baseman Aaron Schunk (.250/.357/.375). Add to that a freshman class that was unscathed by professional baseball for the second straight season and it should not be a surprise that Georgia has jumped out to a 6-1 start after this weekend’s three-game sweep over Charlotte.
The Bulldogs’ success thus far can be attributed in part to a couple of veterans. Junior Michael Curry (.429/.469/.679) is second on the team in batting average and RBIs (12) while leading Georgia with four doubles. He also has two 3-hit games on the young season. Curry garnered All-SEC First Team designated hitter honors last year after ranking among the league leaders with 10 home runs, 46 RBIs and a .484 slugging percentage. At times over the past two years he has been the primary offensive weapon on a team that has struggled to score runs.
That scenario has yet to manifest in 2018. After scoring 22 runs on Opening Day (the most of any Division 1 team on February 16), Georgia has reached double digits three times in the last four games. A major reason is the blazing bat of senior left fielder Keegan McGovern (pictured above), who has six home runs and 13 RBIs to go with his .480 batting average, .594 on-base percentage and outrageous 1.240 slugging percentage.
In the second game of Saturday’s doubleheader against the 49ers, McGovern belted three home runs to guide the Bulldogs to the 10-7 triumph. His first home run of the game came in the fourth when he launched a ball over the right field scoreboard. Two innings later, McGovern clubbed a two-run homer to right-center field. He concluded his heroics with a blast that hit the center field backdrop.
“Keegan is seeing the ball really well,” Stricklin said. “He’s very comfortable, and he’s just loose and relaxed at the plate. He’s got a lot of bat speed, and he’s got a lot of strength. When he’s seeing the ball like he is right now, he’s a tough out because he walked three times. If he’s not getting his pitches, he walks, and that’s what great hitters do. Keegan right now is on fire, and it’s just great to see.”
McGovern’s six home runs this year match his season-high he set as a sophomore. He also leads the team with seven walks, which has allowed him to reach base in every game so far this year. Add in the effects of his revamped swing and the results have been remarkable, leading to his garnering one of 11 national player of the week honors from Collegiate Baseball.
“I’d say the last couple months I’ve been trying to change my swing,” McGovern said. “Just try to get my hands in a position to get a little more lift on the ball, and I think that’s one of the main things that’s helped me out so far.”
Sophomore pitcher Will Proctor says that McGovern’s in-game performance is not unlike the consistent showings he posts during practice.
“He does that in BP literally every day,” said Proctor, who is 2-1 in three appearances this season out of the Georgia bullpen. “He does it on command. Somebody says, ‘Home run round’ and everything is going over the fence. It’s ridiculous. And the fact that he can do that well in games, that’s six home runs in seven games, five this week. If he’s not National Player of the Week, I don’t know who is.”
Granted, Georgia’s performance thus far has not come against SEC competition. The Bulldogs’ pitching staff will also have to carry its share of the load after struggling for much of the past four years. Fortunately there also is hope on the bump, with senior Chase Adkins (1-0, 1.64 ERA) and freshman Emerson Hancock (2.45 ERA) pitching well in the weekend rotation and freshman C.J. Smith, sophomores Zack Kristofak and Christian Ryder ,and juniors Adam Goodman and Trevor Tinder looking strong out of the bullpen.
The SEC has a tendency to grind up the best programs, a fact Georgia has encountered in the recent past. But given the team’s progress and continuing growth in multiple areas, the Bulldogs may prove their bark is worth some bites from the national pundits in the near future.
ECU Up, UNC Down
The 2017 season was a disappointing one for the ECU Pirates. Head coach Cliff Godwin’s team entered the campaign ranked among the nation’s top 10 yet went 32-28 overall, including a brutal 7-17 record in the American Athletic Conference. Conversely, the North Carolina Tar Heels put together an impressive 49-14 overall record and a 23-7 mark in the Atlantic Coast Conference and earned a national seed before suffering a pair of stunning losses to Davidson in the Chapel Hill Regional.
ECU attracted little attention in the national polls heading into this season, while the Tar Heels were a consensus top 10 team, with most placing head coach Mike Fox’s club at sixth or seventh. Thus far in 2018, it has been a tale of two programs, with the Pirates enjoying a 6-1 start to the campaign and the Heels struggling to an uncharacteristic 3-5 mark.
The two teams met in a traveling series this weekend. The Pirates won the opening contest on Friday in Greenville, 2-1, with the sophomore pitching tandem of Trey Benton and Tyler Smith allowing only two hits and combining to strike out 13 batters. Benton was named America Athletic Conference Pitcher of the Week for his performance. A crowd of 5,382, the third largest in Clark-LeClair Stadium history, assembled to see the contest.
“Trey Benton was awesome with 11 punch outs in six innings and then Tyler Smith coming out there and just filling up the strike zone, getting ground ball after ground ball,” Godwin said. “Two great pitching performances by our guys, which we needed because their pitchers were very good as well. Neither pitching staff gave you a lot of free opportunities, so tough hitting conditions tonight against quality pitching on both sides. We felt Tyler was a good match-up against their two, three and four hitters because they are kind of fastball guys, so that’s why we left him in there at the end.”
On Saturday night in front of 4,508 fans at Durham Bulls Athletic Park, North Carolina’s Michael Busch drove in a pair of runs and three Tar Heel hurlers combined for 12 strikeouts in a 5-4 win over the Pirates. UNC starter Tyler Baum fanned eight in 4 2/3 innings and allowed three earned runs on five hits.
The series concluded in Chapel Hill on Sunday when ECU’s Chris Holba tossed seven shutout innings and Jake Washer drove in a career-high four runs to guide the Pirates to a 12-0 win at Boshamer Stadium. The three-game series drew a total of 12,565 fans, but a modest 2,675 on Sunday.
In starting the slate 3-5, the Tar Heels have faced one of the toughest schedules in the nation thus far. They traveled to South Florida and won two of three on opening weekend before returning home and dropping a pair of mid-week games to UNC Wilmington and St. John’s. Throw in the three-game set versus a determined ECU club and it’s understandable why the early going has been bumpy for Carolina.
Fox understands the scenario. He was encouraging following the Tar Heels’ 5-2 loss to St. John’s last Wednesday, saying, “We are getting experience. Experience is what you get when you don’t get what you want, and that’s what we are getting right now. Experience. No need to panic. It’s a long season. When you get 10 hits and give up one earned run, you expect to win.”
Riley Johnson tossed the first solo no-hitter of the 2018 college baseball season on Friday, February 23, when the North Dakota State posted a 2-0 victory over Central Connecticut State at South County Regional Park in the opening game of the Snowbird Baseball Classic in Punta Gorda, Florida.
A sophomore righthander from Apple Valley, Minnesota, Johnson became the first Bison to throw a solo no-hitter since Jay Mitchell accomplished the feat against Augustana (S.D.) during the 2004 season. Former NDSU baseball players Chad Berg and Chris Paterson pitched a combined no-hitter at Creighton in 2008. Johnson struck out a career-high eight batters and tallied just one walk in his nine, no-hit innings to improve to 2-0 on the season. The victory also marked the 250th career triumph for NDSU head coach Tod Brown, who is in his 11th season with the program.
On Saturday, Washington Huskies junior Joe DeMers made history in game one of a doubleheader at Husky Ballpark by throwing the first perfect game in UW history and only the fifth by a Pac-12 pitcher. DeMers needed 84 pitches to retire the 27 UC Riverside batters in order in the 8-0 victory.
DeMers struck out nine Highlanders and reached a three-ball count once in recording the ninth no-hitter in Washington annals. He threw more than 10 pitches in just three innings and had to throw only 30 offerings in a four-inning span, from the fourth to the seventh.
“It was awesome. Everything was working for me,” said DeMers, who has not allowed an earned run through his first 15 innings this season. “JK (pitching coach Jason Kelly) and I were on the same page and the defense was great behind me, so I was just filling in the zone.”
The last no-hitter by the Huskies was a combined no-no on March 12, 2006, by Tim Lincecum and Nick Hagadone. DeMers’ perfect game is the 27th at the Division 1 level, dating back to 1959.
Finally, on Sunday, Stetson sophomore Mitchel Senger struck out 16 George Washington batters while allowing one walk and hitting two batters to no-hit the Colonials in a 3-0 victory for the Hatters. Senger improved to 2-0 on the season and was never in trouble while throwing only 109 pitches despite all of the strikeouts.
The no-hitter is the fifth in Stetson baseball history and the first since Chris Byrnes no-hit Rider College in 1986. The triumph allowed the Hatters to improve to 6-1 on the season.