When the Georgia baseball team has a lead in the seventh inning of a tight game, sophomore closer Aaron Schunk meets with pitching coach Sean Kenny in the dugout. They go over a plan of attack for when Schunk will enter the game to pitch, and then he will head to the bullpen, where he needs only 10 to 15 warm-up pitches until his arm — and his mind — are ready to take the mound.
Schunk’s routine doesn’t take much longer than Bulldogs fans singing “Take Me Out To The Ballgame” during the seventh-inning stretch. He’s already pretty loose, given that he has been playing third base and hitting in the lineup all game.
Getting the final three outs of the game is just part of what Schunk brings to the diamond for No. 13 Georgia (37-17, 18-12 SEC). He has started every game of the 2018 season at third base, and he bats in the middle of a potent Bulldogs lineup.
Schunk’s versatility has become vital to Georgia’s resurgence this season. Georgia enters the SEC Tournament in Hoover, Ala., this week as the third seed, hoping to secure a top-8 national seed in what would be the Bulldogs first NCAA Tournament appearance since 2011.
Schunk and the Bulldogs will begin double-elimination play at 10:30 a.m. ET on Wednesday against Texas A&M, which defeated Vanderbilt on Tuesday afternoon.
After a freshman season during which Schunk only pitched once because his arm wasn’t physically ready, the sophomore from Atlanta has 8 saves, 26 strikeouts and a 2.13 ERA in 25⅓ innings as the Georgia closer, numbers that would qualify among the nation’s best if he pitched more, perhaps exclusively.
But Georgia wouldn’t be maximizing Schunk’s — or its own — potential if all he did was pitch. His value is that pitching is one of the many things he does very well.
“We envisioned this last year,” Georgia coach Scott Stricklin said. “I had a talk with him this fall and said, ‘We’re gonna need you to pitch for us to be as good as we can be.'”
He was right.
Even after a left thumb injury that cost him the final month of his freshman season and required surgery and summer rehab, and even with the added workload of pitching regularly, Schunk returned unfazed in 2018. He’s back playing steady and reliable defense at third base and brings a .315 batting average, 36 RBI, and 22-game hitting streak — the longest active streak in the SEC — into the conference tournament.
“Mentally I’ve grown up really fast,” Schunk said. “For me the biggest thing is being able to come through for my teammates in every aspect. I obviously didn’t expect to be doing so much, but I really appreciate the coaches and the guys having faith in me. And the biggest thing that I can do for them is give it my all and come through for them, and that’s what I look forward to every day.”
Schunk’s development has been a team effort around Foley Field. He credits Kenny for turning him into a “thinking pitcher” who can “dissect” pitching instead of just throwing hard, and Stricklin credits Kenny and defensive coach Pete Hughes for working together to make sure Schunk does not overwork himself during infield practices in order to keep his arm fresh. They all know the unique weapon Schunk has become.
“The guy that comes to mind to me is Mark Kotsay,” Stricklin said, comparing Schunk to the former Cal State Fullerton outfielder, closer, All American, Golden Spikes Award Winner and College World Series Champion and Most Outstanding Player. “It’s pretty rare to be a guy that’s a middle-of-the-order-type hitter, a plus defender and also one of the best closers in the country.”
Among the numbers Schunk has produced so far in 2018, the most impressive stat has to be his strikeout-to-walk ratio as the closer. While averaging more than 1 strikeout per inning, Schunk has only walked 4 batters all season, which becomes more critical pitching in the pressure situations he enters late in games.
“That’s why we like him so much in those situations because he throws strikes,” Stricklin said. “He just limits the free bases so much. He’s got quality stuff, but he throws so many strikes. … It’s comforting to know we have him back there.”
For Schunk, his confidence in himself pushes him through those high-intensity moments.
“When I’m on the mound, and honestly when I’m doing anything, I’m thinking that my best stuff is better than the other guy’s best stuff,” he said. “Whether that be a hitter or me going up against a pitcher, I think that I can do better than he can. And I’m not gonna let somebody get away free, and so throwing strikes is a big part of my mentality on the mound.”
In the SEC Tournament and then the NCAA Tournament, Georgia can expect plenty of close games. Many coaches in both college and professional baseball love to bring their closers in earlier in the postseason, effectively shortening the game. Two of Schunk’s saves this season have lasted more than the standard single inning, and he’s ready for Stricklin to use him in any situation to help the team, whether he has to get one or six outs to end the game.
For Stricklin, that approach is one he will consider game by game but with caution. He noted that if he brings in a position player to pitch, he loses the designated hitter in his lineup. For Georgia, that’s Michael Curry, the Bulldogs’ RBI leader (47). So if Stricklin brought in Schunk too early, taking the bat out of Curry’s hands would be a negative consequence.
“Anything’s on the table when you get in the postseason,” he said.
It’ll be hard for the Bulldogs to go wrong relying on Schunk on the mound, in the field or at the plate. His confidence is high but not in a brash way. It’s an attitude reflecting his teammates’ and coaches’ trust in him and his belief in himself, so he’s going to come through for them, plain and simple.
The 27th out is always the hardest one to record in a baseball game. So, two outs, runner at third, 1-run game — does Schunk prefer to be the closer or the man in the batter’s box, trying to secure or prevent that final out?
“That’s a tough question,” he says with a big smile. “Obviously I’d want to shut it down on the mound, but if I got the opportunity to do it at the plate, that’s where I’d want to do it.”
There’s a chance he could do both for Georgia in Hoover this week, as well as on the Bulldogs’ entire postseason road to Omaha.