ATHENS — On the surface, there would have appeared to be nothing but pride on the line for the Georgia Bulldogs as they played host to Georgia Tech Tuesday night at Foley Field. But from where UGA skipper Scott Stricklin is sitting, there remains an NCAA regional bid on the line — and that was before Tuesday’s 13-5 victory.
A closer look reveals that Stricklin might not be just wildly optimistic. The Bulldogs (22-20, 7-11 SEC) went into Tuesday’s contest against the No. 25-ranked Yellow Jackets (27-14, 10-10 ACC) boasting the nation’s No. 1-ranked strength of schedule and an RPI of 28. The way Stricklin figures it, there’s a way in, and it’s not that much of a stretch.
“The message to the kids is just play good baseball down the stretch and we’re going to be in the tournament,” Stricklin said after Tuesday’s 14-hit onslaught. “I told them when we had 15 games left 8-7 puts us at 29-27. Now I want everyone to understand, I hope we go 15-0 down the stretch. But I want our kids to understand that with the teams that are ahead of us, we just need to play good solid baseball and that’s the bare minimum. We knocked one off today and that gives us some momentum going to Nashville.”
The Bulldogs are indeed putting up a good argument. They are in the midst of the most grueling stretch of schedule in school history. Tuesday’s game represented Georgia’s 16th straight against ranked opponents, and the Bulldogs are 7-9 in those games. And those teams weren’t barely ranked. It included two three-game series against No. 2-ranked teams (South Carolina and Florida) the last two weekends and tilts against No. 3 (Texas A&M), a No. 12-ranked Clemson team and 3-1 win over Georgia Tech when it was still ranked 19th.
That streak of games against ranked teams will continue. SEC series against No. 6 Vanderbilt and No. 9 Ole Miss await the next two weekends. That should take the stretch to 22 games versus ranked opponents.
Never mind conference record. Apparently the selection committee quit caring about that, at least in regard to the baseball-stout SEC. Last year Auburn finished 36-26 and 13-17 and made the tournament.
“We really want to finish strong for the seniors,” said sophomore third baseman Mitchell Webb, who had three RBIs on two hits, including a mammoth home run. “We really want to get them on to a regional and keep building momentum. We have a 14-game season now and we just need to take it one game at a time.”
As for Tuesday night’s game, the Bulldogs have pitcher Heath Holder to thank for staking them to a good start. The senior right-hander from Loganville struck out six and gave up only two hits and a single walk in four overpowering innings. He was pulled after four innings but was awarded the win on a pre-established “staff night.”
Meanwhile, Tech’s pitchers had a rough night. Starter Zac Ryan (1-2) lasted just two innings. Then his relief promptly issued five walks between two pitchers as the Bulldogs racked up six runs in the bottom of the third inning.
The Bulldogs feasted with eight hits in the first four innings, including a double by Skyler Weber and triple by LJ Talley. Webb’s towering home run to left field came in the seventh. Remarkably, a pick-off just before extended the Bulldogs’ solo home run streak to 21.
Tech got on the board with a run in the fifth and three more in the seventh but left six runners stranded in the meantime. Two of those came in the seventh when it appeared Georgia had balked a run home. It was overruled because Tech’s batter, Grant Wruble, was determined to have called timeout before the infraction. Georgia’s Shane Tucker then got the strikeout to end the threat.
“We never gave ourselves a chance,” Tech coach Danny Hall said. “We got behind from the start. I felt like at 3-0, we had a shot. But we gave them six runs in the third on two hits, really. That’s disappointing.”
With the victory, Georgia has won every contest it has had with Tech except one. The Bulldogs lost in women’s volleyball but have defeated the Yellow Jackets in every other head-to-head competition in the 2015-16 academic year, 11-1 overall.
As for the postseason picture, what Stricklin is proposing is not that outlandish. In fact, Georgia pulled off something similar in 2011 when it went 29-27 against a sadistic schedule and found its way into the Oregon State regional. The Bulldogs won one more in postseason play and finished 30-29.
In this case, after Tuesday’s win Georgia will need to win at least seven of the last 14 to be assured of a winning record at the end of it all. The Bulldogs would be 29-27 in that case and hard to deny.
Stricklin has told his charges as much.
“I’ve just always been really honest with my teams,” Stricklin said. “I just told them this is what we need to do. My other message was need to do it for these seniors. These seniors haven’t played in the NCAA tournament, and that shouldn’t happen at Georgia. So this is what we need to do, and we all know we’re capable of doing it.”