ATHENS — Kirby Smart showed up at Foley Field on Thursday to give the Georgia baseball team a pep talk. Between his experiences at Alabama and with the Bulldogs last fall, UGA’s football coach knows a thing or two about getting it done in the postseason. So the Diamond Dawgs, who will host the NCAA Athens Regional this weekend, listened intently.
“I’ve watched you guys the whole way, and it’s been incredible to see,” Smart said in the team meeting room. “But remember, this thing is totally about what you’ve done this far putting a great season together. Now you get to go cut loose and play and have fun in a regional right here at home in front of everybody. So all you need to be is what you’ve been all year. Continue to do what you’ve done and you’ll get what you want.”
— Georgia Baseball (@BaseballUGA) May 31, 2018
The No. 7-ranked Bulldogs (37-19) already got the biggest thing they wanted — the chance to host the regional tournament. That’s not a small deal when it comes to the program’s history. Georgia is a perfect 4 for 4 in advancing to the College World Series when it serves as regional host. Three of those times it punched its ticket to Omaha by winning Super Regionals at home, and the other time it won the Atlanta Super Regionals at Georgia Tech.
By being awarded a national seed (No. 8), the Bulldogs are assured of being home as long as they advance. The first step to that end will come if Georgia beats Big South champion Campbell (35-24) on Friday night at 7 p.m.
“I don’t think it’s a coincidence when you look at home record that we play really well here,” said Georgia coach Scott Stricklin, who is 23-6 at home this season. “The crowds have been great all year long. I think it will be electric — I know it will be electric — on Friday night.”
No. 18 Duke (40-15) will take on Troy (41-19) at 2 p.m. on Friday in the other half of the bracket. The losers will play an elimination game Saturday at 1 p.m. and the winners face off Saturday night at 7. It’s a double-elimination format, so games will be played Sunday at noon and 6 p.m. and Monday at 4 p.m., if needed.
Here are some things to be aware of as Georgia takes off on its first postseason journey since 2011:
Making the right moves
Stricklin will hand the ball to Chase Adkins to start the game Friday night, which is what he’s done most of the season. The Bulldogs moved Adkins into the No. 1 spot in early March and they couldn’t have asked for much more from the senior right-hander. He’s 5-0 with a 4.12 ERA since.
In fact, when it comes to pitching, Stricklin and his staff have been pulling all the right levers. They dropped Kevin Smith from first to third in the rotation, and he’s gone 8-1 with a 3.17 ERA. Smith will move into the No. 2 spot for the tournament this weekend, with freshman Emerson Hancock (6-4, 5.10) moving to the No. 3 spot.
Stricklin’s best move probably came in the offseason when he decided to part ways with pitching coach Fred Corral and bring in Sean Kenny from Michigan. It can’t be a coincidence that the Bulldogs’ staff ERA has dropped to 3.78, their lowest as a team in 50 years. Stricklin also brought in Pete Hughes as a volunteer coach. The longtime head coach joined the Bulldogs after losing his job as Oklahoma’s skipper at the end of last season and has given Georgia “a different perspective, different voice,” Stricklin said.
Aaron Schunk up for John Olerud Award
In a related development, sophomore Aaron Schunk was named one of three finalists Thursday for the John Olerud Two-Way Player of the Year Award. The other finalists are Brooks Wilson, a senior from Stetson, and Tanner Dodson, a junior from California. The award will be presented by the College Baseball Foundation later this summer.
Schunk is the Bulldogs’ everyday third baseman and sports a .304 batting average and .930 fielding percentage as such. He had a 22-game hitting streak that ended in the SEC Tournament. But he also has developed into Georgia’s closer, converting 8 saves in 10 opportunities and striking out 29 in 28 innings with 4 walks.
“This is a great honor for Aaron, and all three finalists are outstanding players,” Stricklin said. “I’ve had two-way players, but he’s the first who starts at third base, hits in the middle of the order and is the closer.”
Keegan McGovern earns All-America honors
Another star to watch on the Bulldogs’ roster is Keegan McGovern. The senior from Willacoochee, Ga., already had earned first-team All-SEC honors and the league’s Scholar-Athlete of the Year when he was tabbed a third-team All-America selection by Baseball America on Thursday.
It’s hard to imagine many players playing better or meaning more to their team than McGovern. The left fielder leads the Bulldogs in hitting (.325), home runs (15), doubles (14), total bases (126) and slugging percentage (.630). He’s also 7 of 8 in stolen bases and has recorded 5 assists, including a throw-out at the plate to clinch a series win over No. 4 Arkansas in the regular-season finale.
It all represents quite an improvement for McGovern, who passed on an opportunity to turn pro to return for his senior season. Now he’s hitting 51 points higher than his previous career average and more than doubled his previous career homer output (11).
“I couldn’t be happier for Keegan,” Stricklin said. “This is what he came back for, to get better and lead his team into the postseason.”
Defense is another area in which the Bulldogs have shown dramatic improvement since last season when they missed the postseason for the sixth straight year. In fact, Georgia’s current field percentage of .979 is one point better than the season record of .978 recorded in 2012. Sophomore shortstop Cam Shepherd has only 5 errors with 154 assists.
How ’bout them Camels?!
Georgia appears to have gotten a soft draw by getting Campbell (35-24) in the first round, but don’t count out the Camels. They were both regular-season and tournament champions of the always competitive Big South Conference.
Campbell is led by outfielder/pitcher Matthew Barefoot — what a great name is that? — who is coming in red hot. The redshirt sophomore from Dunn, N.C., was named Big South tournament MVP after going 10 for 19 (.526) with 5 doubles, 7 runs scored and 3 RBI over five games. The Camels will pitch 6-2, 185-pound senior Allan Winans, who is 6-4 with a 2.61 ERA and 89 strikeouts in 76 innings.
“When you get to this level, everybody is good,” Stricklin said. “Everybody’s going to have guys on the mound who can shut you down. We’re going to have to play our best to get out of this regional.”