KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Georgia baseball found its groove at No. 1 Tennessee, and not a moment too soon.
The No. 22-ranked Bulldogs (33-18, 14-13 SEC) had their backs to the wall against the Vols (45-7, 22-5) before pulling out an 8-3 victory to avoid a sweep.
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Scott Stricklin, a 50-year-old veteran coach and former minor league catcher, sensed heading into the series finale it was time to call for a changeup.
“They needed a kick in the rear, and it was angry Coach Stricklin all day today, and they responded,” said Stricklin, whose team has not been swept in an SEC series in more than three years.
“We challenged the team last night, challenged them again this morning, and we have a lot of upperclassmen on this team and they took it personally.”
As they should.
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As popular and well-liked as Stricklin and his baseball team are, many view them as a hard-luck program, the Charlie Brown of Georgia athletics.
It was tough luck getting left out of last year’s NCAA tournament, perhaps bitten by two poorly played and squandered games against Georgia Tech.
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It was bad luck when a loaded Georgia 2020 team — ranked No. 2 with elite pitching — saw its season canceled by COVID.
And before that, the most successful UGA team Stricklin has coached (46-17, 21-9) had the misfortune of drawing a red-hot Florida State team when hosting a 2019 NCAA regional.
This is season nine in Athens for Stricklin, and while the Georgia administration has yet to provide him competitive facilities (by SEC standards), one senses the Bulldogs’ skipper is growing impatient.
Georgia has made the NCAA tournament in just two of the previous seven opportunities, and neither of those teams advanced beyond the 64-team regionals.
This Georgia baseball team has a chance to do something special.
The Bulldogs brought back eight returning starters from last season and feature six in the batting order that are seniors or graduate students.
Junior pitcher Jonathan Cannon gives Georgia a true starting ace, and senior reliever Jack Gowen silenced the SEC’s No. 1 hitting team in Saturday’s 8-3 win, retiring 11 straight Tennessee hitters.
Fifth-year twins Cole and Connor Tate provide the sort of red-hot bats needed to fuel a deep postseason run, a combined 11-of-23 hitting with 7 RBIs and 3 home runs against Tennessee.
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Stricklin sees these things, and his players likely recognize time is running out on their opportunity to change the “hard luck” narrative on Georgia baseball.
Beating Tennessee and its standing-room-only crowd was a must, and not just because it bolstered UGA’s chances of host an NCAA regional after taking care of Missouri (26-21, 8-18) in the regular-season series finale.
“It’s situations like that, it’s make or break, you have to leave it all on the field and do what you have to do,” Sophomore reliever Jaden Woods said.
“It was a huge pride game, we couldn’t let them run all over us, and us just take it, that’s not the type of team we are. We’re a fighting team, and I feel like we proved it today.”
Woods, like his head coach and teammates, sees the big picture.
“I was thinking about it this morning,” Woods said, after fanning four of the seven batters he faced and pitching 2 1/3 innings of hitless relief.
“We win this game, this will be a spark for what we do the rest of the season.”
Great things can happen when mindset, talent, experience and coaching line up.
It’s like Stricklin said before Georgia went toe-to-toe with the No. 1 team and exited Knoxville with a win.
“We put ourselves in that conversation and put the bids in to do it,” Stricklin said, “We’ve done everything we need to do, except finalize it on the field.”