Mix of young stars, grizzled veterans winning formula for Georgia baseball
ATHENS — With a name like Schunk, he has to be good.
And he is.
Never mind my lame play on the famous jingle of Smuckers jams and jellies — “With a name like Smuckers, it has to be good” — there’s nothing silly about Georgia’s Aaron Schunk. Wait, check that. He is a little silly. A fan of the rapper Eminem, his Twitter handle is @RealSlimSchuncky. Aside from that, the third baseman/closer is one big reason the Bulldogs are having the season they are this year.
You’ll learn more about this hard-throwing, base-knocking sophomore in Corey Knapp’s profile on Schunk on DawgNation.com. But, in a nutshell, he’s the modern-day rarity of a two-way player who embodies his team’s gritty, never-say-die attitude.
“We’ve known we were a good team since the first game of the season when we came back from three runs down against Georgia Southern,” said Schunk, who will lead the Bulldogs into the SEC Tournament in Hoover, Ala., as a No. 3 seed on Wednesday. “Nobody was thinking of Georgia as a national seed, but here we are.”
Well, they’re not yet. But as they prepare for an early wake-up call Wednesday — a 9:30 a.m. CT first pitch at Hoover Metropolitan Stadium — the Bulldogs (37-17) are considered pretty much a lock to receive a national seed next week for the NCAA Tournament. They enter with an RPI of No. 3, which means not only will they host a regional next week, but also a Super Regional if they advance. Georgia hasn’t done that since 2008, when it last advanced to the College World Series and finished as national runner-up.
That’s a long way from where the Bulldogs were last year and, well, every year since Scott Stricklin has been their coach. This will be their first NCAA tourney appearance in his five seasons at the helm of the program.
What has materialized is a team that’s worth the wait, with guys such as Schunk and teammate C.J. Smith playing in the field and throwing from the mound, guys such as Keegan Bradley, Adam Sasser and Michael Curry blasting home runs, and guys such as shortstop Cam Shepherd sucking up ground balls like a Hoover vacuum.
Schunk enters the SEC Tournament on a 22-game hitting streak. He’s hitting .315 on the season while sporting a 2-1 record and 2.13 ERA with 8 saves in nine opportunities as the Bulldogs closer.
It’s a role that always has been envisioned for this 6-foot-2, 203-pound graduate of Atlanta’s Lovett School.
“When I first came here, Coach Stricklin said he had no problem with me being a third baseman and pitching,” Schunk said. “He wanted to be careful with my arm, so I started out throwing about an inning a week in the fall. I got a save in my first attempt and that’s kind of been my role since.”
When examining the transformation of Georgia baseball this season, it is pitching where you’ll find the biggest difference. The Bulldogs don’t really feature a bunch of star hurlers or even one ace, really. But what they have is group of pitchers who understand their roles, throw strikes and keep their team in games.
Georgia’s team earned-run average of 3.71 is the school’s lowest in 50 years. A lot of that credit has to go to Stricklin’s new pitching coach. He brought in Sean Kenny from Michigan, where he was twice Big Ten assistant coach of the year.
“Oh, big time,” Stricklin said of the difference Kenny has made. “He’s done a great job. He’s got a great bedside manner, is what I call it. He communicates well with these guys. When he’s upset, it’s a different kind of upset than me. I’m the loud guy; I’m more of a yeller. He communicates with them well, they trust him and he has taught them how they have to be able throw that secondary pitch for a strike.”
Said Schunk: “He does his research and just knows a lot about the game. He makes sure we know what it is we’re trying to do. I used to just throw everything hard. He helped teach me about pitching.”
But it goes a lot deeper than pitching. The Bulldogs lead the SEC with a .982 fielding percentage, are hitting .286 as a team, average 6.4 runs a game and have hit 54 home runs, the most since 2009. The left fielder McGovern (.330, 15 HR, 44 RBI) is a Golden Spikes Award candidate.
It all adds together to put Georgia in an interesting spot. After scratching and clawing just to make the 12-team SEC tourney field the last four years, the Bulldogs now just want to get in and out without much stress and strain on their roster. Certainly they’d like to record the first tournament title in school history, but that’s not really the end-game this year.
Georgia is eyeing Omaha and has the team to get there.
“The goal is to win every time you compete,” Stricklin said. “That will be our goal this week as well. We just might not push somebody to go as long or hard as we might next week.”
A different approach for the Diamond Dawgs, for sure.