ATHENS — First let’s talk about what happened in Georgia’s baseball game on Saturday, then we’ll talk about what has happened this season.
The abridged version: Keegan McGovern, Mr. Everything for the Bulldogs, threw out an Arkansas runner at home plate to win the game 3-2. That’s right, a day after recording a win over No. 6 Arkansas with a 10th-inning, walk-off hit, No. 13 Georgia won with a walk-off, throw-out from its left fielder in the last game of the regular season.
If you hadn’t thought so before, it’s about now you start to think, “maybe this Georgia team is something special.”
“I thought that already,” said Scott Stricklin, the Bulldogs’ fifth-year coach. “But I’ve never seen a game end like that before.”
Stricklin, you’ll note, has overseen 815 games as a college head coach and participated in about 60 a year since he first played college ball at Kent State in 1990. So, yes, it was unusual play, on multiple levels.
First was the fact that Arkansas sent its runner from third base on a shallow fly ball on the foul line while tied with one out in the top of the ninth. Then there was the notability of the person fielding the ball. McGovern had 3 prior assists on the season, including one Thursday in another play at the plate.
For what it’s worth, Arkansas coach Dave Van Horn said it was his decision and he didn’t regret it.
“I was surprised he went,” said McGovern, a senior who hit his 15th home run in the game and is on the Golden Spikes watch list. “But as the ball was coming down, everybody was yelling ‘4, 4, 4,’ so I knew where I had to go with it.”
Almost literally, McGovern delivered a strike. His throw to catcher Austin Biggar came in knee high on the line and never touched the ground. Biggar simply had to catch it and fall forward to tag out the hard-sliding Heston Kjerstad, who’d led off the inning with a double and went to third on a passed ball. So that’s how the inning had begun, with a runner on third and no outs.
Yet the Bulldogs wiggled out of it. Of course.
And that’s what they’ve been doing all year, mostly. Even the ones they’ve lost have been heart-palpitating thrillers. This bunch competes like they’re livelihood depends on it.
— Georgia Baseball (@BaseballUGA) May 19, 2018
For Stricklin, it actually did. No bones about it. He entered the fifth year of his six-year deal to be Georgia’s coach without an NCAA Regional appearance and with athletic director Greg McGarity answering questions about why Stricklin hadn’t already been fired.
That’s no longer on the table. The only inevitability now is a contract extension. He might even have a bonus coming for SEC Coach of the Year. Truly, if it went to anybody else at this point, an investigation might be warranted.
Some facts to consider: Georgia has recorded its lowest team ERA (3.66 coming in) in 50 years, a tribute both to Stricklin and the new pitching coach he brought in from Michigan this year, Sean Kenny. They’re also hitting 30 points higher and fielding 17 points better.
And they’re versatile. The game Saturday was a perfect example. The Bulldogs scored 1 run via 2 bunts and 2 runs via 2 homers.
“We can win a lot of different ways,” Stricklin said.
And now they’ve already won 10 more games than Stricklin’s previous best season. Accordingly, there is a bunch more to play for at this point.
Arkansas (37-17, 18-12 SEC) came in with a national RPI of No. 3; Georgia (37-17, 18-12) was No. 4. The victory also assured the Bulldogs of the 3 seed and a first-round bye in the SEC Tournament next week in Hoover, Ala. They’ll open Wednesday morning at 10:30 a.m. ET against an opponent to be determined.
Georgia hasn’t been in this position since 2008, when it last hosted a Super Regional and was a College World Series finalist. The Bulldogs hadn’t even won an SEC Tournament game since Stricklin has been in town.
Even if they don’t next week, it shouldn’t matter. The thought is that Georgia already has locked down a “super seed.” Those go to the nation’s top 8 teams.
“We better be,” said Michael Curry, who hit his 10th homer of the season in the game. “I don’t know how we couldn’t be.”
But even that’s not what it’s all about for these guys anymore. They’re having fun. They’re getting contributions from everybody down the lineup. They’re not just expecting it to win, but demanding it.
“We knew it at the end of last year that we could win a lot more games,” said McGovern, the hulking left fielder from Willacoochee. “It’s probably a shock to everybody else but it isn’t to us.”