ATHENS — The Houston County pitching duel didn’t last long and neither did the Mercer Bears as the Georgia Bulldogs dispatched their visitors from Central Georgia quickly and without mercy on the way to a 13-3 win in the NCAA Athens Regional Friday.
Had there been a mercy rule, it might’ve been invoked in the third inning when it was already 13-0 and the Bulldogs had clubbed three home runs. Alas, there is not, so they played a full nine innings until reaching the final score.
“Tough environment. Georgia is as good as their ranking, their national seed,” Mercer coach Craig Gibson said. “Tony Locey was dominant from the first pitch. That was the best arm we’ve seen all year. Man, that’s a great club, a fun club to watch but tough to be on the other side of.”
The victory places Georgia in the winner’s bracket, where it will face third-seeded Florida State (44-19) Saturday night at 7 p.m. With the wind blowing hard out to center at Foley Field, the Seminoles played their own version of Long Ball Derby in the early-afternoon opener against Florida Atlantic. They won 13-7 in a game that featured nine home runs, six by FSU.
The Bulldogs (45-15) will face FSU’s big bats with sophomore right-hander Emerson Hancock (8-2, 1.56 ERA). The Seminoles will counter with sophomore righty C.J. Van Eyk (7-0), who brings in an undefeated record along with a 2.86 ERA.
“Florida State hits a lot of balls a long way,” Georgia coach Scott Stricklin said. “They’ve got a very good pitcher in Van Eyk going, but we’ve got a pretty good guy, too, in Emerson Hancock. So it should be a good pitching matchup. But the ball’s jumping, for sure.”
The Owls (40-20) will face off against Mercer (35-28) Saturday at noon in the elimination game.
Mercer arrived in Athens having won five straight to come out of the loser’s bracket and win the Southern Conference Tournament in Greenville, S.C. The Bears also had won four out its last five games against Georgia, the last win coming in 2017.
But Georgia quickly squashed any notion of an upset very quickly. The Bulldogs’ first five batters reached against Mercer starter Tanner Hall (8-6), including Aaron Schunk, who clubbed his first home run of the night. Georgia would bat around, with leadoff hitter Tucker Maxwell hitting a grand slam his second time at the plate. That staked the Bulldogs to an 8-0 lead.
Hall had been the teammate of Georgia starter Tony Locey — and UGA quarterback Jake Fromm — when the two pitchers helped Houston County win a state baseball championship in 2016.
Locey’s night started markedly different. The 6-foot-3, 225-pound junior gave up a leadoff hit. But with 11 pro baseball scouts lined up in the concourse behind home play with their radar guns trained on his pitches, Locey struck out the next five batters in a row. He’d go on to strike out two more against one walk and left the game in the fifth inning holding a 13-0 lead.
“I thought Tony set the tone in the first inning,” Stricklin said. “He gave up a lead-off single and there is a lot of emotion in the opening game of a regional. He knows those guys and they know him, so there was a lot of emotion. But Tony was really focused, struck out the side and that gave us some momentum going into the dugout. Then we scored eight runs.”
Locey improved to 11-2 on the season and the Bulldogs improved to 14-1 in games that he has started this season.
Georgia’s bats stayed hot until the middle innings when Stricklin was able to empty his bench and get his reserves some work. Schunk hit two home runs and finished with five RBI. Maxwell did him one better by driving in six runs, getting three hits and finishing a triple away from hitting for the cycle.
The Bulldogs pounded out 15 hits and played 17 players.
“This is the goal we’ve had set for ourselves since this time a year ago,” said Schunk, who’s a finalist the John Olerud two-way player award. “This is what all the works been for and getting this first win feels really good.”
The NCAA was the big winner. Friday’s outcome sets up another marquee postseason matchup between Georgia and FSU. The two storied programs have battled seven times in NCAA regionals, with the Bulldogs winning four of them, and they’ve often been decided in dramatic fashion.
The Seminoles won the last matchup in 2009, but Georgia beat them in a 3-2 thriller 2006 Athens Regional to advance to College World Series. Martin, a Hall of Fame coach, has been around that one and all the others. He’s announced that he’s retiring at the season’s end. This is his 40th at FSU.