ATHENS — Georgia is going to go with Tony Locey as its first-game starter in the NCAA Athens Regional this weekend.
It wasn’t an easy decision. Then again, the Bulldogs couldn’t really make a bad one either.
Georgia, the NCAA Tournament’s No. 4 seed, features one of the best starting rotations in all of college baseball. So whether to go with the junior Locey or the sophomore Emerson Hancock was akin to which shotgun to use on a dove shoot. They’re both quite capable of bagging your quarry.
For Georgia coach Scott Stricklin and his staff, it was about sticking with what has been working. And having the 6-foot-3, 235-pound Locey on the mound for a Friday start has proved to be a winning formula for the Bulldogs (44-15), who open regional play against Mercer (36-21) this Friday at 7 p.m. at Foley Field.
“Tony’s going to get the ball and we’re excited about that,” Stricklin said after the Bulldogs’ workout Wednesday at Foley Field. “He’s a competitive kid and he wants to win more than anybody, it doesn’t matter if you’re playing him in checkers or basketball or whatever it is. He wants to compete and win.”
Georgia is 12-1 this season in games that Locey (10-2, 2.68 ERA) has started. Teams are hitting just .160 against him and he has 86 strikeouts in 81.1 innings.
“We’ve been looking forward to this game ever since we starting weight-training last fall,” said Locey, who was charged with the loss in relief this past Saturday. “We had a bitter taste in our mouth coming off Duke last year. We remember that feeling.”
Hancock (8-2, 1.31) has better overall pitching numbers — more strikeouts (91), fewer walks (18) etc. — but was moved from his Friday night spot to Saturday due to an injury and the timing of his return from a latissimus dorsi (back muscle) pull late in the season.
Meanwhile, the Bulldogs simply haven’t been as successful with Hancock on the mound. With Georgia’s loss to Ole Miss in the SEC Tournament semifinals this past weekend, the team fell to 7-5 in games that Hancock started.
The last appearance was a planned split between Hancock and Locey in which they were both operating on a rigid pitch count. But Hancock never reached his as he had to leave the game with a cut on his right (throwing) thumb knuckle that wouldn’t stop bleeding.
The cut proved minor and hasn’t prevented Hancock from any work since. But another day to heal plus keeping the rotation intact makes great sense.
“All those factors play into it,” Stricklin said. “Emerson has started on three consecutive Saturdays, so he’s in that routine. Tony would have pitched on Friday in Hoover if we would’ve played that Friday, so he was prepared for that. So, more than anything it’s just staying with the routine.”
Stricklin hasn’t yet named a Saturday starter for this weekend’s double-elimination tournament, which includes fourth-seeded Mercer, No. 2 seed Florida Atlantic and third-seeded Florida State. But he said Hancock being next up is “likely the direction we’ll go.”
No matter what direction they go, the Bulldogs are full of good options. Georgia features one of the best pitching staffs in college baseball. Their collective earned-run average of 3.17 is second in the SEC and teams are hitting only .196 against them.
Between Locey, Hancock and freshman Cole Wilcox (3-1, 4.17), Georgia has three starters who throw a fastball in the high 90s. Then there’s regular midweek starter Tim Elliott (6-3, 2.93) and All-American two-way Aaron Schunk (1-2, 2.53, 11 saves), who doubles as the Bulldogs’ closer as well as a slugging third baseman.
“Our pitching is set up,” Stricklin said. “We’ve been trying to keep our guys fresh for this tournament and we feel like they are.”