ATHENS — The temptation is to say this is a moment Cole Wilcox has been waiting for. The thing is, the freshman pitcher already has had so many big moments for the Georgia Bulldogs this season, getting the start in Game 1 of the Bulldogs’ final SEC series of the season against Alabama on Thursday is not that big of a deal.
It should be, but it isn’t.
“I don’t feel any different than I did two weeks ago against Florida,” said Wilcox, a 6-foot-5, 232-pound freshman from Chickamauga. “It’s still baseball; it’s still pitching. It doesn’t matter whether you’re starting or coming out of the bullpen really.”
No. 7 Georgia has used Wilcox and his 100-mile-per-hour fastball to do both this season. He has been primarily a reliever, but circumstances and his continued progress have pressed him into the service as a starter here at the end of the season.
Regular weekend starter C.J. Smith has been out for three weeks now with a back injury. So Georgia has turned to midweek starter Tim Elliott and Wilcox to fill the gaps.
Elliott drew the SEC start last weekend against Auburn, so Wilcox (2-1, 4.12 ERA) gets this one. That allows Tony Locey (9-1, 2.63) and Emerson Hancock (7-2, 1.31) to continue on a week’s rest before their Friday and Saturday starts, respectively.
“I said early in the year I thought it’d be very difficult to keep him out of the rotation,” Georgia coach Scott Stricklin said of Wilcox. “With him and Tim Elliott both doing so well, we’ve been able to do this the last two weekends. That way we don’t have to bring back anybody on short rest.”
The Bulldogs’ plan is for Elliott (6-3, 2.93) to come back for the SEC tournament, so no starters miss a turn or have to go early.
Georgia has a lot to play for. With a win over Alabama (30-23, 7-20) or an Ole Miss or LSU loss, the Bulldogs (39-14, 18-9 SEC) will clinch a top four seed and a first-round bye at next week’s SEC Tournament. The first game would then be on Wednesday.
There is still a mathematical scenario in which the Bulldogs could win the SEC regular-season title. They are two games behind No. 2-ranked Vanderbilt (20-7 SEC) in the overall SEC race while fourth-ranked Arkansas leads the West with a 19-8 league mark. The Commodores are on the road at last-place Kentucky (7-20). Georgia and fifth-ranked Mississippi State, meanwhile, have identical 18-9 SEC marks with MSU holding the tiebreaker.
But the Bulldogs really are paying that no attention. They’re more interested in winning as many games as possible so they can earn a national seed in the NCAA Tournament.
“If we do what we need to do, that’ll take care of itself,” Stricklin said. “Our body of work is really good. Our RPI is going to stay in the Top 8 no matter what. But we need to win this series. If we can get to 20 wins in this league I don’t know how you could not be Top 8.”
The Bulldogs aim to become only the third team in school history to win 40 games during the regular season. The other two were the 1990 national champions (44-15) and 2001 College World Series squad (40-16). There have been six teams in school history that have finished a season with 40-plus wins, and all those advanced to the College World Series.
With the rotation the Bulldogs are going to hit Alabama with, those certainly are achievable goals. In Wilcox, Locey and Hancock, Georgia will be starting three pitchers in a row who regularly register over 95 miles per hour.
While that’s tough for the Bulldogs’ opponents, it’s also tough on catcher Mason Meadows.
“I actually go into (trainer) Shaun (Bolen’s) bag and grab extra padding for the inside of my glove every weekend,” Meadows said. “It’s crazy because I catch 97 and up from every starter and our middle relief and closers are just about the same.”
Wilcox throws the hardest among them. One of his fast balls registered 100 miles per hour on the radar gun in a game against South Carolina earlier this season. But he said it has been command of the strike zone and the development of a slider that has allowed him to become more effective the second half of the season.
Wilcox has had three starts this season, the last coming against the Gators the weekend before last. He pitched masterfully in that one, recording a 4-1 victory and earning SEC Freshman of the Week honors. A week later, Wilcox was back in the bullpen against Auburn. This time he gave up the game-winning hit in the 10th inning.
“Cole’s been huge for us,” Meadows said. “Early in the season he had a couple of quality starts and then he did some great stuff against Florida and Auburn. I think he’s just grown up a lot and that’s been cool to see. He’s a big kid with a big personality, but it’s been good to see him grow and kind of step into the shoes we all knew he could fill has been cool to see.”
If nothing else, Wilcox seems anything but anxious about the situation.
“It’ll be fun to go in and compete in the first game of the weekend,” Wilcox said. “I definitely feel comfortable starting. That’s what I’ve always done. The best thing about it is being able to eat innings from the start and be able to go a long time throughout the game. I’m going to try to keep the bullpen fresh.”