ATHENS — It was fitting that Emerson Hancock would be on the mound for Georgia’s final win of the regular season. After all, he was the one that started this magical ride for the Bulldogs.
It was Hancock who got the ball and the win for Georgia in the season opener against Dayton way back in February and it was Hancock who got the SEC schedule started on the right foot with a road win at South Carolina back in March.
Injuries and circumstances left Hancock in the role of Saturday starter rather than the customary Friday spot reserved for masterful hurlers. But that meant Hancock was last up for the home crowd against poor, unfortunate Alabama in the regular-season finale at Foley Field.
Hancock proved again that he’s pretty much untouchable no matter when you pitch him. The redshirt sophomore from Cairo struck out 10 and didn’t have a walk in seven innings as the Bulldogs cruised to a 9-1 victory over the Crimson Tide.
“It’s pretty poetic, I think, to have your best guy coming out on the last day because of circumstances,” said Georgia star third baseman/closer Aaron Schunk, who was 8-for-15 at the plate during the series. “But he’s a dude, he’s been a dude since he got here and he’s going to continue to do big things for us.”
The win set a UGA record for SEC wins in a season and gave the Bulldogs (42-14, 21-9 SEC) their most regular-season wins since the 1990 national championship team. Already assured of a first-round bye in next week’s SEC Tournament in Hoover, Ala., Georgia got the league’s No. 3 thanks to South Carolina’s win over Mississippi State on Saturday. The Bulldogs actually had the SEC’s second-best record but the 2 seed automatically goes to the West’s top team. Vanderbilt wrapped up the regular-season title Friday night.
But if there’s a team playing better or set up better heading into the postseason, it’s going to be hard to find. Tim Elliott (6-3, 2.93 ERA) will get the start when the Bulldogs open SEC tournament play on Wednesday. After that, they will resume the starting rotation with which they ended the season, with high-90s pitchers Cole Wilcox, Tony Locey and Hancock going back-to-back-to-back.
That’s what the Crimson Tide (30-26, 7-23) had to look forward to when they showed up in Athens on Thursday. They left Saturday having lost three games by the aggregate score of 30-7. Georgia out-hit them 47 to 20.
“What a tough draw for Bama, honestly,” sophomore catcher Mason Meadows said. “That’s tough. It’s the third day and you’ve already seen two great arms and then come out and the first couple of pitches are 98 and 97 or so with a bunch of run on it. I imagine it’s exhausting for them.”
It was. But Georgia coach Scott Stricklin wasn’t feeling sorry for anybody. His only show of compassion was pulling Hancock after seven innings even though he’d only thrown 86 pitches and seemed only to be getting better. But that was only to protect Hancock, who missed two starts with a minor back/arm issue, and to get his bullpen some much-needed work.
Left-handers Justin Glover and Adam Goodman each pitched scoreless frames.
“No hard feelings whatsoever about that,” Stricklin said. “In this league, you never feel bad for anybody. In this league when you get a chance to step on somebody you’ve got to because it’s just so hard. But, yeah, we felt good about our chances with Emerson on the mound.”
Hancock actually ran into some trouble right out of the gate. He allowed three infield hits — one was called an out but overturned by review — and gave up a run to fall behind 1-0. The inning ended with a throw-out at home plate that stood up to review.
But then Alabama would never threaten again and it felt like the game went onto cruise control.
And Georgia’s bats, hot for the last couple of weeks, stayed hot. They Bulldogs would have a 2-1 lead by the third inning and were up 5-1 through five.
Designated hitter John Cable had a homer and his fourth 4-RBI game of the season and the Bulldogs’ 3-4-5 hitters — Schunk, LJ Talley and Cable — were 23-of-41 at the plate for the weekend.
And Hancock just kept dealing. It was the fourth time this season Hancock logged double-digit strikeouts. He has given up zero or one run in nine of his starts this season.
“I felt like I settled in a little more each inning,” said Hancock, who protested not going back in for the eighth. “Last year I learned that it’s a one-pitch league, you can’t take a pitch off, an inning off. A couple pitches here or there and they’re putting up runs on you really quick. So any time I’m out there I’m just really ultra competitive. I want to be the best.”
It was a mesmerizing performance for the sophomore, who was just named a semifinalist for the Dick Howser Trophy, which goes annually to college baseball’s best player.
“He’s the best I’ve ever had; that’s a given,” Stricklin said. “I’ve been fortunate to coach some really good ones, but he has explosive stuff and a chip on his shoulder.”
And now the Bulldogs, unceremoniously bounced from its home regional as a national seed last year, heads into the postseason assured of another national seed and the ultimate do-over.
“It just shows all the hard work has come to fruition since last year,” Schunk said. “Last year was a heartbreaker for everybody and everybody knew it. But we put our heads down, went to the grindstone, kept a chip on our shoulder and put ourselves back in that position. And we want to be on the other side of it this year. Setting a school record shows that we mean business.”