ATHENS — The weather report calls for mild temperatures on the UGA campus this weekend, but the forecast at Foley Field is calling for extreme heat.
That’d be because of the pitchers that No. 5 Georgia has lined up for the three-game set against No. 10 LSU in the most anticipated national matchup of the young baseball season. The Bulldogs (19-2, 3-0 SEC) enter their SEC home opener with conference’s best overall record for a lot of reasons, but the main one is the young arms they’ve been sending to the mound this season. The Tigers (16-5, 3-0) will counter with a strong-hitting lineup 1 through 10.
All three games at 3,308-seat Foley Field are sold out.
“It’s exciting,” Georgia coach Scott Stricklin. “We’ve thought about this for a while; we’ve had it circled. Just being the home opener for the SEC here in Athens, we knew it’d be a big atmosphere and a big challenge for us. But now, both teams being in the Top 10, us playing really well, them playing really well, our fans are really excited. Looks like we’re finally going to get some good weather. We’re excited about playing in the atmosphere that we’re going to be playing in.”
It figures to be a rowdy environment as LSU fans are crazy about their baseball and travel better than any other SEC team. But the cozy confines of Georgia’s Foley Field has been known create a charged-up atmosphere when the Bulldogs are playing meaningful games. And with the hurlers they’ve got lined up this year, there figures to be a lot of those types of games this season.
It all starts with Friday night starter Emerson Hancock. The sophomore right-hander has been almost unhittable this season. He routinely throws in the mid-90s, changes speeds on command and pounds the strike zone. He brings a 5-0 record and 0.58 ERA into Friday’s 7 p.m. game (TV: SEC Network; radio: WRFC 960-AM).
But the strong pitching doesn’t stop with Hancock. Saturday starter C.J. Smith (2-0, 2.81 ERA), a left-hander, and Sunday man Tony Locey (3-0, 2.17) are also undefeated. The Bulldogs feature a bullpen that is led by third baseman/closer Aaron Schunk, who leads the SEC and ranks second nationally with 7 saves and hasn’t allowed a run this season, and freshman in Cole Wilcox, who has already had a pitch clocked at 100 miles per hour last weekend during a sweep of South Carolina.
“To be honest with you, this is what we expected,” Stricklin said. “We knew that we had a really good pitching staff and a lot of talent.”
Statistics agree. So far this season, Georgia starters are 15-1 with 2.00 ERA as a group. The staff ERA is 2.52.
Accused of fattening up against on a weak non-conference schedule, the Bulldogs answered critics last weekend by sweeping No. 22 South Carolina in Columbia. And in case there remains any doubt, Georgia will continue to make up for any shortcomings going forward. After LSU, the Bulldogs get Kentucky and Vanderbilt in SEC play with non-conference tilts against Georgia Tech and Clemson in between.
Having a masterful pitcher like Hancock to start them off each weekend has helped the Bulldogs’ cause immensely. The hard-throwing right-hander from Cairo had the resident ups-and-downs of a freshman last year on the way to logging a 6-4 record and 5.10 ERA. But the experience he gained while pitching 77.2 innings over 15 starts has proved invaluable this season.
“You expect that when you have kids that are competitive and work hard,” Stricklin said of Hancock’s improvement. “When they have a chip on their shoulder, you know they’re going to get better. That’s what happened to Emerson.”
Hancock’s strong outings each Friday have set the tone for the rest of the staff. At this point, the pitchers are all feeding off each other.
“I think our performances come from our confidence in each other,” Hancock said. “We’ve kind of seen what each other’s capable of. We believe in each other and we have a lot of experience. We were all here last year and we know what to expect now in big-time games.”
They’re certainly going to experience a big-time atmosphere this weekend.
“I think we just need to keep doing what we’ve been doing,” Hancock said. “We played really well at South Carolina. We don’t need to change anything going into this weekend. We’re excited that it’s a home series, we’re going to have a great crowd and it’s going to be a lot of fun.”