ATHENS — How ’bout them Diamond Dawgs!
While most of our focus has been on the Georgia football team and their exploits on Woodruff Practice Fields and in the indoor “House of Payne,” the baseball team has been doing some pretty fine work on the other side of Sanford Drive. With a rare sweep of South Carolina at Foley Field this past weekend, the Bulldogs (18-6, 5-1 SEC) moved into a tie for first in the league. They’ll host to Charleston Southern on Tuesday night and then have a huge SEC series this weekend when No. 15 Texas A&M (19-6, 2-4) comes to town.
This is especially good news for coach Scott Stricklin. Anybody who pays even casual attention to the Georgia baseball team probably can tell you that the Bulldogs have had four sub-.500 seasons during his tenure. In fact, athletic director Greg McGarity found himself at the end of last season explaining to reporters why he didn’t fire Stricklin.
“The things Scott and I talked about in months leading up to the last run of the season were things we wanted to see, things that were very important, and those things materialized,” McGarity said last May. “As we walked down that path and what we expected to see, and what he expected to see, they matched up with our performance at the end of the year.”
In case you missed it, Georgia got hot toward the end of what was otherwise a miserable season last year. The Bulldogs went 8-4 in May but, more importantly, they won their last three SEC series of the season. And those games weren’t against bottom-feeders. They came against No. 4 Kentucky, No. 6 Mississippi State and No. 30 South Carolina.
So there was that. And then there’s this: Georgia has now won five SEC series in a row. So far, it has vanquished Alabama and South Carolina. At the moment, the Bulldogs are tied with Vanderbilt atop the East and share the league’s record with the Commodores.
Of course, it’s extremely early in the season, and the competition will increase considerably. That starts this weekend when the Aggies visit. Don’t let their 2-4 conference mark fool you. A&M has already played arguably the two best SEC teams, dropping two of three each to Auburn and Ole Miss. Both are consensus top-10 teams.
Georgia, meanwhile, is just starting to get a little Top 25 mention. The Bulldogs haven’t cracked the poll just yet, but baseball folks are starting to notice.
So what’s the difference? To credit the patience of both Stricklin and McGarity, the Bulldogs have finally matured into a veteran team. The roster sports 26 lettermen, including eight of nine of the most regular position players and most of the pitching staff. Thirteen of the players are juniors or seniors, and most of the freshmen and sophomores were highly regarded in recruiting.
That has manifested itself on the diamond. Senior left fielder Keegan McGovern has excelled, hitting .379 with 10 homers and 29 RBI. So have junior designated hitter Michael Curry (.352-4-26) and junior first baseman Adam Sasser (.351-2-19). And the Bulldogs aren’t just scoring runs via the long ball. They’re 19-of-22 stealing bases and converting sacrifices at a clip not seen before this season. All this is without super sophomore Cam Shepherd taking off yet. He’s hitting just .250 yet has 23 RBI.
Of course, baseball always comes down to pitching, and Georgia is getting it done in that area. Freshman Ryan Webb was just named SEC freshman of the week for his part in a four-hit shutout of the Gamecocks on Sunday. He’s 1-1 with a 2.88 ERA so far. The Bulldogs’ staff ERA of 3.69 to this point is markedly better than the 5.02 mark they had all through last season.
But the biggest difference overall has to be the emergence of Aaron Schunk. Lost among the debris of last season was the fact that the sophomore from Atlanta missed the last 20 games of the year with a broken thumb. Before that, he was started 37 games at third base and hit .328 in SEC play.
Not only is Schunk back at third base and hitting .319, but he has also emerged as the Bulldogs’ closer. Georgia had hoped to pitch The Lovett School graduate some last year but never got around to it before his injury. This season, Schunk (1-0, 0.77 ERA) has recorded 2 saves in five appearances and enters this week with 16 strikeouts and 1 walk in 11.2 innings pitched.
Hard-core baseball fans will be quick to temper the optimism for the Bulldogs. The next eight weeks figure to be considerably tougher than the previous six have been. That starts with the Aggies this weekend and top 10 opponents Vanderbilt and Kentucky in subsequent weekends. Clemson and Georgia Tech are interspersed as nonconference opponents in between.
But that’s what Georgia baseball is supposed to be about, huge series with major opponents as the weather finally starts to heat up. That said, you won’t see these Bulldogs looking beyond the bill of their caps. This veteran squad is acutely focused only on the next opponent.
And well it should be. Charleston Southern (8-17) visits Tuesday night, and an earlier meeting with the Bucs at their place this season represented the worst game the Bulldogs have played all year. They gave up 4 unearned runs in the ninth innings to lose 5-4.
Georgia is 11-1 since, with the one loss coming in 13 innings on the road against Alabama. It’s a staff pitching night for the Bulldogs, but if they’ve truly turned the corner under Stricklin, they’ll take care of business Tuesday — and the rest of the season.