ATHENS — Georgia baseball will face the hottest and best team in the nation at 7 p.m. on Thursday (TV: SEC Network) when it takes on No. 1-ranked Vanderbilt in Nashville at Hawkins Field.
The Commodores (24-3, 8-1 SEC) bring a nine-game win streak into the action against Georgia (18-10, 3-6) and are off to the program’s best start through 27 games in 10 years.
The Bulldogs took two of three from Vanderbilt in Athens in 2019, the last time an SEC team beat the Commodores in a three-game series.
But that was then, and this is now. And now, UGA is having trouble scoring runs.
Georgia ranks last in the SEC and 202nd in the nation in scoring (5.1 runs per game), while Vanderbilt leads the league in scoring (8.3 runs per game) and is No. 1 in the nation in team ERA (2.31).
Kumar Rocker (7-0. 0.84 ERA), son of former UGA football assistant Tracy Rocker and a product of North Oconee High School just outside of Athens, will get the start against the Bulldogs on Thursday. Rocker is 6-foot-5 and 245 pounds and a preseason All-American.
Georgia will counter with Luke Wagner, a 6-0, 175-pound freshman from New Cumberland, Penn. Wagner is 3-2 with a 2.95 ERA on a UGA staff that ranks fifth in the SEC and 20th in the country with a 3.36 Team ERA.
Wagner is coming off a solid outing against South Carolina, allowing only one hit and one earned run while fanning three. Wagner has pitched three innings in each of his last two starts.
“The system is obviously not necessarily normal to not have a starter on Friday night in the SEC,” Georgia reliever Darryn Pasqua said after the series with the Gamecocks.
“But everybody is buying into the system and being able to see the system work, midweek games and now in the SEC games. It definitely gives us confidence going forward.”
Two projected UGA starters, Garrett Brown and Will Childers, had Tommy John surgery last fall, and C.J. Smith started the season but has been sidelined with arm soreness since March 6.
This, on a team trying to replace first-round pick Emerson Hancock and third-round pick Cole Wilcox out of last year’s rotation.
Georgia head coach Scott Stricklin calls Wagner’s starts “bullpen games” and has allowed Wagner to pitch about three innings and get through the lineup once before thinking about going to the bullpen based on batter-by-batter matchups.
Ryan Webb (2-1), who will start the second game (7:30 p.m., Friday), has been touched by the long ball recently, but he said he expects to continue his reliance on the changeup.
“It’s my favorite off-speed. I love throwing it,” said Webb, who had to overcome an illness at the start of the season. “I’m not going to shy away from that pitch, and I’m going to keep throwing it. It is going to be a part of my game plan here on out.”
After Stricklin saw Webb throw his off-speed pitch “a touch hard” his last outing, Wagner has worked with pitching coach Sean Kenny to create a little bit more velocity separation between his fastball and his changeup.
“Instead of getting a swing and miss, maybe [batters] are a little bit behind the fastball,” Stricklin said. “But that changeup is going to their bat speed a little bit more because he’s throwing it a touch hard.”
Georgia hitters, meanwhile, will be focused on putting the ball into play.
UGA outfielder Connor Tate (.358 season batting average) is coming off of a hot series against South Carolina, in which he batted.444 with two home runs.
Georgia second baseman Josh McAllister, who is 12-for-30 on the year, is recovering from a re-aggravated hamstring injury and his status is day-to-day heading into the series.
Georgia Baseball TV, Stream, Radio
Thursday: 7:02 PM EST, SEC Network, Georgia Bulldog Sports Network WFRC 960 AM (Athens)
Friday: 7:32 PM EST, SECN+, Georgia Bulldog Sports Network WFRC 960 AM (Athens)
Saturday: 3:02 PM EST, SECN+, Georgia