ATHENS — Rain or shine, the Georgia Bulldogs’ 2019 baseball season will get underway on Friday. It appears they will see a little of both before the opening three-game series concludes.
The Dayton Flyers of Ohio are in town for a three-game series. Showers expected to enter the area Friday evening have moved up Friday’s first pitch at Foley Field two hours to 3 p.m. As of now, Games 2 and 3 are scheduled Saturday and Sunday at 2 p.m. and 1 p.m., respectively. But UGA may try to squeeze in a doubleheader earlier Saturday if more bands of rain come through Saturday night as expected.
Regardless of when and how the season gets started, it is a formidable Georgia team with high expectations that will take the field for coach Scott Stricklin, who enters his sixth season as the Bulldogs’ skipper. Thanks to the return of 25 lettermen, eight pitchers and seven position starters, Georgia comes in carrying preseason rankings as high as No. 9 (by D1Baseball.com) and as low as 15 (by Baseball America).
Led by preseason All-American Aaron Schunk and opening day starter Emerson Hancock, those players formed the core of a a Georgia team that compiled a 39-21 record a year ago and hosted an NCAA Regional final as a No. 8 national seed. The plan is to build on that this season.
“We have a lot of experience, which is what people are looking at first and foremost,” Stricklin said on Thursday as he readied the Bulldogs for a new season. “We have a lot of guys who have played a lot of innings in our league and a lot of guys with postseason experience. That’s huge, moving forward. Talent’s one thing, depth is another thing, but experience can trump all of those and I feel like we have all three.”
There is one area of significant loss, however, and it’s an important one — power. The Bulldogs will be missing 41 home runs and 147 RBI from the middle of last year’s lineup. Designated hitter Michael Curry (13 HRs, 53 RBI) turned pro after his junior season, All-American outfielder Keegan McGovern graduated (18-50) and first baseman Adam Sasser (10-44) was dismissed from the team for yelling racial epithets at a Georgia football game last fall.
But the Bulldogs feel confident they can sufficiently replenish their power numbers while leaning hard on strong pitching and defense. With the exception of first base, the rest of the infield returns intact after setting a school record and finishing ninth in the nation in fielding percentage (.979). Second baseman LJ Talley (2B, second team), catcher Mason Meadows ( second team) and third baseman/closer Schunk all received preseason All-SEC votes by league coaches. Both Mason and junior shortstop Cam Shepherd posted a school fielding records at their respective positions.
Meanwhile, Patrick Sullivan will take over at first base. The redshirt junior from Sandy Springs played in 27 games last season primarily as a late-game, defensive replacement for Sasser. The hope for Sullivan is along with the improved defense he’ll be able improve on a .204 career batting average.
“Patrick actually won the job two years ago and then came down with mono and missed the entire season,” Stricklin said. “He’s a guy that’s been the mix the entire time. Defensively he’s as good as there is, the best defensive first baseman I’ve ever had. He has some power, too. I wouldn’t be shocked if Patrick has a really good season.”
Georgia hopes it can further replenish the power quotient with the addition of graduate transfer John Cable. Cable, who hit .373 with 12 home at Darton Junior College, hit .349 at the University of New Orleans last year before being sidelined with a torn hamstring.
“We’ve got to make that up, but I think you’re going to see a more balanced lineup,” Stricklin said. “You might not see guys with 13 and 19 home runs, but hopefully you’ll see a bunch of guys with eight to 10. I wouldn’t be surprised if we had more home runs as a team than we did last year. Ten or 11 of our guys have home run potential.”
That’d be quite an accomplishment for Georgia. The Bulldogs’ 64 home runs and 352 last year were the most in 10 seasons.
No bones about it, though, this is a team that will reply on pitching and defense. Hancock, the right-hander who led he Bulldogs as a freshman last year, will be the Friday night starter again. Junior Will Proctor will get the call Saturday, followed by and junior Tony Locey on Sunday. The midweek starter is expected to be sophomore left-hander C.J. Smith and everybody is eager to get a look at freshmen Cole Wilcox, who was ranked No. 37 on the Baseball America Top 500; and and fellow right-hander Jack Gowen.
Schunk will again come off third base to close games, a routine that resulted in 8 saves and 31 strikeouts in 30 innings last year.
“I would put our infield defense up with anybody in the country,” Stricklin said. “I think it’s that good.”
It won’t be any easier in the SEC, of course. Three conference teams are ranked ahead of Georgia in preseason polls — No. 1 Vanderbilt, No. 2 LSU and No. 6 Florida — with two of them housed in the same division. Fortuitously, all three of those teams have to come to Athens.
But there are two months to go before Bulldogs need to worry about that. First comes Dayton, and hopefully more sunshine and clouds than rain.