Georgia baseball not ‘turned around,’ but back where it should be

The Georgia Bulldogs played in the NCAA Tournament for the first time in seven years last weekend, but they were knocked out of a home regional for the first time in school history.

ATHENS — It has been interesting to witness the reaction the last couple of days to Georgia’s baseball team getting knocked out of the NCAA Tournament. The eighth-seeded Bulldogs (39-21) were upset by Duke in back-to-back games on Monday, thus losing a home regional for the first time in school history and sending the Blue Devils to the Super Regionals for the first time ever.

You can never make too much about what you see and read on social media, but the disappointment and, in some cases, outrage expressed therein over the Bulldogs’ upset ouster was pretty pronounced. Some people are mad. A few folks were calling for blood.

Let me first offer some perspective, then an opinion. The reality is, you can’t really take away a lot from a double-elimination tournament in baseball. Generally, the best teams — and the home teams — win. But whenever baseball boils down to a one-game, advance-or-go-home situation, as Georgia-Duke did Monday night, literally anything can happen. And in the Bulldogs’ case, their worst fears were realized. Their big bats went quiet, their pitching got a little balky and they fell 8-5 in the deciding game to a very resilient and deserving Duke team.

As for the 2018 season abruptly ending, I don’t believe the home-regional ouster should taint the good work done over 60 games by coach Scott Stricklin and his team. It was a great season by any measure, and it far exceeded expectations.

It’s when we get into the realm of expectations, though, that I might feel a little differently than did Stricklin. He was very adamant in emphasizing afterward that he had “turned this program around.” I’m not sure that I agree with that completely.

Certainly the program was “turned around” in the context of the last four seasons, and maybe a few more before that. But getting back into the NCAA Tournament in and of itself doesn’t mean the program has been turned around. It just means the Bulldogs are back where they’re supposed to be.

And now they need to show they can stay there.

Earlier this year, Georgia brought back the 2008 team — including previous coach David Perno — to celebrate the 10th anniversary of reaching the finals of the College World Series. Granted, 10 years is a long time, but it’s not ancient history. And certainly 2011, when the Bulldogs previously had been in the NCAA tourney, was not so long ago.

Georgia is, after all, a baseball program that has been to the College World Series six times and won one of them (1990). It’s a school that has played in 82 NCAA Tournament games and won 50 of those. The Diamond Dawgs also have won six regional titles and four Super Regional titles. In fact, this was the first time Georgia did not advance out of a regional it hosted.

So that’s where I take some umbrage with Stricklin when he says, “That’s what we’ve done, turn this program around.”

To me, that’s a bit of a small-window view. Certainly, 2018 represented a turnaround from what we’ve seen during Stricklin’s tenure, which hadn’t had a winning season in the previous four. And I wouldn’t necessarily disagree that it represents a “rebuild,” as he called it, from what he inherited in 2014. There were some issues, to be sure.

But having followed UGA baseball for a few decades now, I’d say playing in a regional represents the very baseline for what should be expected of the Bulldogs program. That’s the bottom rung of the ladder, the starting point. Considering the area of the country, the resources, the access to the Hope Scholarship, all of that, missing out on the postseason should be an extremely rare occurrence.

None of which is meant to devalue what the Bulldogs did this season. I, for one, am not as outraged as a lot of other people about Georgia failing to advance. Funky things happen in tournament play. That’s why it’s so popular.

The Bulldogs had a fantastic season and Stricklin and his staff did a fantastic job. Baseball is about pitching, hitting and defense. Georgia had its best staff ERA in 50 years heading into the tournament. The Dogs hit 64 home runs and recorded the best fielding percentage in school history at .979. Hence, a team that was picked to finish fifth in the East Division instead finished with the SEC’s second-best record and earned a national seed.

Kudos, kudos, kudos.

But Georgia baseball should be about making runs and winning championships. The Bulldogs still need to win an SEC Tournament game or two under Stricklin. Hosting NCAA regionals needs to become a tradition and Foley Field should be sold out more than it’s not.

And maybe that’s what will happen now. As Stricklin proclaimed in a postgame interview Monday, he believes Georgia is built to last. He claims that the foundation has been slowly and deliberately built through recruiting.

There certainly is a lot about which to be excited for the immediate future. While the Bulldogs lose five seniors from this team, seven other regulars come back, and a bunch of young pitching, too. And for now at least, top signee Cole Wilcox is sticking with Georgia. The 6-foot-5 right-hander from Conyers, who was rated the 19th-best major-league prospect in America, said no to pro ball and the draft this week and said he plans to join the Bulldogs to help them complete their “unfinished business.”

Therein lies the key: getting back in the mix; finishing that unfinished business.

We should be hearing about an extension for Stricklin in the coming weeks, and deservedly so, based on what we saw this season. But the key now is for him and the Bulldogs to make NCAA tournaments a foregone conclusion and regional ousters a true outrage. What happened this week wasn’t.

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