ATHENS — Pitching and defense has been carrying Georgia all season. Now the bats have heated up, and that bodes very well for the Bulldogs, who enter postseason play as one of the nation’s top-ranked teams and a favorite to make it to Omaha.
After this past weekend’s sweep of Alabama to close out the regular season, the Bulldogs (42-14, 21-9 SEC) moved up to No. 3 in the latest RPI calculations. That makes them a virtual lock to receive a national seed, regardless of what happens in this week’s SEC Tournament.
National seeds go to the top eight teams in baseball and guarantee that recipients host games through the Super Regionals. Vanderbilt is No. 2, Mississippi State 4 and Arkansas 6 in the RPI released by the NCAA on Monday.
So, theoretically, the Bulldogs could be “two and ‘cue” in the double-elimination SEC Tournament this week and still be in line to receive that distinct advantage. But they’re not leaving anything to chance.
“You want to win every game that you play,” said coach Scott Stricklin of his Georgia squad, which opens play against Texas A&M at 10:30 a.m. (ET) Wednesday (SEC Network). “At this stage, I think we can still earn some national respect, not that it’s really that big of a deal for us. Internally, we know we’re a good team. We feel like we’re a 100 percent lock to be a Top 8 seed. There’s no way you win 21 games in this league and have an RPI of 3 and not be a Top 8. But certainly we would like to make a run.”
The way the Bulldogs are suddenly swinging the bats, that would seem entirely possible.
Thanks to the way Georgia ball hit the ball against Alabama — batting .402 and scoring 30 runs in three games — the Bulldogs are now hitting .275 as a team with 63 home runs, 336 RBI and a .434 slugging percentage. That puts them on pace to surpass last year’s power numbers, in which they hit 64 homers and had 352 RBI while slugging .425.
That’s an unexpected outcome after losing last year’s three leading sluggers in Michael Curry (13 HRs), Keegan McGovern (18) and Adam Sasser (10).
“We’ve just seen more consistency out of the lineup,” Stricklin said. “It’s really been the last three or four weeks, after Mississippi State, we’ve really swung the bats a lot better. We’re just getting more quality at-bats out of guys and wearing down the opposing pitching staffs and getting into the bullpen.”
One big difference-maker has been designated hitter John Cable. The Roswell native came to Georgia as a late addition last June via a graduate transfer from the University of New Orleans. Batting fifth in the lineup, the 6-foot-2, 230-pounder is third on the team with a .316 average, slugging a second-best .544 and leads the Bulldogs with 45 RBI.
This past Saturday, Cable hit his seventh home run and had his fourth 4-RBI game of the season as Georgia’s 3-4-5 hitters — including Aaron Schunk and LJ Talley went 23-of-41 for the weekend.
“It’s huge,” Cable said of Georgia’s hot bats. “Our pitching has been carrying us so to have that going is big for us. The past two weeks we’ve had really good at-bats and put up a lot of runs. The bats are rolling right now and we’ve got to keep them going.”
To be clear, pitching and defense remain the foundation on which this Georgia team is built. The Bulldogs enter with their rotation intact as Tim Elliot (6-3, 2.93 ERA), the regular mid-week starter, will get the ball against the Aggies. He’ll be backed up by the best defense in Georgia history.
In league play, the starting infield of Patrick Sullivan, L.J. Talley, Cam Shepherd and Aaron Schunk, have made four errors all season. Shepherd, the shortstop, has made none. That’s right — zero. Shepherd was error-free in 30 SEC games in a total of 109 chances. For the year, he’s fielding .990 with just two errors in 206 total chances. Up the middle, between catcher Mason Meadows, Shepherd and Talley and center field Tucker Maxwell, the Bulldogs have made a collective 7 errors all season.
Put that defense behind the pitching rotation Georgia is throwing at opponents this season, and you’ve got winning formula. Led by first-team All-SEC designee Emerson Hancock (8-2, 1.31 ERA), the Bulldogs lead the SEC in opposing batting average (.196) — the closest to them is Missouri at .220 — and they are second in team ERA (3.17), saves (18) and wins (42).
Add the hot bats and the Bulldogs’ confidence heading to Hoover is understandable.
“It gives your pitchers a lot more confidence when they know they have that cushion and also the best defense in Georgia history behind them,” Stricklin said. “Our infield defense has been unbelievable.”
Said Cable: “We want to keep the momentum because this tournament leads into the regional. We’re on a hot streak, playing well, and I think we’re going to go in there and play well. It’d be nice to win it and put it on the wall (at Foley Field).”