Baseball, defined in Athens as an undertaking for those who could not get on the field for the G-Day spring game, is once more something of a thing at Georgia.
It is safe, Bulldogs aficionados, to pay attention to the spring alternative to Kirby Smart’s weekly instruction to turn the page.
In fact, come the next couple of weeks, dare we say, it is nearly an obligation to pay baseball some heed.
After a long period of insignificance, Bulldogs baseball is daring to leave a scratch on the surface. The mid-week triumphs over Georgia Tech – Tuesday’s 3-1 win at SunTrust Park marked their sixth consecutive over Tech in two seasons – are just the appetizers. Far more substantial is the weekend work that has rehabilitated the Bulldogs’ place in the varied rankings and indices that spice college baseball.
The coach has chased the wolves from his door, Scott Stricklin in his fifth season is fielding his first winning team at Georgia (34-14, 15-9 in the SEC). With six SEC games remaining – two meat-grinding series at No. 1 Florida and at home against No. 4 Arkansas – he already has won far more in a tough neighborhood than he has ever before. In none of the previous four seasons had his Bulldogs topped 11 wins in the SEC.
“It’s been a tough ride. But it’s been a satisfying ride,” Stricklin said. More satisfying, certainly, now that his team is ranked as well (15th in the USA Today Coaches Poll).
“When I came in here, the first thing I said was it’s going to take time to build this up to the standards we all hold very high at Georgia. It’s been tough. It doesn’t matter if you’re a coach or you’re building up a business – it’s going to take time. And I thank our administration and (AD) Greg McGarity and everyone for being patient and seeing our vision and seeing what we’re doing.”
Truth be told, that patience was being stretched to just about the point of a painful tear.
There is little excuse for Georgia – or Georgia Tech, for that matter – to experience prolonged baseball ajita. You can’t throw a rock in many precincts and north and south of Atlanta without hitting some travel-team hotshot. The upcoming major league draft will be a Georgia travelogue. Talent is everywhere.
In the last days of David Perno and all the first days of Stricklin, the Bulldogs managed to disregard that truth. Sooner or later, even at a football school, people begin to notice.
The Bulldogs haven’t made it to the NCAA tournament since 2011, haven’t been to the College World Series since 2008, haven’t won a game in the SEC tournament since 2012.
Stricklin last year threw a bunch of freshmen into the fray, a strategy that comes with a rewards program that is very slow to pay off. But they’re older now, callused by the competition, and ready to make good on the faith shown them as entry-level players.
“We have learned how to win, that’s the main thing,” said the Bulldogs rarity – a senior – leftfielder Keegan McGovern.
“We’ve done it the right way,” Stricklin said. “We’ve recruited high school kids, primarily from the state of Georgia. We’ve developed and built them up and here we are.”
Sweeping Georgia Tech for a second season is a nice claim – certainly better than being on the other end of the broom. “It’s our rival,” the Bulldogs coach said. “All of our kids know all of their kids. That’s who we recruit against. In every sport that’s the team you love to hate. To a lot of our fans, this is the biggest game of the year. Forget Florida. Forget Arkansas. It’s Georgia Tech.”
But if you are going to invest even a fleeting glance at college baseball this spring, you can forget neither Florida nor Arkansas. Those next two weekends will go far toward defining the limits of the Bulldogs’ baseball renaissance – especially this weekend in Gainesville.
Getting you to notice Georgia baseball again is an important, developing theme.
“That was one of the things I was hoping to do, coming back this year, was trying to get the program back to where it needs to be,” McGovern said. “Hopefully we can finish this thing off right.”
“A lot of people are looking at this (Florida) series because we keep winning. We keep going up in the rankings, so people are starting to notice. We’re not going to sneak up on Florida, I can promise you that,” Stricklin said.
The result is that Georgia baseball is back to thinking the way it should.
“You change your goals as seasons go on,” Stricklin said. “I think when we started we said hey, let’s make sure these seniors experience a regional, let’s get them to a postseason.
“Now we’ve gotten to a point – our RPI is No. 4 in the country, the strength of schedule is No. 4 in the country – we’re right in the mix to be a national seed, not just a regional host.
“This weekend is a pretty good measuring stick.”
So, interested yet?