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Ken Sugiura

8 things to know about Tech baseball

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Georgia Tech’s baseball team began its season Friday night at its Battle in Midtown tournament with a 6-5 win over Old Dominion. A look at the season ahead.

Heavy on pitchers

There are 20 players on the 34-man roster listed as pitchers first. It’s five more than in 2013 and eight more than in 2012 and, coach Danny Hall said, “more pitchers than we’ve ever had.”

This is perhaps as notable a facet of the roster as there is. After the 2012 season, Hall let go of pitching coach Tom Kinkelaar – Hall’s college roommate – and replaced him with Jason Howell, part of a new direction and emphasis on pitching.

The Jackets have had a number of top starters in recent years, but have lacked bullpen depth. Just because of the numbers, competition for innings will be a part of the plan.

“He’s really implemented a good routine,” pitcher and captain Dusty Isaacs said of Howell. “We’re all really on the same page.”

While there is considerable experience – the staff returned a combined 47 starts from last season – there isn’t much that can be counted on at the outset of the season. Jonathan King, the initial Friday starter, finished strong last season but had a .302 opponent batting average. Starter Cole Pitts has delivered in the clutch in the past but had a 4.71 ERA last season. Isaacs, who will be the closer, was inconsistent last season, though better out of the bullpen, where he’ll start the season.

King threw well in the preseason. A big variable is whether Matt Grimes, who has not pitched since March 2012 due to elbow surgery but is talented enough that the Phillies took a draft flyer on him last June, can come back. He has also looked good in the preseason.

Howell will earn his salary trying to develop some consistency out of this group.

Questions on offense

Howell is going to have to deliver, because as Hall put, “I think the biggest question mark I have is, What are we going to be offensively?”

Tech’s returnees hit .271 last year. The returning regulars or semi-regulars (third baseman Matt Gonzalez, first baseman A.J. Murray, shortstop Mott Hyde, catcher Mitch Earnest , second baseman Thomas Smith and outfielder Daniel Spingola) averaged a home run every 44.7 at-bats. That is to say, if these five, presumably the best hitters on the roster, took all of Tech’s at-bats, the Jackets would average less than one home run per game. (Based on last year’s numbers, at any rate.)

Tech could be faster on the basepaths, though, and a more small-ball oriented approach may be necessary. It would constitute a considerable change for Tech and Hall.

“Of course we’re not going to have as many home runs as we did last year, but I feel like we’ll put up good numbers, regardless,” Hyde said.

A lot of freshmen

It will take the considerable help of Tech’s 14-player freshman class. Hall started four freshmen in the opener Friday against Old Dominion – third baseman Brandon Gold, designated hitter Elliott Barzilli, catcher Arden Pabst and right fielder Ryan Peurifoy. Outfielder Keenan Innis is another who could start.

“I was very pleased with our freshmen in the fall,” Hall said. “I think probably our key is going to be, How do our freshmen blend in with the upperclassmen to kind of give us an offense.”

It wouldn’t be unprecdented. In 2011, when 17 freshmen infused the roster, Daniel Palka, Zane Evans and Hyde all started as freshmen and contributed to a potent offense. It’s a talented class – it was rated No. 9 in the country by Perfect Game, a scouting service. Pitcher Zac Ryan could eventually be a weekend starter.

“We definitely have a lot of young players, but they bring a lot to the table,” Hyde said. “I feel like, if we’re going to go anywhere, we need them to contribute and step up.”

Relying on returners

Among returnees, Tech will count on Gonzalez, a sophomore who can play second, third and short and the outfield. He is Tech’s leading returning hitter (.291) and had a 17-game hitting streak early in the season, earning freshman All-America status. Murray (.271), a first baseman, started every game last season and finishing the season on an eight-game hitting streak. Hyde (.260, six home runs) will go into his fourth season as a starter. Spingola (.256) had a strong fall practice.

Not highly thought of

This team is Hall’s first in his 21 seasons that will begin the season unranked, which is one of those stats that you can interpret how you want. It says something about how Hall has consistently put out competitive teams but also how different this team may be, from a talent perspective, than his first 20.

Hall himself didn’t quibble with being unranked.

“I couldn’t rank us right now based on what I see other places,” he said. “We’re not there yet, but we haven’t played a game yet and that’s the fun part, of getting ready to try to play the game and get into your season. Let’s see what we can do.”

In the coaches’ preseason poll, Tech was picked to finish fourth.

Rating the competition

Virginia is No. 1 in Baseball America’s rankings. N.C. State is No. 5, Florida State No. 6, Clemson No. 13, Miami No. 16 and North Carolina No. 17.

Tech will play series against each of the six against Clemson. If the Jackets and Tigers don’t meet in the postseason, it would be the first time the archrivals have not played each other at least once in a season since 1973. The last occurrence before that was an 11-year stretch 1944-54.

Tech will also play ACC series against Coastal members Pittsburgh and Virginia Tech as well as Maryland.

Back from football

Outfielder/pitcher/wide receiver DeAndre Smelter has returned for his senior season. Smelter is on a football scholarship and Hall and coach Paul Johnson have worked out an arrangement for Smelter to play and participate in spring practice.

Smelter will definitely be with the team until the end of spring break, which ends March 23 (a Sunday). Spring practice begins March 24. From that point forward, if the baseball team doesn’t have a game and the football team has practice, Smelter will go to practice. Smelter’s role will be a factor, as well. Besides pitching, Smelter can also play outfield.

“If he’s a major contributor, which we certainly hope he is, then I think Paul will work with us,” Hall said. “If he’s not a guy that has a significant role, then I think Paul’s going to want him in football more than he is in baseball.”

Last year, Smelter made 16 pitching appearances for 16 2/3 innings with a 7.02 ERA. Smelter was a hot pitching prospect in high school, and was also recruited in football (by Tech, among others). However, a shoulder injury suffered in high school impacted his effectiveness. Smelter said in the fall that his shoulder felt better. This is Smelter’s final season of baseball. He has one year of eligibility remaining in football.

“I’m proud of him,” Hall said. “To not play football (since high school) and go over and do what he did in football, it just tells you what a great athlete he is.”

Last year’s draftees

Right fielder/first baseman Daniel Palka (Arizona) was listed fourth on the Diamondbacks’ depth chart in USA Today. Last year, he began in rookie league and moved up to low A ball, where he hit .340 in 47 at-bats. Catcher Zane Evans (Kansas City) hit .352 in rookie ball with 31 RBI.  Outfielder Brandon Thomas (New York Yankees) hit .214 but drove in 31 in 243 at-bats in low A ball. Pitcher Buck Farmer (Detroit) was 0-3 in 11 starts with a 3.09 ERA. He pitched 32 innings, striking out 33, walking seven and giving up 32 hits. Third baseman Sam Dove (Philadelphia) spent most of his time at low A and hit .179 in 84 at-bats.

The star of the class, thus far, is outfielder Kyle Wren (Braves). He quickly moved from rookie ball to A at Rome and hit .328 in 195 at-bats with 36 runs and 32/38 stolen bases. Baseball America called him the Braves’ top defensive outfielder prospect and he was one of 28 minor leaguers to take part in the team’s rookie development week at Turner Field in January.

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