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Ken SugiuraKen Sugiura

Looking back and ahead at Tech baseball

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1. The results may be something of a Rorschach test – you see what you want to see. The Jackets, who began the season unranked for the first time in coach Danny Hall’s tenure at Tech, finished 37-27, which tied with the 2013 team for the second-lowest win total in Hall’s 21 years. They did so, though, with a freshman-heavy lineup, without their two best starting pitchers (Cole Pitts and Jonathan King both suffered season-ending arm injuries early in the year.) and having lost two All-Americans in Daniel Palka and Zane Evans and a three-time All-ACC pitcher in Buck Farmer. The Jackets’ 14-16 record in the ACC was their second sub-.500 mark in the past three years, the only two such records since Hall was hired. However, Tech also won the ACC for the second time in three years, this year having to win a play-in game just to get into pool play, no small accomplishment, particularly at a time when the conference has become so balanced.

The team was 12-10 against NCAA tournament teams, including 7-7 against RPI top 25 teams. The Jackets made their 28th NCAA appearance in the past 30 years, and were eliminated in three games. Since reaching the College World Series in 2006 and then missing the tournament the next year, it was the seventh consecutive year that Tech’s season ended at regionals.

Hall’s lengthy summary of the season: “There were times we were starting four or five freshmen, so I think based on that fact, based on the fact of losing Pitts and Jonathan King at the beginning of the year, I felt like we overcame a lot and then with that being said, to win an ACC championship is a tremendous accomplishment, so very proud of that and proud of our guys. Disappointed that we didn’t win the regional.”

Hall went on to say that, in his opinion, getting into the regional is the hard part. He noted that the number of upsets at the regional level – with only seven of 16 No. 1 seeds advancing to super-regionals – demonstrated not only the depth of talented teams, “but it also tells you that if you play well that weekend, you’ve got a chance,” Hall said. “And so it’s interesting to me (last week, at an end-of-season meeting) just how disappointed our guys were that we didn’t win. That’s a good sign to me. That means that they’re not satisfied with where we’re at. That’s the way I look at it. What can we do to improve to where we host a regional and we win a regional? We’ve kind of been stuck on not winning them, so if you’re standing still, people are going to fly by you.”

2. Freshmen took 40 percent of the team’s at bats. Four of them, right fielder Ryan Peurifoy, shortstop Connor Justus, third baseman Brandon Gold and catcher Arden Pabst, started a combined 187 games. Seniors took 15 percent of the team’s at bats.

3. Broadly, in no small part due to the above numbers, the team was not nearly as strong offensively as the 2013 team, when it had Palka and Evans in the lineup. This year’s team averaged 5.0 runs, down from 6.5 last year. The power drain was considerable. This year’s team averaged a home run every 105 at-bats. Last year’s team hit a home every 39 at bats. Palka almost hit as many home runs (17) as the entire Jackets team did this year (21).

“Certainly some of the things we talked about with our younger guys (last week) is that they’ve got to get stronger,” Hall said.

4. On the other hand, the team’s ERA dropped by a full point despite losing Farmer to graduation and then losing the top two starters, Pitts and King, to season-ending arm injuries early in the year. Pitching coach Jason Howell, who completed his second season with the team, did good work.

“I think Jason Howell did a tremendous job of getting guys to understand how to get guys out,” Hall said.

The team also set a school record for fielding percentage (.974) and double plays (an NCAA-best 77). A strong case could be made that this was Tech’s best defensive team ever. In an era where offensive numbers have dropped due to NCAA rules that required bats be less lively, Tech fielded a team whose clear strengths were pitching and defense.

5. Going forward, Hall cited power, left-handed hitting and left-handed pitching as needs. Tech had five left-handed pitchers on the roster – Sam Clay, Ben Parr, Tanner Shelton, Devin Stanton and King. Clay had an outstanding season as a sophomore and almost certainly will sign a pro contract after getting drafted by the Minnesota Twins in the fourth round. Parr and Stanton both had strong seasons and will be back. King, a sophomore, was to be the No. 2 starter but made only four starts before suffering his season-ending arm injury. Shelton made 15 appearances with a 5.74 ERA.

The only problem with the aforementioned assets: “Everybody wants them,” Hall said. “And the pros want them. That’s what they’re looking for.”

6. To that end, Russ Chandler Stadium will receive a $4.5 million renovation. The entire space underneath the stands will be gutted. On the list – new locker room, new team room, new players’ lounge, new coaches’ offices, new equipment room, new strength and conditioning room and new training room.

“I think that’s going to enhance recruiting, and it’s going to enhance the development even further of our players,” Hall said. “I think one of the things we talk about and take a lot of pride in, we do a pretty good job of developing our players, and so I think the stadium improvements are definitely going to help recruiting because that’s an important factor.”

Hall estimated the facilities, last renovated in 2002, were in the middle of the pack in the ACC.

“But I think once we get it done, we’re going to back towards the top of the conference,” he said.

Hall has hardly recruited poorly. The class that just completed its freshman season was ranked No. 9 by Perfect Game. The 2010 class (including Palka, Isaacs, Evans and Mott Hyde) was ranked No. 7 by Baseball America.

7. At this point, Tech will only lose one member of the starting lineup (not counting pitchers) to graduation, Hyde. Spingola was drafted, as were Josh Heddinger, Matthew Grimes, Clay, Isaacs and Hyde. It’s conceivable all three underclassmen – Spingola, Heddinger and Grimes – could leave. Hall will need to develop more starting pitching, although he’ll likely get Pitts and King back at some point during the 2015 season.

As noted above about the team’s results, it could be said that the team, with as many as eight returning starters, four of whom were freshmen, with a solid freshman class coming in, which won the ACC title for the second time in three years, is in great shape, particularly with a major facilities upgrade. It could also be said that the team, which is 41-49 in the ACC in the past three seasons and hasn’t hosted a regional in that time, and could lose two starting pitchers, its top two relievers and two key up-the-middle players, and whose league will receive a team (Louisville) that just qualified for its second College World Series berth in a row, is getting flown by as the number of competitive teams increases.

For better or worse, the most important piece of the last paragraph may be the upgrade.

“At the end of the day, it comes down to getting good players,” Hall said.

 

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