Perno, Dawgs Start 2011

ATHENS – David Perno is trying to ease into it. After last season, the head coach of the Georgia baseball team is being careful.

It's pointed out that the last time his team finished with a losing record, it came back to nearly win the national title. Perno makes clear he's not setting the goal that high.

He speaks of gradual improvement, saying that "hopefully" in a month or six weeks the Bulldogs will be rounding into form. Any lofty talk will have to wait too.

"Yeah, considering 16 and 37, five and whatever, yeah there should be a good turnaround," Perno said, ticking off last year's record, the worst in his 10-year tenure. "Now what that means, (is) it doesn't take a lot (to be better)."

That especially holds true for Georgia's pitching, which last year was – there's no other way to put it – abysmal. The team set a school record for worst earned run average (8.51) and in that category ranked 276th out of 292 Division I teams.

Among pitchers with at least 10 appearances, Justin Grimm was the staff ace – with a 5.49 earned run average. The ugly ERAs dominated the rest of the staff, from weekend starter Michael Palazzone (8.66) to bullpen stopper Cecil Tanner (12.41).

So Perno made changes, both in staff and philosophy.

He essentially took over the pitching coach duties, ousting pitching coach Brady Widerhold. The opening on the staff was filled by Allen Osborne, who will be the hitting coach.

Perno's next move was to gear the pitching strategy towards just throwing strikes. Hitting the radar gun, he said, would take on a lesser priority, because Perno thinks fielding will be the strength of the team.

"They're challenging the plate, throwing strikes and they're not going to beat themselves," Perno said. "Their stuff might not be overwhelming at times and they might not be able to dominate like some guys we've had in the past. But they'll be good, they'll be solid, they'll keep us in games."

Junior outfielder Peter Verdin said the hitters are noticing a difference so far in practice.

"Our pitchers are just pounding the zone and throwing a lot of strikes, and I think that's a good change from last year," Verdin said.

From a numbers perspective, Perno is also worrying more about the team's WHIP (walks and hits allowed per inning) rather than ERA.

"The ERA, if they're earning what they get, I'll take our chances," Perno said.

When the team opens this weekend, the rotation will be Palazzone and Ben Cornwell (both junior right-handers) and Alex Wood (a sophomore lefty). Clemson transfer Craig Gullickson, a right-hander and son of longtime major league pitcher Bill Gullickson, will get a shot the following weekend.

Hitting-wise, the Bulldogs are led by outfielder Zach Cone, whom Baseball America rated the nation's 40th-best draftable prospect at the college level. The team's hitting didn't get as much attention last year, but the Bulldogs struggled in that area too.

According to Verdin, the message from Perno this year has been nobody sees us coming."

"Because after a year like last year, you don't expect a big turnaround," Verdin said. "But I think we've got a shot to surprise a lot of people. Those first few polls I think we were picked fifth or sixth for the SEC (East), I guess every year they've won it they've been picked fourth, fifth or sixth for the SEC. I think that's one thing we've got going for us, is nobody sees us coming. I think everybody's excited to get back out there after a season like last year."

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