With the announcement of UGA's starting rotation and likely starters on their team website yesterday, the rebuild process on Foley Field will start game one. Coach Stricklin is sticking true to his "not checking birth certificates at the door" statement from the Fall Classic srimmage, listing six freshman in the potential starters in addition to a sophomore and freshmen in the initial starting rotation.
Getting the ball on Friday for the 5:00 p.m. first pitch, sophomore Kevin Smith (5-1, 3.91 ERA) will square off against College of Charleston's redshirt junior Bailey Ober (7-4, 3.53 ERA).
Smith, a 6-foot-5-inch southpaw will look to build on his moderately successful freshman season. Smith began last season in the starting rotation but was sidelined most of April due to elbow tendonitis, forcing Stricklin to feature him mostly out of the bullpen. As a starter, Smith was 3-1 with a 5.40 ERA, throwing at least 6.0 innings in three of his seven starts. For a successful 2017 season, Smith will need to keep the ERA lower, stay healthy and pitch deeper into games.
For Saturday's 1:00 p.m. game, freshman Tony Locey will start against the Cougar's junior righty Carter Love (3-2, 2.87 ERA).
Locey is one of the freshmen stars to keep an eye on in 2017. Highlighted in last week's season preview, Locey graduated high school as the top pitching prospect in the state and 1st team All-American. The freshmen showed no fear in the Fall Classic striking out seven of 13 batters faced by pounding the strike zone and attacking hitters with heavy heat. There are big expectations for the 6-foot-3-inch righty to be the strikeout pitcher carrying the middle part of the rotation throughout the season.
In the series finally on Sunday, Georgia announced Chase Adkins, the junior transfer from Chattahoochee Valley Community College and Coastal Carolina, will get the start. College of Charleston has yet to announce who will toe the rubber on Sunday.
UGA's starting lineup will be lead by junior outfielder Keegan McGovern and sophomores Michael Curry (C) and LJ Talley (1B), complimented with possibly four or five freshmen at the other positions.
Talley started 54 games last season, and although he can play second, he will likely be the everyday first baseman. Last season, he averaged .230 at the plate and slugged .310, but tied for second on the team in doubles with nine. Consistency and putting the ball in play will be key for Talley this season, as he is already keen at drawing walks with a relatively high on base percentage for a .230 average.
Behind the plate, Curry earned Freshman All-America honors from Collegiate Baseball and PerfectGame, leading the Dawgs with 11 homeruns. Curry should be the anchor in the middle part of the lineup for UGA. Should he lower his strikeout totals from last season, expect Curry to garner attention as possibly a first or second-team All-SEC player.
McGovern returns as the every day left fielder with an impecable fielding percentage (1.000%) from last season. McGovern started all 57 games for the Dawgs last season, averaging .263 at the plate with six dingers and 35 RBIs. McGovern and Curry were elected the team captains for this season.
As for the rest of the lineup, expect it to be littered with freshmen. The infield could be a 3/4ths majority freshmen - lead by Cam Shephard at short, Aaron Schunk at third and Will Proctor at second. The double-play-tandem between Shephard and Proctor will be interesting to watch, as strong defensive play up the middle is vital in getting out of innings. During the Fall Classic, there were a number of booted balls and misplays, something Stricklin emphasized in fixing over the offseason before the regular season got under way.
In the outfield, Tucker Maxwell is favored to be the center fielder and right field could be rotation between a number of players. Maxwell graduated high school as an honorable mention for the All-America team, batting .518 with five homeruns and 37 RBIs for the 7-AAA state runner up Lambert Longhorns. Maxwell will either leadoff the Dawgs or bat ninth, but his athleticism in the field is something to keep an eye on this season.
As for the competition this weekend, the College of Charleston Cougars are coming off a sixth-place finish in the Colonial Athletic Association last year and are pojected to finish third this year. The Cougars finished with a better record than UGA's 27-30 last year with a 31-26-1 record, but the competition UGA faced was much stiffer last season. Georgia will need to better than last year's 16-11 out of conference record for momentum and confidence when conference play starts.
The Dawgs will be more talented than the College of Charleston, and likely less experienced. Compared to UGA's underclassmen that occupy 25 of 35 roster spots, the Cougars will have 18 of 34 underclassmen on their roster.
Much of Georgia's predicted outcome this season is unknown. Should the freshmen exceed expectations, the Dawgs will likely finish higher than the sixth and seventh place predictions from D1Baseball.com and PerfectGame.org. The SEC coaches picked UGA to finish fourth in the conference, but in order to be ready for the SEC, the Dawgs will need to establish a purpose to the season early on.
While Stricklin will focus on having his players focused on College of Charleston this weekend, UGA has a big week ahead with Mercer, Georgia Southern and Kennessaw State on the schedule. Getting three wins at home to start the season is a nice security blanket should the Dawgs drop a game or two next week.
Follow along on Twitter for updates throughout the entire season @hank_sewell