Managing against his former coach at Kent State and his former boss while a volunteer and assistant coach at Georgia Tech, Stricklin said there weren’t any advantages going against a familiar face.
“Not at all [any advantages]. We don’t talk much during the season, might a little during the summer and maybe the fall. We catch up before the game, but once the game starts its Georgia/Georgia Tech. Huge rivalry and everyone wants to win this game. We’re going to battle it really hard and shake hands when it’s over.”
After Friday night’s game against Missouri in which game two starter Kevin Smith struggled mightily, Stricklin mentioned that Blakely Brown, Zac Kristofak and a few others were getting looks to become the new day two starter. With a staff night on Tuesday against Georgia Tech, Kristofak would get the first crack at the open spot.
Kristofak picked up where he left off in his last two appearances, striking out the first two batters. Then Georgia Tech’s catcher Joey Bart ripped an outfield single in the gap, which could have been more trouble had Tucker Maxwell not tracked it down as well as he did.
Things got dicey for the young freshman making his first start when he balked the runner from first to second, then a wild pitch and a walk put runners on the corners for Tech’s Coleman Poje. Poje, a .314 hitter, hit a fly ball near the right field line far from Tucker Bradley’s position but high enough for the freshman to reel it in in a diving attempt. From then on Kristofak moved through Tech’s lineup with moderate ease.
In the following frame, Georgia used their first opportunity at the plate to take an early 1-0 lead on Tucker Maxwell’s double, Cam Shephard’s walk and Keegan McGovern’s line drive to right that drove in Maxwell. They wouldn’t stop at just one run.
Also working on a staff night, Georgia Tech kept starter Jonathan Hughes on a short leash, yanking him after just one run across in 28 pitches. Calling in righty Jared Datoc from the pen to face Georgia’s best hitter Michael Curry for the righty-righty matchup didn’t pan out for the Yellow Jackets.
Curry ripped a low-line drive down the line that took a bounce off the third base bag and dribbled into right scoring Shephard. Designated hitter L.J. Talley snuck a ground ball to second base scoring McGovern before the inning ended.
After one, the Diamond Dawgs were in unfamiliar territory with a 3-0 first inning lead. In their 33 games this season, Georgia has owned first inning leads just six times, with an even 3-3 win/loss record in those games. None of Georgia’s previous first inning leads were as large as their 3-0 lead Tuesday night.
“There’s never a comfort level in baseball until you get the last out … There’s no question [the lead energized us],” said Stricklin.
In the second, Georgia needed a shutdown inning to keep momentum. After a routine fly ball to the track, Bradley flashed the leather again with a diving catch in short right-center, followed with a diving stop by first baseman Adam Sasser. Shutdown innings following a score are vital to sustaining leads, and Georgia got out of the second with just six pitches.
“The biggest thing was Zac going out there and getting three quick outs … getting into the dugout with a zero [in the second inning] was very important for Zac,” Stricklin added on the early 3-0 lead.
The Dawgs went down in their second frame almost as fast, in just 10 pitches. Six up and six down in the second. After keeping Tech’s bats quiet again in the third, Kristofak’s night was over after. In his staff night start, Kristofak completed three scoreless innings, striking out three and only walking one. In his last six outings, Kristofak hasn’t allowed a run in 13 innings pitched with 14 strikeouts. Strong numbers for a freshman auditioning for the second spot in the weekend rotation.
“He’s just really aggressive. He’s always been the smallest guy, but he’s also the toughest guy, the meanest guy, the most aggressive and that’s why he’s so good. He’s someone that we feel very good and confident about,” said Stricklin last night on Kristofak’s performance.
Things were quiet between the second and third until Cam Shephard woke Foley up with a loud ping, sending the baseball on a rope to the parking lot behind the left field wall. 4-0 Diamond Dawgs. Excluding the Savannah State game, this was one of Georgia’s largest leads all season. Add in the fact that it was against the in-state rival and a squad ranking 48 spots ahead of them in D1Baseball.com’s “Nitty Gritty” RPI, the young Diamond Dawgs were putting together their best game all season.
All they needed to do was keep their heads and avoid the costly walks, errors and wild pitches.
They did the best they could from the fourth through the sixth, but in the seventh things went temporarily array. In the inning, the Dawgs walked the second batter of the inning, who advanced to second on a wild pitch and then scored on hard ground ball that went between Shephard’s legs at short.
Luckily for the Dawgs, the walk, wild pitch and error combo that’s been their trademark most nights only cost them one run.
That one frame was really Georgia’s only blemish on the evening. Outside of that seventh inning, Georgia’s staff night on the rubber held the early lead by limiting Georgia Tech to four hits and combining for 15 Ks, nearly matching the season high 17 set last Thursday. No reliever walked more than one batter. It was an impressive night all around for the pitching staff after their hitters put them in a comfortable position.
“I thought our pitchers did a really good job throwing fastballs inside to speed them up, then we got some swing and misses with sliders tonight. Six different guys went out there to pitch, and they all did their job and I’m really happy with what our pitching staff did,” said Stricklin.
In the eighth, Georgia got back the run they blemished away in the seventh after McGovern drew a walk, Talley singled him over a bag and Will Proctors double drove in the Dawg’s fifth run.
Blake Cairnes then entered the game to close the door on the Yellow Jackets. With probably their best performance all season, the Diamond Dawgs won game one of the three game series 5-1.
“I thought we had really good approaches that first inning. Being able to put three up on the board allows us to go out and be more aggressive. When you have a lead as a pitcher you can be more aggressive, and I thought ours for the most part were very aggressive and when you look at the 15 strikeouts you see that.”
Next, the Dawgs travel to Fayetteville today to face the 15-8 Hogs in a Thursday/Friday/Saturday three game series. This will be two weeks in a row the Dawgs play four games in five days, this time far from home.
Stricklin channeled Bull Durham to describe how this win will play into effect on the road this weekend, “Winning is a whole lot better than losing ... If we go out and play like we did tonight we can play with anybody, it’s just the consistency. We’ve got to come out and play like this again. Get that pitching, play good defense. We just need to put a stretch together. When you start winning some games, you start feeling more confident.”