Fields & Dawgs gear up for 2008

ATHENS – The good news for Georgia's baseball team is pitcher Josh Fields is back and expected to be better than ever.

The bad news is there will be no easing into the season for Fields, the Bulldogs' senior closer who is coming off a disappointing season, or for any of his teammates. Georgia begins the 2008 season at Foley Field at 5 p.m. today with the first of a three-game series against No. 1 Arizona.

Literally and figuratively, that's just the start for the Bulldogs, who have what head coach David Perno think is the nation's toughest schedule. Georgia also plays two-time defending national champion Oregon State in a three-game series, two games against Florida State and its annual games against Clemson and Georgia Tech, in addition to 30 games in the rugged SEC.

"We'll know who we are after the first two or three weeks," said Perno, who is entering his seventh season in charge and 12th season overall with the Bulldogs.

The Bulldogs were picked to finish fourth in the Eastern Division by the conference's coaches, but their own expectations are higher. Georgia was 23-33 a year ago and finished last in the East.

"This team is older, and not only is it older, I think the guys at the top are really doing a much better job of taking the lead," Perno said.

The No. 1 reason for confidence in the Bulldogs' dugout is the return of Fields, who was drafted No. 69 overall last year by the Atlanta Braves despite having subpar statistics. He turned down a contract offer from the Braves and became the highest drafted player to return to college last year.

Not only has Fields returned, but the dominant presence he had as a sophomore, when he had 15 saves and a 3-2 record, has returned, Perno said.

"He's been through that draft situation once, and he knows that side of it," Perno said. "He knows the only thing that is important is controlling what he can control, and that's going out and throwing strikes and competing."

Fields, a high school slugger, also will return to the batter's box, hitting for the first time since his freshman year.

"I just wanted to give him the opportunity," Perno said. "He's probably never going to have it again. He's going to be doing one thing when he leaves here, and he's got a chance to do something he has a great time doing. I think making him hit a little bit has got him back to realizing that this is the game of baseball and how you play it on both ends and not so just completely locked in on just closing. It has opened his mind up."

Fields and shortstop Gordon Beckham (13 home runs, 51 RBIs last season) each were named to Baseball America's preseason All-America teams. Overall, Georgia returns 72 percent of its RBIs, and 11 pitchers who accounted for 94 percent of its innings-pitched last year

"We've never had pitching this deep," Perno said.

And it all starts, or ends, with Fields.

Having him, "is a huge asset for this team," Perno said. "As a coach it's very comforting."

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