Freshman Making Baseball Go

ATHENS – Georgia's veterans have already come up with a nickname for freshman leadoff hitter Johnathan Taylor.

The fleet-footed outfielder is referred to as the created player, because his unique skill set resembles that of a fake player created for video games. In real life, leadoff hitters rarely possess such dynamic offensive ability.

Taylor has been the Bulldogs' catalyst in a 9-0 start to the season, and while he has firmly established himself as one of the top leadoff hitters in the country already, coach Dave Perno said there's much more to the freshman's repertoire.

"That's on his worst day, he's a good leadoff hitter," Perno said. "On his good days, he's everything. He can do a little bit of everything. He's setting the table for everybody."

While he may be capable of virtually anything, the 5-foot-8 freshman from Acworth has been every bit the prototypical leadoff man so far this season. Taylor leads the Bulldogs with a .538 batting average and six stolen bases, and he has reached base in 24 of his first 36 plate appearances to start his career.

While virtually every hitter in the Bulldogs' lineup has been hot, Taylor has set the tone, and the streak is the most torrid of his career at any level, he said.

"I'd have to put it as the first one in that category," Taylor said. "This is the first time it's ever happened to me. College, I guess that's where it starts."

The expectations for Taylor were high, but few players start their college careers with the success he has found right off the bat. But that doesn't mean his teammates are surprised by the hot start.

Senior catcher Bryce Massanari said Taylor wore out Georgia's pitching in intra-squad games this fall, so the rest of the team knew what to expect. The Bulldogs won't expect Taylor to get on base at a .667 clip all year, but the freshman will be counted on as the table setter for the entire offense.

"J.T. is that prototypical leadoff hitter, and he's making our offense go right now," Massanari said. "I don't think any of us are shocked he's getting on base this much. I know he'll probably slow down a little bit, but he's an unbelievable player."

As a table-setter, Taylor has been exceptional. He has led off six of the seven games he started by getting on base and scored five of those times. But his bat hasn't been limited to small ball alone.

Taylor has driven in seven runs and is slugging .654 this season, despite a style of play that doesn't exactly intimidate opponents with the longball.

Growing up, Taylor's favorite player was Rickey Henderson. While Taylor happily admits he doesn't have the same power that the soon-to-be Hall-of-Famer had during his Major League Baseball career, there are still plenty of similarities.

"I don't think I can hit those home runs, but I'm proud of my little slap hits," Taylor said.

A year ago, Georgia got to within one game of a College World Series championship using Ryan Peisel as its leadoff hitter. Peisel had a strong season, cranking out 12 home runs and posting a .416 on-base percentage, but he was really a middle-of-the-lineup player who was out of place as the leadoff man.

With Peisel gone, Taylor's presence at the top of the order is indicative of the new look of the Bulldogs' offense overall.

While last year's team relied heavily on power, this year's offense has found myriad ways to create runs, and Taylor's effect has been felt up and down the lineup.

"It helps everybody out," Massanari said. "Him hitting helps the two-hole hitter out. Him being on base helps the three-hole hitter. It helps me and Rich (Poythress) out because we're getting pitches to hit and driving in runs. It just makes it easy throughout the lineup."

His key role and sensational start makes it easy to forget Taylor is a freshman, and Perno said he can't recall another first-year player acclimate to life in the SEC with as much ease as Taylor has done this year.

Georgia looks to move to 10-0, which would be the best start in program history, when it opens a three-game weekend series at Foley Field against Quinnipiac tonight. It will be the Bulldogs' final tune-up before opening SEC play next weekend, and perhaps a final chance for Taylor to pad his stats before getting a taste of just how tough college baseball can be.

But while he admits he's due to level off a bit offensively as the season moves along, he said the strong start has been inspiring and he's looking forward to leading the way to a return trip to the College World Series.

"I never thought I would start off this hot," Taylor said. "I know as we continue on it's going to get harder, so I've just got to keep on doing my best."

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