Preview: SEC play arrives

SEC play is here and the Georgia Bulldogs are in town for a three-game set with the Gamecocks. Inside John Klauber provides an in-depth look at what you should expect from the improved Bulldogs this weekend.

University of Georgia Bulldogs

Record: 8-9. Home: 3-4; Away: 3-4; Neutral: 2-1; SEC: 0-0.

Ten years at the helm… Coach David Perno starts his tenth season as the Bulldog skipper. Given last year's unacceptable record of 16 wins and 35 losses and a record of 5-23 in SEC conference play, things will have to change this year for Coach Perno. It will have to change for the better or his seat will be a hot one. Before 2010 Fall scrimmages began, Perno decided to take on some additional duties as the Bulldog skipper. He got rid of pitching coach Brady Wiederhold and is personally overseeing the development of his pitching staff.

Coming out of Fall scrimmages, it was pretty obvious that Michael Palazzone, Alex Wood and Craig Gullickson (a transfer pitcher from Clemson) were going to be the trio that the bulldogs would rely upon to help them achieve their 2011 goal… to make the SEC Tournament and take it from there. According to Palazzone, Coach Perno has been a big help with mechanics, but mostly he has given Palazzone and others a plan to work off of for this season. Namely, they go after hitters that they will face. So far, it has worked. The starter's strikes to innings pitched are averaging out to almost a strikeout per inning. For the most part, they have limited the number of hits and runs given up in their starts and their cumulative earned run average to begin this season is around 3.98/start.

Palazzone, who is the sole returning weekend starter from last year's pitching staff (along with Cecil Tanner, who worked in relief), is a prime example of what a difference a year can make. He finished the season with an 8.66 ERA (4-8 in 13 starts) and is presently 2-1 with a 3.13 ERA. Typically, Alex Wood (LHP) will start on Friday, with Palazzone (RHP) getting the Saturday start. Gullickson (LHP) has started as their Sunday pitcher in the last 3 of 4 weekend games. That provides the Bulldogs with a lefty, righty, and lefty combination to start the weekends.

Their wins over UCLA, So. Cal. and St. Mary's last weekend at the Dodgertown Classic (played in Los Angeles) would catch anyone's attention. But consider they started their "perfect week" by winning two weekday games; the first against Mercer (3/8) in Macon, Ga. They played the Crimson Tide the following day (3/9) at the Braves minor league park (Coolray Field) in Lawrenceville, Ga. For those keeping track, that means they won five games… all outside of the friendly confines of Foley Field in Athens. Quite an impressive week indeed; they have done it recently and against very solid competition.

In short, they will play anyone, anywhere and at any time; that fact can be a tad concerning for a team like the Gamecocks. It is no secret that Carolina has been struggling with the bats, losing two in a row (CSU-Bakersfield and Furman). Carolina will have to re-establish their hitting to match up with the Bulldogs. The Dawgs seem to get hits when they need them; they aren't hitting many homers (7 so far this season) to get their runs, but they are getting base hits which lead to points on the scoreboard and are becoming more productive with every outing.

They have been stringing together hits and moving runners along the pads with timely hits and RBI to win recent games. Put the games they lost early in the season in the back of your mind. They are hitting, running and playing aggressive much better and their success has been a team effort. It seems to have come about with a tragic injury to one of their lead off hitters, Jonathon Taylor.

Taylor's injury makes an impact on their players…Taylor collided head on into another Bulldog player and sustained a serious spinal injury. After undergoing Neck surgery to stabilize his spine, Taylor is currently undergoing rehabilitation at the renowned Shepherd Spinal Center in Atlanta. The team is honoring Taylor with his initials and number (JT #2) on the back of Georgia batting helmets. A couple of wins over the Gamecocks would give them something to play for this season, along with honoring Jonathon Taylor. This is a very dangerous Georgia team.

Hitting… As stated, Georgia hitters have been able to string together some hits, get guys on base and advance them across the plate by stringing together hits. They did this against UCLA's Garrett Cole much like we did against him in Omaha. By the time UCLA pulled Cole (@ the 8th inning), UGa kept a three run lead. With Cole's departure that lead would double as they put together a 3 run rally that sealed the deal against UCLA. UGa pitcher (Alex Wood) pretty much matched Cole pitch for pitch. This gave UGa hitters enough confidence to take the lead and win the game convincingly, 6-2.

Team hitting numbers… If you looked at the team numbers, they really aren't overwhelming… just well placed and well timed. They are hitting a team average of .266; they have an on-base percentage of .325. Bulldawg hitters are doing the small things without one of their better bats in the line-up (Taylor). Perno has done a very good job of moving hitters in and out of their batting order. Four of their bench hitters are hitting north of .300. They have been getting hits off the bench when they are needed most and will usually make a move with a pinch-hitter in the middle innings. This is something Carolina has struggled with and a reason why we have flipped hitters around in the top of our batting order (1-2 hitters) and the bottom of our order (7-9).

Typically… and after Taylor's injury… the UGa batting order has been Powell hitting lead-off, Hyams hitting second, Zach Cone (third), Davidson at clean-up, Farmer, Hester, Verdin and Delmonico/Shields alternating at the catcher position. Taylor was playing left and center field positions, was batting as lead-off/second slot and was relatively productive at the start (.182BA, 33 AB, 4r, 6h, 2RBI [.263 obp]).

UGa has been able to rely recently on Freshman Lance Martin to fill in as a pinch hitter. Martin can provide some defensive needs in center (sometimes left) field as he has good speed. The down side is he has had a tough time at the plate. Others have helped fill the gap, as needed… specifically Welton. Zach Cone and Peter Verdin (to an extent) are moved around in an attempt to try to find the perfect combination of defense and offense that was vacated by Taylor's injury. UGa hitters have done well against Left-handed starters and are 4-2 against them when they face lefty starters. They are 4-6 against right-handed starters.

On a fielding note, it appears the weakest link in their line-up (defensively) is up the middle and close to second base as their shortstop (Farmer) has 6 errors (.913 flg%) and second baseman, Hyams, has 4 errors (.944 fld%). Cone, Georgia's centerfielder, is still perfect in defensive play at his position (1.00 flg%). One would have to believe that a ball hit up the middle should keep UGa on its toes.

Here is Georgia's batting line-up; the first nine in the order represent the typical 1,2,3 order for the past weekend series in Los Angeles, during the Dodgertown Classic:

8, Curt Powell, 3B (Tr. So.); .298BA, 57AB, 9r, 17h, 2RBI, 4w, 11k (.385obp).

3, Levi Hyams, 2B (Jr.); .362BA, 69AB, 9r, 25h, 1HR, 10RBI, 5W, 12K (.405 obp).

12, Zach Cone, CF (Jr.); .310BA, 58AB, 9r, 18h, 7RBI, 3w, 13k (.355 obp).

45, Chase Davidson, DH/RF (Jr.); .302BA, 63AB, 12r, 19h, 13RBI, 6w, 19k (.375 obp).

17, Kyle Farmer, SS (So.); .233BA, 60AB, 11r, 14h, 2HR, 15RBI, 2w, 6k (.306 obp).

10, Jonathon Hester, 1B (Jr.); .302BA, 63AB, 8r, 19h, 2HR, 8RBI, 4w, 10k (.353 obp).

26, Joey Delmonico, C (Jr.); .306BA, 36AB, 11h, 2RBI, 6k (.297 obp).

16, Peter Verdin, LF/RF (Jr.); .154BA, 52AB, 7r, 8h, 4RBI, 2w, 9k (.228 obp).

11, Conor Welton, LF/CF/RF (Fr.); .154BA, 13AB, 2r, 2h, 2w, 9k (.267 obp).

15, Austin Wheeler, 1B/RF (Fr.); .167BA, 6AB, 1r, 1h, 2k (.167 obp).

22, Brett DeLoach, DH (So.); .353BA, 17AB, 4r, 6h, 5RBI, 1w, 2k (.389 obp).

5, Brandon Shields, C (Fr.); .208BA, 24AB, 2r, 5h, 2RBI, 1w, 4k (.231 obp).

25, Colby May, 3B (Jr.); .176BA, 17AB, 3r, 3h, 1RBI, 2w, 3k (.300 obp).

1, Lance Martin, CF/LF/2B (Jr.); .143BA, 7AB, 1h, 2RBI, 2k (.333 obp).

36, Kevin Ruiz, DH/P (RHP, RS-So.); .000BA, 5AB (.000 obp).

Team Batting Average: .267
Opponent Batting Average: .277

Team on-base percentage: .327
Opponent on-base percentage: .361

Georgia Pitching… This was the weakest link from last year's team and it is the one area that Perno wanted improvement going into the 2011 season. For them, most of their starters are gone from last year's staff, all but Michael Palazzone.

Palazzone, who comes from Lassiter H.S. (one of the premier 5A high school baseball programs in Georgia) took advantage of a Summer playing in the Cape Cod Leagues last Summer. He spent time with teammate Anthony Ranaudo (LSU) on the Brewster Whitecap team. He watched Renaudo's routine and took from it a few ideas that transitioned from Cape ball to fall ball at UGa. The learned techniques are now surfacing in regular season play; namely, lengthier outings on the mound. Palazzone averages at least 7 innings or more on the mound, with more k's thrown (on average) over his past two years as a Bulldawg.

Palazzone's performance against Florida State this year is a prime example. Palazzone's efforts gave them a win against the #5 Seminoles and what set his efforts apart from last year's start was the speed that Palazzone worked from the mound. He worked a full 7 innings, gave up one run on five hits and struck out five. His win the previous weekend against a ranked Baylor team was a solid lead to the performance against the Seminoles. He went 5 1/3 innings against the Bears, keeping Georgia within striking distance, by giving up just 2 runs on five hits and striking out six batters.

If they can get solid performances out of their Friday starter (Alex Wood), which they have, it makes Palazzone's job a lot easier on Saturdays. Wood has given them excellent Friday performances, typically going into the middle innings (5-7 innings) as their starter. His best start to date was against UCLA in last weekend's duel with UCLA starter Garrett Cole. Wood matched him pitch for pitch (Wood went 7 innings; pitched 7 hits, 3 earned runs, 8 strikeouts) while Georgia hitters kept the UCLA defense busy by getting hits to back Wood's efforts. Wood got the win that Friday. He came very close to getting his win against Florida State a week before by going 4 and 2/3s giving up 7 hits and 6 runs, striking out 6 in a 5-6 loss. Those numbers may not be impressive at first sight, but consider that he is coming off of Tommy John surgery (last year) and the numbers are quite good.

Add in efforts in relief by Patrick Boling and closer Tyler Maloof (6 saves this season), the Georgia Bulldogs can hold good teams in check with their pitching while their batting order slowly chips away at a lead or creating distance with a lead. Here is an in-depth look at their pitching staff for 2011:

33, Alex Wood (LHP, So.); 4.32ERA, 1-2, 16.2IP, 17h, 10r(8e), 3w, 21k (.274 oba).

44, Michael Palazzone (RHP, Jr.); 3.13ERA, 2-1, 23.IP, 24h, 8r(8e), 3w, 21k (.267 oba).

38, Patrick Bolling (LHP, So.); 1.54ERA, 0-0, 11.2IP, 12h, 2r(2e), 8w, 18k (.273 oba).

28, Cecil Tanner (RHP, Jr.); 0.00ERA, 0-0, 2.2IP, 1h, 7w, 1k (.293 oba).

27, Blake Dietrich (LHP, So.); 1.64ERA, 1-1, 1SV, 11IP, 9h, 5r(2e), 3w, 14k (.225 oba).

31, Tyler Maloof (RHP, Jr.); .2.45ERA, 0-0, 6SV, 7.1IP, 6h, 2r(2e), 4w, 12k (.231 oba).

38, Patrick Boling (LHP, So.); 1.54ERA, 0-0, 11.2IP, 12h, 2r(2e), 8w, 18k (.273 oba).

35, Eric Swegman (RHP, Tr.-Sr.); 3.75ERA, 1-0, 12.IP, 9h, 6r(5e), 12w, 8k (.205 oba).

34, Craig Gullickson (LHP, R.S.-Jr.); 4.50ERA, 1-1,12.IP, 14h, 12r(6e), 4w, 8k (.286 oba).

23, Ben Cornwall (RHP, Tr.-JR.); 6.28ERA, 1-2, 14.1IP, 20h, 11r(10e), 6w, 10k (.328 oba).

13, Chase Hawkins (LHP, Jr.); 6.48ERA, 0-1, 16.2IP, 24h, 14r(12e), 3w, 7k (.324 oba).

21, John Herman (RHP, GS); 7.71ERA, 1-1, 9.1IP, 6h, 9r(8e), 4w, 5k (.194 oba).

36, Kevin Ruiz (RHP, R.S.-So.); 3.86ERA, 0-0, 2.1IP, 2h, 1r(1e), (.222 oba).

Team ERA: 4.56
Opponent ERA: 4.23

Team Opponent Batting Average: .277
Oppo. Batting Average/UGa: .267

I can say without a doubt that this year's Georgia Bulldog baseball team will have a lot of their fans forgetting about a very forgetful year… last year. The scary thing about them is they have recently done much better as a team away from their home field and in big settings (large audiences) where they were the visiting team. They have done better under stressful situations… the loss of a major contributor in Jonathon Taylor; loss of some very good freshman recruits to the major leagues. They have done more with less than any team I can think of in the SEC. It is just the start of the 2011 season and they have already overcome some pretty big obstacles. They did it as a team with a purpose… get to the SEC Tournament in May.

Given the success their hitters have had against left-handed pitchers and given the fact that our guys are stretching a bit to obtain consistent hitting from the top and bottom of our batting order, this series has the makings of a nasty start to conference play for the Gamecocks. We will have to play better as a team and do the small things right (defensively) to have a good shot at beating them. This is something the Yardcocks can do when faced with obstacles; they play well under pressure.

It will be a tough start in conference play… typical for the SEC, a conference where the defending National Champions are ranked third within their own division.

Depending on what we can do against UGa early in the season, it will help us to gel early as the remainder of our SEC east schedule unfolds, which is well before we play an SEC west team (@Miss. State; 4/22). The 66% rule is in effect; all we have to do is play our game, limit our errors and keep walks to a minimum and we should match (or better) whatever Georgia throws at us this weekend.

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