DURHAM, N.C. — Georgia Tech isn’t accustomed to flying under the radar. Tech is a big brand-name program with a long track record of producing talent and earning high rankings. But the past three years have followed a different script for the Yellow Jackets, who haven’t won 40 games or posted a winning record in Atlantic Coast Conference play since 2011.
In 2012 and 2014, the Jackets salvaged lackluster seasons by getting hot in time to win the conference tournament and force their way into a regional. A number of talented freshmen got meaningful playing time last year, taking their share of lumps but showing signs of significant promise. Now they are fairly seasoned sophomores with growing confidence, and their emergence might be helping Georgia Tech re-establish itself as a national power.
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The Jackets have spent the first month of the season outside of all the college baseball rankings, but they look poised to jump into the top 25 after winning their first two ACC series (vs. Notre Dame and at Duke). They won a road game at Kennesaw State on Tuesday to give them six wins in their past seven games and improve to 15-5 overall. A key to the win against the Owls was the relief performance of one of those key sophomores, righthander Zac Ryan. He allowed just a run on three hits while striking out five over four innings of work to hold KSU at bay and allow the Jackets to tie the game with two in the ninth and two more in the 11th. Ryan also picked up a save with a scoreless inning Friday at Duke, then worked two more scoreless frames Sunday to nail down a win for starter Brandon Gold. The Jackets are obviously leaning heavily on Gold (4-0, 2.28 ERA, 3 saves), who attacks the strike zone with an 89-92 fastball and a good power curve at 78-80.
“Huge weekend for the bullpen,” Gold said after Tech’s 4-0 win on Sunday to clinch the series. “I love those guys back there, and they’re going to do everything and anything to help us win a series, win a game, maintain a lead. I’m real happy with where we’re at right now.”
Gold, like Ryan, has taken a huge step forward as a sophomore and is a major reason for Georgia Tech’s strong start. In high school, Gold was primarily a third baseman but he also pitched from time to time. “I”d just come out and wing it,” he said. The Jackets recruited him thinking he could be a two-way player, but he played so well at third base as a freshman that the Jackets let him concentrate on his position-player duties. He hit just .246 in 54 games (50 starts) as a freshman but came up with some timely hits and fielded a solid .963.
As a sophomore, Gold’s offensive production is up — he’s hitting .310/.408/.476 — and he showed off his strong defensive skills more than once on Friday night against Duke. But his mound work has been an even bigger key. Through five appearances (three starts), Gold is 3-0, 0.61 with 27 strikeouts and just five walks in 29.1 innings. He threw seven innings of two-hit, shutout ball against Duke, striking out nine, and showed the ability to spot his 88-91 fastball very effectively to both sides, while mixing in a solid 76-79 breaking ball and occasional changeup.
“I feel like [command] has been my strong point my whole life,” Gold said. “Coming from a position player, you’ve got to throw it across the infield with pinpoint accuracy, so I feel like that helps a lot. I’ve been developing my breaking ball a little bit more as the season progresses, just working on it week after week, day after day. I felt like I was throwing it pretty well today.”
Georgia Tech coach Danny Hall said Gold’s improved ability to command his breaking ball has been a key to his emergence.
“Gold has had three great starts in a row,” Danny Hall said. “When he throws strikes, we seem to play really good behind him, and he doesn’t really walk many, so that gives us a good chance to win when we do that. He’s got a good changeup, but didn’t throw it a lot today. He can definitely be a guy who can throw three pitches for strikes.”
So can Friday starter Jonathan King, a junior lefthander with a bulldog’s mentality. His stuff isn’t overpowering, but he hides his 86-89 fastball well and it has good running life. He also has advanced feel for his slurvy 76-79 breaking ball and low-80s changeup.
The Yellow Jackets aren’t blessed with an abundance of huge power arms, but they compete, and the defense behind them is very strong, which makes the staff better. Sophomore Connor Justus is a standout at shortstop, and high-energy freshman Wade Bailey has done a nice job replacing departed veteran Mott Hyde at second base. The speedy Daniel Spingola anchors the outfield and serves as the catalyst at the top of the lineup, and senior A.J. Murray has become a solid No. 2 catcher behind sophomore Arden Pabst. When Gold pitches, junior Matt Gonzalez can move from left field to third, and sophomore Keenan Innis (.388/.474/.510) can handle left field admirably. The Jackets have a number of moving parts on defense, and their versatility is an asset.
“It’s nice to have some flexibility,” Hall said. “Gonzalez can play in the outfield, he can play in the infield. A.J. gives us certainly a good No. 2 catcher, and Innis is a valuable guy when we can get him in the lineup, and I thought he made a couple good catches [Sunday] down the left-field line. He deserves to play every day, and I’ve told him that. We need to get him in the lineup just about every chance we get.”
Georgia Tech’s program has a long history of bludgeoning opponents with its power, but last year’s team hit just 21 home runs, with no Jacket hitting more than four long balls. This year’s club already has 17 homers, led by blue-chip freshman Kel Johnson (six) and physical senior Murray (four), who followed up his disappointing junior year with a stellar summer in the Cape Cod League. He has carried his confidence into this spring, and it makes a big difference for the Tech offense. Gonzalez also has strength in his swing, and with two home runs this year, he has already doubled his output from a year ago.
The lineup looks competitive from top to bottom, especially if Justus can get his bat going in the No. 9 hole after struggling for the first few weeks. The speed and on-base ability at the top and the power in the middle makes the top half of the lineup particularly formidable. Plate discipline is an asset every year for this program, which ranks 25th in the nation in walks and used its patience to beat power-armed Duke righty Bailey Clark on Sunday. Clark issued three walks in the fourth inning, and Tech turned them into two runs, then never looked back.
“I think offensively we have a chance,” Hall said. “I think defensively we’ve been very consistent … We’ve won two series, and it looks like our conference is crazy. There are a lot of good teams, so we’re happy to win two weekends in a row, and this one in particular, being on the road.”
The next two weekends offer opportunities for Georgia Tech to make a real statement on the national level, as they host No. 22 North Carolina and then travel to No. 11 Louisville. If they can keep winning series against those opponents, they won’t be under the radar much longer.