Posted: 2:31 p.m. Thursday, May 30, 2013
By Christian D'Andrea
Georgia Tech, the number two seed in Vanderbilt's Nashville Regional, has had an up-and-down season. Tech started the 2013 season as a top 25 team and rose as high as #11 behind a 17-2 start, but tumbled out of the rankings thanks to a combination of lackluster offense and a murderer's row of opponents in a very strong ACC. Despite a 7-15 finish, the Yellow Jackets still earned a #2 seed in the NCAA Tournament thanks to a RPI ranking in the low 20s.
Now, Tech's season hinges on one question; can they regain the form that made them a top 15 program and rally past a Vanderbilt team that has dispatched opponents with ease all season?
The Yellow Jackets have been anything but consistent in 2013. They've defeated national seeds like North Carolina and Virginia in series play but also mustered up just two runs in three games against lightly-regarded Duke and spotted a dismal Georgia team a mind-bending 17-0 win in that same span. Their hot start wasn't entirely sustainable in a red-hot ACC, but their inability to string together wins put them in the third tier of a very strong conference. While that makes them a dangerous underdog in Nashville, their recent results suggest that they'll struggle against high-level pitching in a game-to-game basis.
Tech hasn't fared well against opponent's top starters since April. After averaging more than 10 runs per game in the opening month of the season, this team's offensive momentum has slowed considerably since then. The Yellow Jackets are 4-10 in Friday/Saturday games over that stretch and averaging just three runs per game in those contests. For comparison, Vanderbilt has gone 12-2 and posted 6.07 runs per game against their opponent's front line in that same time frame.
While you can make the argument that Georgia Tech faced a tougher slate (including N.C. State, Clemson, UNC, and Virginia), recent history suggests that the Yellow Jackets will have trouble hanging runs on the Commodores if pitchers like Kevin Ziomek or Tyler Beede are on the mound. However, Tech has an important weapon that could be Vanderbilt's kryptonite - power at the plate.
Texas A&M; used timely home runs (and some great pitching) to drop a 5-0 loss on Vanderbilt in the first game of the SEC Tournament. Georgia Tech has much more middle-of-the-lineup power than the Aggies, concentrated primarily in the bats of catcher Zane Evans (.369/14 HR/62 RBI) and outfielder Daniel Palka (.332/17 HR/65 RBI). Either player would have been a top three producer in home runs or RBI in the SEC this season.
Vanderbilt hasn't been abused by opponent home runs in 2013 - in fact, they've given up just 19 this season - but A&M;'s surprising ability to knock pitches out of the Hoover Metropolitan Stadium was a rare weakness in a season that has presented few of them. Pitchers like Ziomek and Beede have been tremendously effective in keeping opposing batters from stringing together hits and creating rallies. It looks like Tech's best chance to upset the Commodores (if the game materializes) will be through the one proven method that the chicks dig - the long ball.
Even if GT can get their offense on track, their shallow pitching depth could present a major problem. Buck Farmer has been a very effective Game 1 starter (2.84 ERA, 112 Ks in 103.1 innings), but his team's rotation falls off after that. None of Tech's other starters has an ERA under 4.00, and the team has five different relievers with ERAs greater than five and 15 or more appearances under their belt this season. Unless the Yellow Jackets can get some clutch performances from this underwhelming crew then a breakout series at the plate may not be enough to carry them to the Super Regional.
Even if guys like Farmer, Evans, and Palka catch fire, the Yellow Jackets will be facing steep odds at Hawkins Field. Vanderbilt's depth on both sides of the ball puts a lot of runs across the plate and typically prevents long rallies. Georgia Tech has proven that they can come up big as underdogs, taking Friday/Sunday games against North Carolina and Virginia, but there are still plenty of questions that revolving around their ability to carry that composure into this weekend's Regional. The Yellow Jackets have the talent and the experience to make a run to baseball's Sweet Sixteen, but they may not have the depth or consistency to steal a Regional win on Vanderbilt's home field.