Baseball: Opportunities lost
Georgia will miss the NCAA Tournament after not receiving a bid on Monday
Georgia catcher and pitcher Shane Marshall (2) during a game against Ole Miss at the 2021 SEC Baseball Tournament Hoover Metropolitan Stadium in Hoover, Ala., on Thursday, May 27, 2021. (Photo by Michael Wade)
Georgia will miss the NCAA Tournament following a season full of injuries, which greatly affected it during the final stretch of a rigorous SEC slate.
The Bulldogs ended the 2021 season with an overall record of 31-26 while being named one of the “first four out” by the selection committee, which included Baylor, Pittsburgh and Ball State.
The SEC had nine teams qualify for the tournament with six of them being named regional hosts. Arkansas, Vanderbilt, Tennessee, Ole Miss, Mississippi State and Florida are all the host teams. Meanwhile, Alabama, LSU and South Carolina all will be on the road at different regional sites.
Last week, Georgia beat LSU 4-1 in the opening single-elimination round of the SEC Tournament. Both teams have the same SEC record and the Bulldogs won the head-to-head matchup, although the Tigers were able to sneak into the field of 64. According to NCAA, despite Georgia having the stronger case for an at-large bid, LSU had the higher RPI. The Tigers came in at No. 28 and the Bulldogs were 13 spots lower at No. 41.
Georgia’s injuries and players’ health were the team’s biggest downfalls, especially at the start of the season. The starting rotation against Evansville for the season-opening series was tweaked when pitchers Jonathan Cannon and Ryan Webb were both out with different sickness ailments. The pair missed a significant amount of time due to those health problems.
Freshmen Luke Wagner, Jaden Woods and Hank Bearden made their collegiate debuts that weekend. Cannon and Webb eventually returned and had to work their way back into the starting rotation by making starts on weekdays against non-conference opponents. Eventually, both were placed back in the starting rotation as conference play neared.
Wagner ended up making the start in the conference opener against Tennessee and gained invaluable experience throughout the rest of the season due to C.J. Smith being pulled due to a shoulder injury. Towards the end of the year, Webb battled an injury and missed the final two conference series against Florida and Ole Miss. He then had surgery to repair his shoulder before the season concluded.
Georgia’s hitting towards the end of the year was also affected because of injuries to some of the top batters in the lineup. Connor Tate, who led the team with 10 home runs, missed time towards the end of the season with an injury. Senior outfielder Riley King also battled a knee injury around the same time Connor was limited with a lower leg injury, which happened against Florida. Cole Tate, who hit .319 on the season, also missed a few games.
Georgia lost at least two of three games in their final four conference series. The Bulldogs went 7-11 to the end of the regular season, which ultimately lead to their demise. The win over LSU was supposed to help Georgia’s argument for a tournament bid, but the embarrassing losses to top-seeded Arkansas and Ole Miss were the final nail in the coffin on a disappointing season.
Despite all that, Scott Stricklin’s squad has a bright future.
Georgia’s roster featured 15 true freshmen, including several that made an impact. Offensively, Corey Collins, Parks Harber and Fernando Gonzalez had successful seasons. On the other hand, Wagner, Woods, Will Pearson and Liam Sullivan all made contributions on the mound for the Bulldogs. In fact, Collins and Woods were named to the All-Freshman before the matchup against LSU last week.
This year’s squad was 3-4 against both Vanderbilt and Arkansas, who both were ranked No. 1 at some point this season. There were also several walk-off wins, including Harber’s pair against Tennessee and Clemson, respectively. Georgia started the season 13-3 before entering conference play and competed hard in most league games.
Webb and Cannon are expected to enter the MLB Draft, as both are expected to be top prospects, according to Jim Callis of MLB.com. Radio announcer Jeff Dantzler said in a broadcast that King is trying to get accepted to medical school, so he won’t be returning. But, due to the NCAA’s “free year” due to COVID-19, there are several Bulldogs who could return for next season, including the Tate twins, Smith Josh McAllister, Garrett Blaylock and Chaney Rogers. Pitchers Will Childers and Garrett Brown are expected to return next season after missing 2021 due to injuries that occurred in the offseason.
It’s a gut punch for Georgia to not make the postseason in 2021, especially after having its season cut short in 2020 when the team was ranked No. 2 heading into a matchup against No.1-ranked Florida. Still, this group of Bulldogs showed grit after losing four of five starting pitchers and several injuries sustained to the top of the lineup. The future seems bright for a squad that had a lot of underclassmen contributors.
Some fans might be upset with Stricklin’s progress through eight years, and mainly because of how this season panned out, but it was, in fact, a rebuilding year after losing the program’s top-two pitching prospects and a ton of offensive talent from the 2020 squad.