Baseball season not over yet

With the regular season complete, Tech’s baseball team is now competing in the five-day, eight-team ACC Baseball Championship in Durham, NC. Tech, which has been as high as No. 3 in the USA Today national rankings this season, went 17-10-1 in conference play this season and entered the tournament as the No. 4 seed. Based on the round robin format, the Jackets are in Division A and will play three games from Wednesday through Saturday. They faced No. 5 Miami on Wednesday and No. 8 Boston College on Thursday, and they will battle top seed Florida State on Saturday. If the Jackets win their division, they will proceed to the tournament’s title game on Sunday against the winner of Division B.

Heading into the ACC tournament, the Jackets’ prospects look bright. Based on the numbers, the team has had a much stronger season than its No. 4 seed would indicate, especially on offense. The Jackets finished second in the conference in batting average, on-base percentage, and runs scored; they were atop the ACC in slugging percentage, largely due to the team’s 101 home runs. If history is any indication, that figure bodes well for Tech; the team has reached the 100-homer mark three times prior to this season, and in two of those years—1987 and 1988—they went on to win the ACC Championship.

While the Jackets’ pitching numbers are not quite as impressive, they still rank in the top half of the conference in nearly every relevant category, including ERA (fourth at 4.65), opponent batting average (sixth at .262), hits allowed (fourth at 452), strikeouts (fifth at 455), and strikeout-to-walk ratio (fourth at 2.30).

The Jackets have taken two of their last four series against conference foes dating back to mid-April. Following a pair of wins over in-state rivals Georgia and Georgia State, Tech traveled to Winston-Salem, NC and earned a sweep over Wake Forest from April 17-19. The offense was stellar, with junior first baseman Tony Plagman going 5-for-6 with two home runs in the opening game, and the Jackets received strong pitching performances from all three starters—sophomore Deck McGuire, junior Zach Von Tersch, and sophomore Brandon Cumpton. The Jackets outscored the Demon Deacons 27-3 over the three games.

After splitting a pair of midweek games against Western Carolina, the Jackets went on the road once again to battle No. 20 Clemson. Tech took the opening game 5-4 behind three-hit performances by sophomore shortstop Derek Dietrich and senior right fielder Luke Murton. However, the Tigers overcame a late Tech rally to win the second game 8-5, and Clemson took advantage of a rough start by Cumpton to take the rubber game and the series 6-3.

Tech would not return to ACC play for two weeks, but their next conference series was a big one. After a comfortable weekend sweep of Presbyterian at home and a rained-out game at Tennessee, No. 6 Florida State came to Atlanta for a battle of top-10 teams against the then-No. 8 Jackets. The weekend set was as exciting as advertised, as two games were decided in the ninth inning, and Tech managed to earn a key series victory by topping the Seminoles two games to one.

The series opener did not look promising at first, as McGuire struggled in the first inning and allowed three runs. However, the sophomore right-hander calmed down and held Florida State scoreless for the next five innings, and the Jackets’ bats came to life, scoring five runs in the fifth to give Tech a 7-3 lead. The offense put up five more runs in the late innings, and sophomore pitchers Kevin Jacob and Zach Brewster and junior Andrew Robinson tossed a scoreless inning each to give Tech a strong 12-3 victory.

Game two on Saturday proved to be a disappointing one for the Jackets. Cumpton, making his first Saturday start, stumbled out of the gate and allowed the Seminoles to score two runs on a two-out single by designated hitter Tommy Oravetz. Tech responded in the bottom half; the first six hitters got on base, resulting in four runs. Cumpton calmed down and pitched well through the fifth, and the teams battled to a 5-5 tie into the bottom of the eighth inning, when a two-out solo home run by junior center fielder Jeff Rowland gave the Jackets a 6-5 lead. However, the first three Seminoles to bat in the ninth got on base; after striking out Oravetz, Tech freshman closer Mark Pope allowed Florida State to add three runs on a walk, a single, and a sacrifice fly. The Jackets threatened in the ninth, loading the bases with two outs, but Seminole closer Jimmy Marshall got Tech junior second baseman Jason Garofalo to ground into a force play to end the game.

The third game saw freshman left-hander Jed Bradley make his first weekend start for the Jackets. Bradley was solid through four innings, holding Florida State to just two runs over that span. He was shaky to start the fifth, though, and the Seminoles took advantage, forcing him from the game and taking a 5-1 lead.

Robinson held Florida State scoreless over the next three innings. Tech closed the gap to 5-4 thanks to a two-run homer by sophomore designated hitter Chase Burnette in the fifth and a solo shot by junior first baseman Tony Plagman in the seventh. In the bottom of the ninth the Jackets completed their comeback. Facing the closer Marshall, senior left fielder Chris House singled, junior center fielder Jeff Rowland walked, and sophomore shortstop Derek Dietrich singled to load the bases. Marshall then walked senior right fielder Luke Murton, driving in House to tie the game, and Plagman singled up the middle to win the game and the series for the Jackets.

Following the loss to Georgia at Turner Field on May 12, the Jackets traveled to Durham, NC for their final weekend series of the season against Duke. With a sweep, the Jackets would have a chance to win the ACC’s regular-season title. Thursday’s opener went well, as Tech rode eight strong innings by McGuire, a four-RBI performance from Chris House, and homers by Murton, junior designated hitter Jay Dantzler, and freshman third baseman Matt Skole to a 10-3 win.

In the second game, the Blue Devils hit Cumpton hard for six runs over five innings. Right fielder Alex Hassan fell a double shy of the cycle and starter Andrew Wolcott pitched a complete game, throwing 130 pitches to lead the Blue Devils to a 6-4 victory. Duke emerged victorious in Saturday’s season finale, overcoming Skole and Murton homers to win 5-3.

Because the tournament is being held on Duke’s home field, the Jackets remained in Durham after the series and worked out at local facilities before beginning tournament play on Wednesday.