With the bases loaded and two outs in a tie game—against Georgia, no less—Tech sophomore second baseman Jacob Esch stuck to a simple plan against Georgia reliever Alex McRee.
“I was taking until he threw me a strike,” Esch said.
McRee never threw him a strike. Esch drew a four-pitch walk that brought in the go-ahead run, and Tech’s No. 3 baseball team held off a late comeback bid by Georgia to win the first rivalry game of the season 6-5 on Tuesday evening.
The Jackets improved to 14-1 overall and extended their winning streak to seven games, while Georgia dropped below .500 to 8-9 overall. Despite the difference in the teams’ fortunes to date, the game proved to be a close contest from start to finish.
“I know they’ve had a few guys missing [due to injuries], but…we knew we were going to have a battle,” said Tech Head Coach Danny Hall. “You just throw out the records any time we play [Georgia]—it’s going to be a good ballgame.”
The first inning appeared to indicate otherwise. Sophomore right-hander Mark Pope, Tech’s top midweek starter, took the mound at Russ Chandler Stadium and promptly struck out the side in the top of the first.
In the bottom half, the Jackets struck quickly against Bulldog left-hander Blake Dieterich. Tech junior center fielder Jeff Rowland hit a leadoff home run to right-center field to put Tech ahead 1-0, and senior first baseman Tony Plagman drilled a long homer to right-center two batters later. The Jackets added another run in the bottom of the second on a solo homer by senior left fielder Jay Dantzler and led 4-0 after two.
The four-run cushion appeared to be plenty for Pope. After allowing two baserunners to begin the second, Pope settled down and retired 12 consecutive Georgia batters. Through five innings pitched, he had allowed just one hit and one walk while racking up seven strikeouts. He also took advantage of the Georgia lineup’s aggressive approach, getting several outs early in the count. Pope threw just 56 pitches through five innings.
On the other side, Tech’s hitters were being patient at the plate and generating long plate appearances. In seven of Tech’s 16 plate appearances in the first three innings, Georgia’s Dieterich had to throw five or more pitches. In three innings pitched, Dieterich gave up four runs on five hits and two walks, and he threw 68 pitches for an average of well over 20 per inning.
Bulldog relievers Steve Esmonde and Justin Earls, though, managed to keep Tech’s potent lineup in check after taking over.
“I thought we had real good approaches against Dieterich, [but] Earls threw the ball [well] on us. He kind of kept us off-balance and kept the ball down,” Hall said.
In the sixth inning, Georgia began to cut into the lead.
Shortstop Lee Hyams led off and laid down a bunt with two strikes, taking a big risk but ending up on first base with a single. Bulldog center fielder Zach Cone—the brother of Tech football wide receiver Kevin Cone—then hit a shot down the left field line for a triple to drive in Hyams. Two batters later, right fielder Peter Verdin singled, plating Cone.
Pope prevented any more runs from crossing in the inning, preserving a two-run lead for Tech.
After Bulldog designated hitter Zach Taylor singled to open the seventh, second baseman Todd Hankins hit a short pop-up past second base. Dietrich and Esch both drifted back, but the ball dropped between them.
“We both called it at the exact same time. I let him have it, and at the last second he slipped and lost his footing, and the ball just fell,” Esch said.
Esch picked up the ball and attempted to tag second base before Taylor could reach the bag, but he was barely late and Georgia had two runners on with no outs.
The play proved vital, as rather than having nobody on with two outs, Georgia went on to score three runs in the inning—courtesy of a Cone two-run triple and a Verdin RBI double—to take a 5-4 lead.
Pope was pulled after allowing the triple to Cone. He pitched 6.1 innings, allowing seven hits, one walk and one hit batsman while striking out a career-high nine. He was charged with all five of Georgia’s runs, though.
Tech quickly bounced back. Rowland and Esch hit back-to-back one-out singles in the bottom of the seventh, and Leonida drilled a single up the middle to score Rowland and tie the game at 5-5.
With the game seemingly up in the air, Tech capitalized on a series of Georgia mistakes to take the lead in the eighth.
In the top half, senior right-hander Andrew Robinson took the mound for Tech and walked Georgia third baseman Colby May after an eight-pitch battle. May promptly attempted to steal second and was easily thrown out by Tech junior catcher Cole Leonida.
Two batters later, with Hyams up with two outs, the shortstop once again tried to bunt with two strikes. This time, the move backfired as his bunt flew into foul territory, resulting in strike three and ending the inning.
McRee, Georgia’s usual closer, took over for the bottom of the eighth but had all kinds of problems finding the plate. He hit Dietrich on the elbow with his second pitch, then proceeded to walk the next two batters on a total of nine pitches to load the bases with nobody out. After a brief conference at the mound, McRee notched two straight strikeouts, but when Esch came up he once again could not find the plate and walked in the go-ahead run.
“They took advantage of some mistakes we made, but our guys hung in and we were fortunate in the [eighth] inning; they kind of helped us there,” Hall said.
Robinson breezed through the ninth inning, inducing a flyout and two strikeouts to finish off the victory. He was named the winning pitcher and improved to 2-0 while lowering his ERA to 0.79 with the two scoreless innings.