Despite losing practically half of the key players from the squad that earned a national seed last season, Tech baseball has once again emerged as a contender in the national picture. A strong showing over the past two months—which included a 16-game win streak in March—has seen the Jackets rise as high as No. 6 in the rankings, and they currently sit at No. 13 in the Baseball America poll.
Success is nothing new for the Tech baseball program, but the reason for this season’s success is surprising. While Tech rode into the postseason on the strength of a powerful offense in each of the past two seasons, the Jackets have relied on a strong performance from the entire pitching staff to achieve national prominence this season.
“With the young team that we have, knowing that our pitchers can go out there and set the pace helps our confidence a lot,” said Pitching Coach Tom Kinkelaar.
Offensive numbers are down across the board in NCAA Division I baseball following offseason changes to aluminum bat specifications. Last season, 50 teams finished the season with slugging percentages of .500 or greater; so far this year, only four teams have cracked the .500 mark. As a result, pitching numbers around the country have improved.
Still, comparing Tech’s pitching staff to the rest of the nation reveals that the Jackets have indeed improved considerably this season. Tech has been a fixture in the national top 20 in ERA, sitting at No. 16 with a team ERA of 2.72; three weeks ago the Jackets were No. 8 in the nation at 2.03.
Leading the charge has been junior right-hander Mark Pope, who has emerged as an elite starter in his new role as Tech’s Friday starter and de facto staff ace. Through nine starts, Pope has gone 8-1 with a 1.14 ERA and has largely prevented opposing lineups from gaining any traction against him. Pope has held opponents to a .163 average while allowing just 53 baserunners in 71.1 innings posting an excellent 62:12 strikeout-to-walk ratio in the process.
Kinkelaar pointed to Pope’s competitive drive and his confidence in his wide arsenal of pitches as the biggest reasons for the junior’s success this season. Pope complements an 88-90 mph fastball with a wide array of effective offspeed pitches that typically sit in the 78-80 mph range.
“Mark has four or five pitches that he can throw at any time in the count, and he’s confident in all of them…He’s always had a low walk rate, looking back at last year and the year before; he doesn’t walk many people and he attacks the zone,” Kinkelaar said.
Perhaps Pope’s greatest asset, however, has been his longevity. Out of his nine starts, he has pitched complete games in four of them. His ability to consistently throw strikes has helped him to keep his pitch counts down: he has not thrown more than 110 pitches in an outing, including his four complete games, and he often averages well under 15 pitches per inning.
Kinkelaar said Pope’s time as a closer during his freshman season helped him improve his command of the strike zone.
“He had to be a different type of pitcher [as a closer]—he was more of a power guy in that situation, a fastball-slider [pitcher]…but he had to attack the zone,” Kinkelaar said. “I think that gave him a good core experience of [learning to] attack people and throw strikes, and now he’s taken that into a starting role.”
Tech’s No. 2 starter, junior left-hander Jed Bradley, has filled the role of Saturday starter well and has allowed Tech to go righty-lefty-righty in the weekend rotation. The left-hander has a 3.21 ERA and a 1.18 WHIP in nine starts this season, and he has not allowed a home run in 53.1 innings pitched.
Where Pope is a versatile option at the top of the rotation, Bradley serves as the power arm. The lefty typically hits 92-94 mph with his fastball and keeps hitters off balance with a low-80’s changeup and a high-70’s curve. The result is that Bradley leads Tech with 72 strikeouts this season and is among the national leaders with 12.15 strikeouts per nine innings.
“Jed has a whole lot of ability; he’s probably going to be a first-round [MLB Draft] pick after this season. A year of experience has helped him become more of a complete pitcher. He trusts his [pitches] now; he doesn’t try to be so fine and pinpoint everything,” Kinkelaar said.
While Bradley has largely been effective, he has struggled of late. Over his last three starts, he has a 5.74 ERA and a 1.72 WHIP, and the Jackets have lost all three games. When he is at his best, though, Bradley can be dominant; against St. John’s on Feb. 26, Bradley pitched seven no-hit innings, allowing three walks and striking out 10 before being pulled from the game.
Bradley has struggled at times to pitch deep into games, though. His high strikeout rate also means he tends to reach high pitch counts quickly, and as a result he has not pitched into the eighth inning in a game this season. Since Tech’s bullpen is deep and effective, though, Bradley has nearly always pitched well enough for long enough to keep the Jackets in the game.
Sophomore right-hander Buck Farmer has thrived in the Sunday role, ensuring that Tech has one of the best weekend rotations in the country. Farmer is 6-1 with a 2.70 ERA and a 1.25 WHIP through nine starts and has recorded 62 strikeouts in 56.2 innings, and after his shaky start to the season he has displayed strong command and an ability to pitch deep into games.
“That Sunday guy is very important; he could be the difference between winning and losing a series,” Kinkelaar said. “Buck’s a very capable pitcher. We put guys in the Friday-Saturday-Sunday order, but I like to think of those guys in the weekend [rotation] as all No. 1 starters.”
Beyond the weekend rotation, the Jackets have seen several freshmen step into prominent roles in the rest of their staff.
First and foremost among them is Matthew Grimes, a right-hander who has taken over midweek duties. In eight starts and one relief appearance, Grimes is 5-2 with a 4.01 ERA and a 1.43 WHIP in 49.1 innings.
Grimes has been shaky with his command at times—he walked four hitters in a loss to Mercer on March 29 and six in the loss to Kennesaw State on April 5—but otherwise he has been a reliable arm in midweek games. He pitched well in both victories over Georgia to date, going six or more innings both times and allowing two earned runs each time, and he will get the call when the Jackets face the Bulldogs at Turner Field on April 26.
Another freshman, right-hander Dusty Isaacs, has become a prominent and versatile reliever for the Jackets. Isaacs, who doubles as Tech’s second midweek starter when necessary, has a 3.24 ERA and a 1.12 WHIP in 25 innings this season.
While hard-throwing senior Kevin Jacob was expected to take over the closer role, but he has been shaky, issuing eight walks in eight innings pitched.
Instead, sophomore Luke Bard has been the primary ninth-inning pitcher. Bard has five saves so far and generally has a strong arsenal of pitches, but his control has been an issue at times; he has issued 15 walks in only 34 innings of work.
Beyond Isaacs and Bard, the Tech bullpen has not been taxed very heavily. Senior left-hander Taylor Wood has a 2.70 ERA in 10 innings pitched, but nobody else on the staff has double-digit innings this season.
“We try to define roles, but it’s not always easy…I think it kind of depends on who’s throwing well at a given time. I like to have defined roles, but a lot of it depends on…how the game is progressing,” Kinkelaar said.
“On the weekend our starters have been going pretty long, and some of our [relievers] haven’t been getting innings, but they [always] have to be prepared.”
Heading into the final third of the season, the Jackets have already faced their biggest test in the Virginia series two weeks ago.
The staff did not perform well in that home set, with Pope fading after six strong innings and Bradley and Farmer both struggling out of the gate, but Tech did salvage one win against the No. 1 team in the nation and remains strong in the National Championship picture.