The Georgia baseball team lost to Evansville 3-2 in Friday’s 2021 season opener at Foley Field. The Bulldogs will return to the diamond for a doubleheader Saturday against the Purple Aces. Here are some observations from The Red & Black:
Similar starters, different outings
Georgia starter C.J. Smith and Evansville starter Shane Gray throw the same stuff. Both average around 91 mph on their fastballs, the low 80s on their sliders and mid-70s on their curveballs. They don’t overpower anyone, instead relying on breaking balls to keep batters off balance.
The main difference between the opposing duo is Gray was the premier starter for the Purple Aces last season. In 22 2/3 innings, he struck out a team-high 19 batters to finish 1-1. Smith, meanwhile, was the lowest rung on Georgia’s 2020 weekend rotation. Still, their stats compare well: Smith struck out 20 batters in 19 innings last year, but he threw twice as many walks.
Those snapshots mirrored their performances Friday afternoon.
To start the game, Smith was in full form. He struck out three batters off his curveball in the first two frames. His command was sharp, and he had no trouble locating both his fastball and curveball for consistent strikes.
“That’s something me and [pitching] coach Kenny have talked about working on — getting that pitch down in the zone with two strikes as a little bit more of a chase pitch,” Smith said in Friday’s virtual postgame press conference.
The third inning, however, didn’t go as planned. After two quick outs, Evansville leadoff man Troy Beilsmith got on with a single. Looking rattled, Smith’s accuracy declined, and a wild pitch moved Beilsmith to second. To cap off a long at-bat, third baseman Craig Shepherd singled to cash in Evansville’s first run.
Consecutive walks from a deteriorated Smith and a subsequent error at third base from Garrett Blaylock brought in a second run. Georgia escaped the pinch, but Smith left the third inning with 75 pitches. After hitting a batter in the fourth, his four-strikeout, three-walk day was done.
“I don’t feel like I lost my focus, but obviously with two outs it’s huge to get that next guy out and not let them continue an inning and drive up pitch count like they did today,” Smith said.
On the other side, Gray was a strong game manager. He pitched six innings, striking out four, giving up four hits, one earned run and walking none. Like Smith, his slow curveball and slightly speedier slider worked to keep Georgia batters guessing and making weak contact. Despite seven hits from Georgia, the Bulldogs left five men on base in the loss.
(Only) Collins comes through
Two freshmen catchers landed on Georgia’s starting lineup to open the season — Fernando Gonzalez, who showed plenty of energy behind the plate and Corey Collins, who was Friday’s designated hitter.
Gonzalez’s afternoon was marked by one hit in four at-bats and several passed balls at the plate, which were the product of Smith and reliever Darryn Pasqua’s command issues than catcher error.
“It’s a tough debut when you’re a freshman and you get thrown into the fire like that,” Stricklin said. “It doesn’t always go as easy and as well as you want it to. … But he’s going to be a great player for us.”
Meanwhile, Collins debuted with a bang. The 6-foot-3 lefty went 3-for-4 in the five-spot Friday, posting nearly half of Georgia’s hits and one of its two RBIs.
Collins notched Georgia’s first hit in the second inning but followed with a rookie mistake on the basepath. He became the third out trying to reach third base on a passed ball, violating “the cardinal rule of baseball,” Stricklin said.
Yet Collins redeemed himself with his fifth-inning, line-drive home run that cut Evansville’s early lead to 2-1. Stricklin said he expects Collins to play a major role in Georgia’s lineup, particularly at DH with his lively bat.
“I think he’s going to play in the big leagues,” Stricklin said. “Because he can really, really hit. And at catcher he has a lot of skill, it just needs to be refined a bit.”
Too many free bases
The Purple Aces created plenty of opportunities for themselves Friday. Yet despite Evansville’s eight hits – all singles but two – its best rallies of the afternoon came from Georgia mistakes, be them walked batters, wild pitches or fielding errors.
“All those [unforced errors] came into play today,” Stricklin said. “And in a close game, it’s going to come back to bite you. And it did today.”
Georgia’s disastrous third inning was the product of two walks and an error as Evansville jumped ahead 2-0 off three total hits. The sloppy play didn’t end there.
A hit batter in the fourth and a passed ball in the fifth kept Purple Aces flowing across the basepaths without having to generate at the plate. Georgia managed to move past its middle-game mistakes without damage, but unforced errors in the seventh inning would seal the game.
Evansville’s second and final extra-base hit of the game left a speedy pinch runner on second base with two outs. Before reliever Darryn Pasqua could get back in the dugout, he threw two consecutive wild pitches. Without resistance, Evansville’s runner advanced to third and then scored. It was the last run of the game for either team.
All told, Blaylock committed both of Georgia’s errors, and Georgia pitchers combined to throw three walks, three passed balls or wild pitches and hit three batters. Without the free bases, Georgia’s home opener might’ve looked far different.
“I think we’re all just going to take a night to regroup,” Collins said. “Tomorrow’s a new day. … We’ve got about eight more at-bats for hitters and 18 innings of baseball.”