UGA baseball ready to open big
Coaches expect seniors, younger teammates to thrive in favorable schedule
ATHENS, Ga. -- Following one of the most remarkable postseason runs in school history a season ago, there is a confidence surrounding Georgia's baseball program that seldom existed in the previous two tumultuous seasons.
Perhaps that's what happens for a team after it sat on the brink of elimination at the SEC tournament only to beat national powers Vanderbilt, South Carolina and Florida in consecutive games to grab an NCAA tournament berth. Or what happens after dropping the NCAA tournament opener and winning twice more with a gassed pitching staff before falling in the regional final.
"We were dead and gone when we left for Birmingham," said Georgia coach David Perno, whose team opens the 2012 season at 5:30 p.m. ET today against Presbyterian. "Then after you get run ruled the first game in Hoover at the SEC tournament (a 10-0, seven-inning loss to Vanderbilt), we were 5½ feet under as far as our season being over.
After falling to Oregon State to end the 2011 season, Georgia finished with a 33-32 overall record and 16-14 SEC mark. The Bulldogs played the nation's most difficult schedule while dealing with the aftermath of the early-season outfield collision of Zach Cone and Johnathan Taylor, which left Taylor paralyzed.
The Bulldogs never fully recovered from losing Taylor's speedy presence atop the lineup, but they tried to make up for their offensive deficiencies with solid defense and sound starting pitching.
That combination should again be the strength for the No. 25 Bulldogs, as they return eight starting position players, as well as ace Michael Palazzone (10-5, 3.14 ERA last season), left-hander Alex Wood (6-7, 4.44) and closer Tyler Maloof (2-2, 7.16), whose 18 saves tied Georgia's school record.
"I think we've got more veterans on this team than any team in the SEC, not only pitching, but in the lineup," said shortstop Kyle Farmer (.308, 8 HR, 58 RBI), who led the team in home runs and RBIs last season.
Pitching a plus
The Wood-Palazzone combo tonight and Saturday night should rank among the league's top tandems, as Palazzone came into his own last season with wins against many of the nation's top programs.
Returning to full-time work after Tommy John surgery at the end of his high school career, Wood played a starring role down the stretch with the first complete game of his career, a 3-2 win against Auburn in the SEC tournament, followed by eight strong innings in a victory against Arkansas-Little Rock in the NCAA tournament.
"I learned so much last year, and I was really lucky to have a guy like Palazzone, who had been around for a little while," Wood said. "Going into his third year, he really figured it out and had an awesome last year.
"That was the biggest thing for me was learning the tricks of the trade and being able to know what I'm capable of and what I need to do in certain situations. I'm really excited about what I'm going to be able to do for our team this spring."
Although Blake Dieterich (3-3, 3.67) will team with Bryan Benzor as the team's closer for a few weeks while Maloof recovers from a strained right lat, Dieterich should fill a valuable role in the weekend rotation and when needed out of the bullpen.
Farmer and second baseman Levi Hyams (.332-5-38) return as the veteran leaders in the lineup, while the Bulldogs expect first baseman Colby May (.222-2-5) to play a key role in the offense for the first time since his standout freshman season.
May struggled offensively for the last two seasons before regaining his confidence at the plate during summer league play in New England.
It's also thought that freshman left fielder Hunter Cole -- rated the top player in South Carolina last year and a 49th-round draft pick by the Washington Nationals -- will supply much-needed power in the middle of the lineup. Freshman designated hitter Jared Walsh will also become a valuable bat.
The lineup will be veteran-heavy, though, which breeds confidence among the coaches and players.
"It just allows you also to move at a more accelerated pace," Perno said. "You can push them a little bit more and just do a little more of everything. They get more reps and you feel good about it and you don't feel like you've got to go to square one and start all over. We just kind of picked up where we left off last year."
It also helps that the Bulldogs will play a decidedly easier schedule this season, replacing last year's demanding pre-conference slate with one that should help the team develop a winning edge.
Georgia will play 17 of its first 18 games at home, replacing last year's demanding early-season games against teams like Florida State, Baylor and USC with a more manageable slate that includes series with Winthrop, Western Illinois and Alcorn State.
The Bulldogs will also host UCLA for a three-game series in that stretch, after facing the Bruins once last season in a tournament in Los Angeles.
"The one thing we've always preached, that is good to preach when you play a schedule like last year and good to preach when you play a schedule like this year: It doesn't matter who or where, it's how -- how we play," Perno said.
"That's where our focus is, is getting everybody up, from a standpoint of being able to bring some freshman arms along a little slower than we've had to in years past. That would be a huge advantage."
David Ching covers University of Georgia sports for DawgNation. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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