HOOVER, Ala.—Georgia knew exactly what it needed to do at the SEC tournament in order to continue its season in a regional next week: win three games to ensure a winning overall record—a requirement to be eligible for an at-large bid.
Two down, one to go.
After getting embarrassed by Vanderbilt in Wednesday's opener, the Bulldogs have responded with back-to-back wins to stave off elimination. They jumped out to an early 3-0 lead in the first inning Friday against South Carolina, then held on for a 4-2 upset against the nation's top-ranked team.
"Something we've been watching all these games in this tournament: The teams that have gotten off to the quick starts have had some success," Georgia coach David Perno said. ". . . We've done a good job when we have a lead of protecting it."
Indeed, the Bulldogs set a school record Friday with their 20th save of the season (Tyler Maloof has 17 of them in 18 tries despite a misleading 8.61 ERA entering the game).
The Bulldogs have a lot of confidence in Maloof and setup man Bryan Benzor, but getting to the bullpen with the lead has been difficult for the Bulldogs once their top two pitchers—Michael Palazzone and Alex Wood—had taken their turns. On Friday, Georgia gave lefthander Blake Dieterich his third start of the season, and he responded with the longest outing of his career, allowing just two runs on six hits and working around four walks in 6 1/3 innings.
Dieterich minimized the damage when South Carolina loaded the bases in the second and the third, allowing just one run in each frame, and shutting the Gamecocks down thereafter.
"I had a little command issue early," Dieterich said. "What really helped me were those big double plays—I think (shortstop) Kyle (Farmer) had two. That kind of helped me settle in later in the game."
So the Bulldogs need just one more win to finish above .500—and their strong RPI and bevy of quality wins should land them in the NCAA tournament if they can manage that. Standing in their way is a rested and extremely talented Florida team, which will throw No. 2 starter Brian Johnson on Saturday.
Asked by a reporter what his team needed to keep its season alive, Perno paused and considered a moment.
"A little bit of rain might help," he quipped. "Cancel, and send us home. No, this group has just been so tough all year, and when they get pushed and pushed and they just seem to will something. I just think we've got to get off to a good start. That's going to be the key. If we get off to a good start, Palazzone's going to pitch middle relief for us—we've just got to get him the ball in a good situation, and we'll have a chance. But the start's going to be so tough for us—(the Gators have a) great lineup, great pitching, they've got the whole pacakge."
Perno said he was not sure who would start for his team, but he was leaning toward giving gritty sophomore reliever Earl Daniels his first start of the season.
"Our guys know him and trust him," Perno said. "It's not fancy stuff, but he's a fierce competitor. He might get us off to a good start, just to give Michael a little time to get loose, and make the call from there."
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