Image credit: Georgia righthander Emerson Hancock (Courtesy of Georgia)
ATHENS, Ga. — There’s a special energy in the ballpark any time everyone in attendance collectively realizes that the conditions are such that they could see something like a no-hitter or a 20-strikeout game from the pitcher on the mound.
And even if it doesn’t end up working out that way, as was the case with righthander Emerson Hancock on the mound Saturday in No. 15 Georgia’s 6-2 win against Massachusetts-Lowell, it’s a fun ride to be on along the way.
The sophomore, a top 2020 draft prospect, began the game like a bull coming out of the chute at a rodeo.
He struck out the side in the first inning, the first two coming on 95 mph fastballs that blew away UMass-Lowell hitters. He punched out two more in the second inning, and then struck out the side again in the third. Over three innings, he went nine up and nine down against the Riverhawks’ lineup, striking out eight.
“I did a pretty good job of getting ahead,” Hancock said. “I thought that kind of helped, just always getting 0-1 on those guys, and mixing in some offspeed.”
Clearly, he was effective early on, and that alone hinted that it could be a special day for him, but there was also something to the way he was working.
His changeup and breaking ball were good pitches for him, but he was mostly pumping fastballs, working with pace, and working with a certain urgency that, more than anything else, made you think anything was possible.
Add in that the Georgia offense got off to a quick start, plating three runs in the first two innings, and there was a real electricity to the game, which is saying something considering most fans, at least initially, were probably more concerned with trying to stay warm on a damp, cold day in Athens.
That feeling wasn’t necessarily shared by his teammates, however, who were a little more careful, in classic baseball tradition, not to jinx what he had going.
“It’s funny, the dugout was really quiet because he was perfect there for a while,” said Georgia coach Scott Stricklin. “No was saying anything in the dugout.”
The Riverhawks finally reached base in the fifth, presumably ending the silent treatment for Hancock, and they actually loaded the bases with two outs on two walks and a single before a ground out to second ended the threat. Hancock bounced back, however, and capped off his start by retiring the final five batters he faced, ending his outing by getting UMass-Lowell cleanup hitter Cam Climo to line out softly to shortstop on a 92 mph fastball.
All told, he threw 6.1 innings, giving up one hit and no runs with two walks and ten strikeouts. In a way, it had to feel pretty familiar to Hancock. That’s because this is actually the second week in a row that he has produced that type of electricity inside Foley Field.
Last week against Dayton, he worked into the seventh inning before allowing a hit and ended up tossing 6.2 innings, giving up just two hits and a walk. In his two starts, he’s now thrown 13 shutout innings, giving up just three hits and three walks to go along with 12 strikeouts.
This comes on the heels of a freshman season that was marked by the types of ups and downs you expect from a player dealing with his first taste not only of Division I baseball, but also the SEC, the very best version of Division I baseball.
“The things that he went through last year, it wasn’t a clean freshman year for him. (He) had some success, but also had some failure, which is a good thing. That helps you grow up, and he handled it the right way, worked really hard this summer, and I think what you are seeing is a result of that hard work,” Stricklin said.
So what’s been the difference?
“I think, more than anything, if you talk to any pitcher, fastball command is the most important thing,” Stricklin said. “Last year, he’d pull a lot of fastballs and not throw them exactly where he wanted to, and I think you’re starting to see his command sharpen up, which, that’s really tough for hitters. It’s 94-95 (mph), with command, with a good breaking ball and a good changeup.”
Two starts do not make a season, but if these first two weeks are any indication, Hancock is ready to be the type of frontline ace that you need to have to feel good about competing at the top of the SEC.
Certainly, the command improvements were evident. Not only was he working 92-95 mph with his fastball throughout the game, he was clearly able to put it just about anywhere he wanted. The fact that he was able to mix in the offspeed stuff was just icing on the cake.
“The guys that we’re used to seeing every night for Florida,” Stricklin said when asked for a comparison for Hancock. “He kind of reminds me of some of those guys that they’ve thrown out here, (Alex) Faedo and (Brady) Singer, guys here recently. Six-foot-five, imposing, confident, really good stuff, swing-and-miss stuff, with a chip on his shoulder.”
Last season, Georgia took a big step forward in getting back to being one of the truly elite teams in the country. Along the way, they got solid work from a rotation of Chase Adkins, Hancock, and Kevin Smith, but you could argue that they were without that one workhorse at the front of the rotation that they could put up against the likes of Faedo, Singer, and so many others around the SEC.
Hancock has that in him, and if he’s that type of pitcher this season, Georgia’s next big step as a program likely won’t be far behind.