Three Strikes: Georgia-Georgia Tech Rivalry Takes Center Stage
Three Strikes is a weekly deeper dive into some of college baseball's most intriguing stories. This week's edition focuses on Georgia and Georgia Tech moving their rivalry to a weekend series, Merrimack's strong start in its first season in Division I and St. Bonaventure's home run barrage against Mount St. Mary's.
Strike One: Georgia, Georgia Tech Take Rivalry to the Weekend
Rivals Georgia and Georgia Tech are no stranger to playing each other during the baseball season. Since 2003, they’ve played a series of three midweeks games, a home-and-home, plus a game at a pro ballpark.
For both teams, and their fans, it’s an anticipated part of the schedule every year, but this year’s version of the “Clean, Old-Fashioned Hate” rivalry takes on additional meaning, as it will be played as a three-game weekend series for the first time in 61 years. Friday night’s game will take place in Athens, Saturday’s game is set for Atlanta and Sunday’s finale will be played at Triple-A Gwinnett’s Coolray Field.
Typically, the third game of the series is played wherever the Braves play - Turner Field in the past and now Truist Park. However, the playing surface at Truist Park would not have been ready to accommodate the game this season, hence the move to Coolray Field.
The discussion to move the series to the weekend started about two years ago. The impetus for doing so was simple.
“We just felt like playing on the weekend, and getting your top pitchers to go against each other is in both teams’ best interest,” Georgia coach Scott Stricklin said. “When you play on a Tuesday night in April, it’s tough to get people there, even though, with a rivalry game, the fans are going to show up.”
This year, getting those top weekend arms involved in the series is extra special. Georgia has a pair of Preseason All-Americans in its rotation in righthanders Emerson Hancock and Cole Wilcox, while Georgia Tech will see what it’s got with a strong freshmen group on the mound, led by righthander Zach Maxwell.
By playing the game on the weekend, when the park will be full, more people are paying attention to college baseball and the best talent will be on display, the series has the opportunity to move into rarified air among the best rivalries in the sport.
Florida and Miami have a prominent place in Week 2 of the schedule each and every year, and Week 3 brings us the annual series between South Carolina and Clemson. In years when these teams are operating at a high level, these rivalry series are electric, as we saw last weekend in Coral Gables, and even in relatively lean years, they’re still highly-anticipated affairs for the teams and fans alike.
The Palmetto State rivalry actually uses the same format as the one Georgia and Georgia Tech will use, as those teams play one game at each campus, plus one in a minor league facility. The similarity isn’t an accident.
“Just getting it on the weekend, we felt like it was better for our pitching staffs, we felt like it was better for our fans, and then we just looked right across the border and (South) Carolina and Clemson have done this with a lot of success,” Stricklin said. “It’s kind of gotten both teams ready for their conference, so we kind of piggy-backed off what they’re doing, and just felt like it was a good idea and we made it work.”
The hope is that this will continue to be a weekend series in future seasons. It is confirmed for the 2021 season, but nothing is nailed down beyond that, as there are scheduling considerations to be managed, specifically when it comes to the professional park being ready for play in late-February or early-March.
For now, one thing that is certain is that neither coach is going to have to do anything extra to get his team amped to play this weekend.
Both teams are ranked, with Georgia (8-1) at No. 10 and Georgia Tech (7-1) at No. 19, it’s the biggest test either team has faced to this point, and perhaps most importantly, there is a lot of familiarity between the players on the two teams
All but 13 players from the two rosters hail from the state of Georgia, and many of those in-state products grew up playing with and against each other in the Atlanta area. Players never want to lose to a rival, much less a rival with a bunch of players they grew up with.
“I don’t think there’s any question both sides will be ready to play,” Stricklin said. “Both fan bases will be ready to be loud, and it should be a lot of fun.”
Strike Two: Merrimack Takes on Division I, Looks to Follow Bryant, Cal Baptist
Through two weekends of the regular season, Merrimack is giving off some serious Cal Baptist vibes.
You may remember the success CBU enjoyed in its first season of Division I baseball in 2019, when it began the season 9-0 and kept that momentum rolling all the way through to May, when it finished 35-20 overall and in a tie for first place in the Western Athletic Conference standings at 19-8.
Merrimack isn’t undefeated, but what they’ve done is perhaps just as impressive. Opening weekend brought a four-game split with perennial regional contender Oral Roberts and the Warriors followed that by winning three of four against Michigan State. That’s a 5-3 record against one of the most consistent winners in college baseball and a brand-name team from the Big Ten.
“Within the four walls of our clubhouse, we knew if we just play the game that we’ve always played, we’re not going to change anything that we do, we’re just going to play Merrimack baseball,” coach Nick Barese said. “If we do that and we play clean, when we get to the end of the game, hopefully we’ve put ourselves in a position to be competitive and come out with a win.”
Barese admits that there was a bit of an adjustment period for his team. He’s heard feedback from his players that the game moves a bit faster at Division I, and pitchers with the raw ability of Michigan State ace Mason Erla, don’t come around all that often at Division II.
But Merrimack was in an enviable position when it comes to their ability to compete right away, as they boast a veteran club that has collectively played in a ton of big games, even if they were at a lower level.
Just two years ago, for example, the Warriors competed in a Division II regional, and last season, they were in the final of the Northeast 10 Conference Tournament. Those are pressure-filled games no matter what level of baseball you’re talking about.
“First and foremost, we’re really lucky as a program to have what we think is a pretty veteran group, guys that have had a lot of playing time, whether they’re three or four-year starters,” Barese said. “So we knew from the jump that it wasn’t going to be a situation where any of our guys were overwhelmed.”
The easiest program comparison to make is to Cal Baptist, given that the program just came up to Division I last season and also got off to a somewhat surprising start.
But perhaps the better aspirational comparison is a regional counterpart in Bryant. Not only are the Warriors entering the same league as Bryant, the Northeast Conference, but familiarity between some of the coaches involved means that former Bulldogs’ coaches were among the individuals Merrimack leaned on for advice on how to navigate this transition.
“Ryan Fectau, who is now the pitching coach at Virginia Tech, he was a teammate of mine at St. Anselm (N.H.), and he was at Bryant for a while,” Barese said. “He was just so gracious in helping me and just kind of giving me information, things that I have no idea (about). How should I be building the schedule? What is going to be different? How are things going to change?”
Bryant has certainly been a shining example of what a transitioning program can accomplish in a short amount of time. The Bulldogs immediately became contenders in the NEC after moving up and have remained consistent winners.
If Merrimack is to follow in those footsteps and become a force in the region or follow Cal Baptist and break through right away, the challenge will be keeping momentum all the way through conference play, which could pose a threat.
By then, the book will be out on Merrimack to a greater degree, and there will simply be a higher level of awareness of what the Warriors bring to the table among teams in the conference. You could also see a scenario where playing up to a higher level of competition over the course of a long season could take its toll on a group of players that haven’t had much exposure to it.
On the other hand, it’s hard to imagine the Warriors playing many teams more talented than the ones they’ve seen each of the first two weekends of the season, and the results suggest they weren’t out of place in those cases.
They’ve clearly proven that the assumption that you have to struggle just because you’re the new kid on the block is misguided.
“We always focus, as a program, on confidence versus arrogance,” Barese said. “We’re not arrogant. We’re very humble, we know how difficult it is to win at this level and to win consistently, but we are confident that if we play the game that we teach and that we believe in, we’ll be successful.”
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Strike Three: St. Bonaventure Establishes Torrid Home Run Pace
The St. Bonaventure offense went wild over the weekend in a sweep of Mount St. Mary’s, scoring 34 runs in three games.
They hit .368/.479/.692 as a team, with 11 home runs, six coming from outfielder Tyler Kelder, four off the bat of outfielder Brendyn Stillman and one from first baseman Matthew Williams.
The home run total is particularly notable, as it pushes the Bonnies more than halfway to their team total from 2019, which was 20.
That puts them in exclusive company among some of their peers this season. Of the 34 Division I teams that hit 20 or fewer home runs in 2019, St. Bonaventure is one of only two teams at least halfway to last season’s total already.
The other is Maryland-Eastern Shore, which has four home runs after tying for last in the country last season with eight.
There are a few caveats that should be taken into consideration with this data set. For one, there’s no controlling for the quality of competition, the field dimensions or the weather conditions under which these teams’ games were played.
For example, it was always going to be difficult for Cal Poly, which hit just 13 home runs last year and has two so far, was going to put up big power numbers right out of the gate when it played its first eight games in pitcher’s parks against high-end competition.
The other thing you can’t control for is the number of games these teams have played, but that caveat actually works toward making what the Bonnies have done sound more impressive, as they’ve played just three times. Most of the teams in this set have played at least six or seven games, and Hawaii, which has two home runs after hitting 18 last season, has played ten.
It’s far too early to try to glean anything specific from one extraordinarily good weekend for St. Bonaventure’s offense, but for a team that struggled offensively and had a 13-32 record in 2019, it’s a welcome sight.