UGA baseball begins to rebuild

UGA baseball begins to rebuild
February 24, 2014, 4:15 pm
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ATHENS, Ga. - The preseason was a time of optimism. It always is, but this was especially the case for UGA's baseball team and new head coach Scott Stricklin.

The former head man at Kent State from 2005 up until last season, Stricklin guided the Golden Flashes to a 350-188 overall record and their first ever College World Series appearance in 2012. With both the impressive resume and a thoroughly detailed approach to coaching, many have lofty expectations for what he could do with a Georgia team that has not been a serious contender since 2008.

But an underwhelming 1-5 start to the season brought a slight reality-check to the high hopes. With some of the team's pitching woes from last year carrying over into this one, the return to relevance may not be all that quick for the Bulldogs.

"Some guys had some tough luck. It happens. Some guys that hadn't been out there in a while. It's not on one person," catcher Brandon Stephens said after the team's home loss to Kennesaw State last week.

Given the circumstances, however, the sluggish first couple of weeks should not come as much of a surprise.

Many of the team's starters are underclassmen. Nelson Ward and Hunter Cole are the only two hitters that could have been considered regular starters last season.

Stephens, outfielder Conor Welton and closer Pete Nagel all missed last season due to injury. Projected starter Mike Bell, a freshman shortstop, has missed the start of the season due to a hand injury, and Jared Walsh (who excelled both as an outfielder and starting pitcher in 2013) is still in the midst of serving a nine-game suspension for violating team rules.

"Patience is a key for our team. We told them from the start: we're not going to give up on them," Stricklin said. "We're going to be as patient as we can. As a coach, we're not very patient people. We like to see results early. But we're not going to give up on these kids, that's for sure."

With all that in mind, playing a road series at No. 4 Florida State in only the second week of the season seemed like a particularly cruel task. Pitcher Ryan Lawlor made only his second career start against a stacked group of Seminoles, while ace sophomore Sean McLaughlin has had issues in his first two outings of the year.

The bullpen has lacked consistency for varying reasons, one being that Nagel simply has a little rust coming off Tommy John surgery.

"Nagel's a great pitcher. We're not worried about Nagel at all. He's just getting back into it with the Tommy John thing. He's going to be huge for us later in the year," Stephens said.

And of course with a young team there have been a few promising bright spots.

Freshman Stephen Wrenn, who struggled in the first series while batting leadoff, has started to find his rhythm at the plate and flashed some serious speed running the bases (4-for-4 on steals). Freshman pitcher Robert Tyler allowed only one earned run across 4.1 innings in his debut start.

"I was really happy with the way Robert Tyler pitched," Stricklin said. "He's got a bright future, you're going to see him a lot this year."

Really, there's only so much you can take away from a baseball team six games into a 50-game season.

And it bears reminding: the Diamond Dogs come off an ugly season that featured a 21-31 overall record and a last-place finish in the SEC. With a new coaching staff and so many new faces already in the mix, an adjustment period would only seem natural.

"It's still early. We're not panicking," Stephens said.