ATLANTA — To say Georgia Tech has Mercer’s number is an understatement, and nothing from two meetings this season challenges that.
That Mercer brings a different team to Atlanta this weekend for the NCAA Atlanta Regional is difficult to argue.
The Bears have won 17-of-20 and bring accompanying confidence with plans to give a substantially better performance when they battle the Yellow Jackets tonight at Russ Chandler Stadium in the opening day’s nightcap.
“We haven’t played well against them; they’ve really had our number,” Mercer head coach Craig Gibson said after practice Thursday. “You play better against some teams than others. Unfortunately, the one we have (tonight) is against one we haven’t played well against. Hopefully we can match some guys up and be in a position to win late.”
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And the Yellow Jackets intend to continue their mastery over the Bears while beginning what they hope is a march to Omaha and the College World Series.
There is clearly a carryover from the 4-0 run through the A-Sun tournament.
“There wasn’t a point in time where we thought we were gonna lose that conference tournament, in any of the games,” senior catcher Nick DiMauro said. “We weren’t going to let anybody beat us.”
As impressive as that run was, Jacksonville and East Tennessee State don’t quite compare with Tech, so Mercer will need to combine the confidence of playing well with the amnesia of forgettable matchups with the Yellow Jackets.
The meetings in March were more of the same for Georgia Tech in the series.
The teams were scheduled to play March 10 in Macon, but rain took care of that, and the teams played on back to back days two weeks later. The change, at that point in the season, made little difference.
Things were calm in the Macon game until Tech put seven runs on the board in the fourth for a 9-0 lead that grew to 11-0 after 5-1/2 innings. The Bears made it respectable with five in the fifth and one in the sixth.
Brandon Love threw to three hitters in relief, and David Teasley surrendered three runs in 1-1/3 innings.
The Bears were all thumbs a day later in Atlanta with a mind-numbing seven errors in a 19-4 loss. Oddly, Mercer led 1-0 after an inning.
Two-error innings in the second (seven runs), fourth (six runs) and fifth (four runs) doomed the Bears, who threw five pitchers currently in the rotation.
In that one game, Mercer racked up 10 percent of its error total for the season. The Bears have 12 error-free games since then.
Both head coaches are swapping their usual No. 1 starters, making for some potential second-guessing.
Freshman Matt McCall has been Mercer’s No. 1 pitcher since late April, while Deck McGuire has started things off for Georgia Tech for almost three seasons.
McCall is a right-hander, and Tech has a lefty-heavy lineup, so sophomore left-hander Love gets the ball first for the Bears. And Tech head coach Danny Hall is holding McGuire for the anticipated matchup Saturday with second-seeded Alabama.
“I think we have five guys that are very good starting pitchers,” he said. “Just feel like we have a solid staff top to bottom, and have some different pieces we can use in games to try to get outs.”
There’s little reason for Tech to panic with Mark Pope getting the start. He blanked Mercer for four innings in that 15-8 win before the Bears got rolling for five in the fifth. By then, Tech already had 11 runs, and Pope ended up with seven strikeouts and no walks.
He did give up a three-run homer to Jacob Tanis, and John Moreland had two hits and DiMauro a two-run single against Pope in the fifth.
“He really pitched well other than one inning, and we actually made a couple errors in the inning that he could’ve gotten out there with certainly a lot less runs than he did,” Hall said. “Just felt like he would be the guy.”
Pope is 7-1 with a 4.26 ERA and 63 strikeouts in 69-2/3 innings. But opponents are batting .306 against him, and the right-hander from Walton — the same high school as Mercer’s Billy Burns and John Moreland — and has allowed 25 hits in his past 12-1/3 innings with a 7.31 ERA in the span (against Illinois-Chicago, Miami and Boston College).
Love is off one of his best performances of the season, 6-2/3 innings of five-hit, one-run action in the 3-1 win over East Tennessee State on Saturday afternoon before the championship game. The sophomore from Augusta has 14 strikeouts and eight walks in his past 18-1/3 innings.
“He was our No. 1 guy for six or seven weeks, and his arm got tired and we bounced him out of there,” Gibson said. “He threw great at South Florida, he threw great in Game 3 of the conference tournament. If he has fastball command down in the strike zone, we’ll have a chance.”
Mercer will, however, have to come up with the offense earlier against Tech. No Bears are particularly hot, which is fine with DiMauro.
“The whole conference tournament, no one really stood out,” he said. “(No) one person who just played absolutely unbelievable. everyone had good series, no one had just like a great conference tournament. I thought that was really cool.”