ATLANTA — Pitching was at a premium Monday night at Russ Chandler Stadium, and boy, would Georgia Tech have liked to have had just a little bit more on its side.
Looks like all they needed was a little Nathan Kilcrease.
After burning through pitchers during a long four-game weekend at the Atlanta NCAA Regional, the Yellow Jackets and the opposing Alabama Crimson Tide were running on fumes in their bullpens when they squared off in the final. And with a trip to the Super Regionals on the line, it was all either team could do to get through the night and on to the next round.
All Alabama needed was a six-inning, 107-pitch performance from its diminutive, but mighty, 5-foot-6 right-handed starter-turned-reliever.
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“It didn’t matter if my arm was going to fall off, I told them I was going to go,” said Kilcrease, who threw 99 pitches last Friday to beat Elon in the opening game of the tournament.
Welcome to Round 2, Crimson Tide.
Thanks to Kilcrease’s dominating relief outing — one that led to him being named the Regional’s most outstanding player — Alabama held on at the end of a nearly four-hour, back-and-forth marathon to roll past the Yellow Jackets 10-8. The victory pushes the Crimson Tide into this week’s Super Regional at Clemson, and pits the unlikely SEC team just two wins away from the College World Series.
After going through several losing stretches during the regular season, the Crimson Tide won eight of its past nine entering the tournament.
For the Yellow Jackets, the trip to the Regional final was the third in three seasons, and each one ended with a loss. Two years ago they lost at Georgia and last year they lost to Southern Mississippi as the host team.
“You’ve got to make better pitches, get more timely hits and just play better. That’s the bottom line,” Georgia Tech head coach Danny Hall said. “The team that does those things; that makes the pitches and gets outs when they need them and makes the plays and gets the hits advances. And that was Alabama.”
Following the game, as the Crimson Tide celebrated on Russ Chandler Stadium’s field with their fans roared refrains of “SEC! SEC!” and “Roll, Tide, Roll!” the Yellow Jackets looked on forlornly. A team with high expectations and even higher aspirations, they had designs of a much better finish. It was all they could do to hug each other and offer consolatory shoulders to lean upon.
“I didn’t say much. Probably tears would be the best way I could describe it,” Hall said of his post-game talk with his seniors. “Many of those guys had great careers.”
Junior pitcher Deck McGuire is slated to be another departing player after he was drafted 11th overall in the first round of the major league draft Monday night. Taken by the Toronto Blue Jays while the Regional was in the second inning, McGuire was more focused on what was happening on the field in front of him.
“It’s an honor to be picked in the first round. The Blue Jays are a great organization,” he said, offering a statement. “But right now, I’m still in the moment and (Monday night), my teammates are a way more important story. That’s all.”
Things got rough early for Georgia Tech after Alabama scored two runs in the game’s opening inning. Center fielder Taylor Dugas, who entered with a .389 tournament batting average, led off with a drag bunt right at Yellow Jackets second baseman Jacob Esch. Although the bunt came off Dugas’ bat rather hard, the speedy outfielder was able to beat it out for a single. Four batters later, he and Ross Wilson were driven in by a two-RBI double to left field by third baseman Jake Smith.
That two-run first inning was overshadowed only by the Crimson Tide’s five-run fourth that gave them a lead after the Yellow Jackets had staged earlier rallies that looked initially as if they might hold.
In the bottom of the first, answering Alabama’s two scores, Georgia Tech plated four, each the result of a pair of home runs from shortstop Derek Dietrich and right fielder Chase Burnette. Dietrich, a highly heralded prospect who wasn’t selected in the first round of Monday’s major league draft, hit the first one, a two-run shot that glided over the center field wall. Burnette’s was a towering blast that arced above the lights before falling into the trees behind the right field wall.
While offense proved to be the story for both teams, Kilcrease did offer just enough relief for the Crimson Tide, as he came entered in the fourth and shut the door the rest of the way. The right-hander allowed just two runs in his appearance and struck out seven.
“It seemed like if we hit the ball hard off of him, it either went barely foul, or we hit it right at someone,” Hall said.
By contrast, Georgia Tech starter Jed Bradley, a sophomore who had a 9-4 record entering the game, gave up eight runs and nine hits in five innings.
Kilcrease was also the Crimson Tide’s fourth pitcher of the game, as Alabama head coach Mitch Gaspard elected to use as many of the arms in his bullpen as possible whenever one of his pitchers ran into trouble. On Sunday, Gaspard said “everyone” on his staff was available.