The Georgia Tech baseball team shouldn’t have any trouble scoring runs this season.
The question is whether the Yellow Jackets can find enough effective inning-eaters to enable them to return to the NCAA Tournament.
They’ll begin to sort out some of the questions this weekend when Georgia Tech hosts the Atlanta Challenge at Russ Chandler Stadium. The Yellow Jackets play Brigham Young at 4 p.m. on Friday, Marshall at 2 p.m. on Saturday and Western Michigan at noon on Sunday.
The Yellow Jackets were 38-25 and made their 31st NCAA appearance in 2016. They are loaded with talented offensive players with experience. Plus, they have a bounty of freshmen from a nationally renowned recruiting class that is putting pressure on the veterans.
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But pitching is a different issue. There is a long list of players with potential. There is a short list of players who have proved it.
The offense is anchored by juniors Kel Johnson and Trevor Craport, who have each received preseason All-America consideration.
Johnson, an outfielder and designated hitter, was named to Collegiate Baseball’s third team and to the National Collegiate Baseball Writers Association second team. This week, Johnson was named to the 55-man watch list for the Golden Spikes Award. Craport, a third baseman, was placed on the NCBWA’s third team.
“Anticipation has been building for a while,” Johnson said. “We couldn’t be more excited. We’re ready to get things rolling and have high expectations for this season.”
Both Johnson and Craport have posted impressive numbers.
Johnson batted .319 with 16 doubles, 11 homers and 54 RBI in a season that included a 22-game hitting streak. Craport moved from pitcher to the field in 2016 and hit .352 with seven homers and 31 RBI and struck out only 17 times in 199 at-bats, fifth-best in the ACC.
Other returning position players include infielder Wade Bailey (.310, 25 doubles, 52 runs), catcher Joey Bart (.299, 31 RBI), outfielder Brandt Stallings (.299, 33 RBI) and outfielder Ryan Peurifoy (10 doubles, 24 RBI). Bart was named to the ACC’s All-Freshman team.
They’ll definitely miss first baseman/pitcher Tristin English (.315, 21 doubles, 41 RBI), who will miss the season after having Tommy John surgery.
The incoming group of freshmen position players is strong. Austin Wilhite is expected to start at shortstop, and catcher Kyle McCann has hit well enough to deserve playing time.
Gone are third baseman Matt Gonzalez (.378, 11 homers, 54 RBI), who signed with the Atlanta Braves, and shortstop Connor Justus (.324, 37 RBI, 62 runs scored), who signed with the Los Angeles Angels.
The pitching staff lost top starter Brandon Gold and All-ACC reliever Matthew Gorst, as well as reliable lefty Cole Pitts. But the current rotation has plenty of upside and the staff is deep with talent.
The opening day starter will be right-hander Xzavion Curry, who will be the first true freshman to pitch the opener since Kris Wilson in 1995. Curry is also one of the team’s top young hitters and could play in the field when he’s not on the mound.
Jonathan Hughes is scheduled to start Saturday. The redshirt freshman is a former second-round draft choice. The right-hander was 3-1 with a 2.45 in his first five starts last season before being shut down by an elbow ailment.
The starter for the third game has not been announced, but it could be senior lefty Jonathan King. He pitched five innings last year before a sore shoulder ended his season. King has pitched 184.1 career innings and walked only 60.
Other candidates for the rotation are left-hander Ben Parr and sophomores Jake Lee and Keyton Gibson.
The bullpen will be led by Zac Ryan, who was 9-1 in 2015 and 3-4 with a 7.29 ERA in 2016 when he split time between starting and relieving. Ryan has a career ERA of 3.95 when he works out of the bullpen and last year had a 3-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio in relief appearances in 2016. He is expected to be the closer this season.