A pair of in-state teams are set to square off on Friday to open up the action in NCAA Athens Regional. The Georgia Bulldogs and Mercer Bears will renew their rivalry with more than just bragging rights on the line.
The two teams look to gain an edge with a key opening game win in the double elimination regional. The loser will be pushed to the brink of elimination.
Here is a look inside the matchup between a pair of teams with a long history.
▪ Time: Friday, 7 p.m.
▪ TV: SEC Network, WatchESPN
▪ Radio: Georgia Bulldogs Radio Network: Jeff Dantzler and David Johnston (960 The Ref); Mercer: Rick Cameron (Sportsmic radio; iPhone and Android apps)
▪ Follow along here for live coverage from Telegraph writers Justin Baxley and Brandon Sudge
▪ Georgia enters play at 44-15 and a No. 4 national seed
▪ Mercer received an automatic bid as Southern Conference champions and a 35-27 record
▪ Georgia leads the all-time series 46-15 in 61 meetings
▪ First meeting in 1897 with Georgia winning 16-7
▪ Mercer beat Georgia twice in 2017. The teams haven’t played since.
▪ Georgia is hosting a regional for the second consecutive season. It fell to Duke in 2018.
▪ Mercer and Georgia each have four NCAA tournament appearances since 2009
▪ The winner of the Athens Regional will face the Baton Rouge Regional’s victor in the NCAA Super Regionals
1. Mercer successful in pressure situations
The Bears head into the NCAA tournament on a five-game win streak. Mercer was knocked off 11-0 by Samford in the Southern Conference tournament, and the end seemed near.
With their backs against the wall on the verge of elimination, the Bears managed win after win and three more wins after that.
Head coach Craig Gibson contends his team isn’t the best in the SoCon — they’ve played the best consistently, a culture Gibson reinforces at Mercer.
“I think there are three or four teams better than us,” he said. “We played the best. We’ve played the best for 10 years.”
A desire to play their best, no matter who is “best,” could provide an edge the Bears need heading into Athens. The team has been playing like the season was on the line for the last couple weeks. Even though the matchup Friday isn’t an elimination game, the sense of urgency will still be there for the Bears.
2. Sawyer Gipson-Long emerging as a force for the Bears
Tanner Hall has been the key cog for Mercer on the mound but it has been Sawyer Gipson-Long who has provided some serious punch within that rotation. He has piled up a team-high 96 strikeouts this season including 16 in the pair of SoCon tournament games he pitched in.
“Sawyer Gipson-Long has settled in as our number one,” Gibson said.
The Bears announced they’ll start Hall in Friday’s postseason opener. It wouldn’t be surprising, however, for Gipson-Long to take the mound.
In fact, Mercer has won eight games in a row when Gipson-Long has appeared on the mound. He has appeared in 22 games (started in 13 of those) and has an 8-3 record.
3. Bulldogs to start the local kid, use one of their aces in Locey
Once Tony Locey steps onto the Foley Field mound, it’ll feel like home in a few different ways.
He’ll see the orange-and-white of his hometown team in the batter’s box, and his former Houston County teammate, Hall, as the opposing pitcher.
Nerves are understandable. An extra jolt of adrenaline might be, too. But it’ll be a source of motivation for Locey who serves as the Bulldogs’ pitching anchor in the quest for a College World Series berth.
Locey is vastly improved from when he took the mound last season. He went back-and-forth between a starting position and a spot in the bullpen.
Now, Locey’s one of Georgia’s aces — along with Emerson Hancock — with hopes of hearing his name called in the early rounds of the 2019 MLB draft. Locey enters the NCAA regional with a 2.68 ERA in 15 appearances (14 starts).
Georgia’s hope is that Locey can catapult it to use a deep rotation successfully and string wins together.
“I think the pitching and defense is the biggest difference,” Hancock said. “We have a lot of confidence in our pitchers. We’re going to go in there and hold teams down.”
4. Mercer and UGA different teams than last time they met
Georgia hasn’t scheduled Mercer after getting swept by the Bears in a 2017 home-on-home series. However, both have continued to schedule other teams from around the state since then including Georgia Tech, Georgia State and Georgia Southern.
Gibson said that the guys are excited to have the opportunity to play in Athens this season.
“I think if you asked our guys, they wanted to play in Athens,” he said. “When you think of baseball in the state of Georgia, you think of the University of Georgia.”
The two sides are much different than the last time they met. Georgia has improved a lot since their last meeting they went 25-32 in 2017 versus 44-15 this year. While Mercer was 39-17 in 2017 and 35-27 this year.
The two sides are much different than the last time they met. When Georgia met Mercer in 2017, they went 25-32. This season, they’re 44-15 heading into Regionals. Mercer, however was 39-17 in 2017 and 35-27 this year.
“This is a great team now. This is a different team than we played a couple years ago,” Gibson said. “We are a different team. We will run four or five freshmen out there and (Georgia’s) got a lot of talented guys on the team. (Georgia head coach) Scott (Stricklin) has done a great job with the program.”