Scott Stricklin occasionally looked online for statistics in the Coastal Plain League. He noticed a strong summer campaign from Macon Bacon’s Riley King, a player who Georgia hoped would develop into a heart-of-the-lineup option and leading outfielder.
Stricklin received a text message that did more than validate it.
Georgia outfielder Chaney Rogers was playing with the nearby Lexington County Blowfish, but didn’t get the chance to pitch against King — although there were some friendly rivalries as the Blowfish roster also had Georgia players Connor Tate, Cole Tate and C.J. Smith.
“Are you scared to face Riley?” Stricklin jokingly said to Rogers in a text. “I’m sure he wanted a hit off of you.”
“Everyone is scared of Riley,” the redshirt freshman out of Gordon Lee replied. “He’s the best one here.”
Those words made Stricklin smile, and King’s success continued throughout the summer. He was a face of Middle Georgia’s return to baseball and finished the season with the Macon Bacon at a .306 batting clip. King, along with Bulldog teammate James Williams, represented the Bacon in the league’s All-Star Game.
For King, it has translated to his season with the Bulldogs. His .354 batting average is the third-highest on the team as Georgia travels to South Carolina (in Lexington County, in fact) to open conference play against the Gamecocks. Georgia (15-2) is ranked No. 6 nationally, and King is one of the bigger reasons why.
His success in Macon was seen after the first two weeks. King had a hot start with the Bacon — his new team after spending the previous season with the Florence RedWolves. King was having short-term success at the plate. He was worried that the typical baseball slump would come shortly thereafter, but it wasn’t meant to be.
“I felt really solid as I got to the plate and gained some confidence,” King said. “I felt like I had found my rhythm.”
Stricklin opted to send King to the Bacon due to it being a new in-state team. The CPL adds players with its wide network of coaches along with some voluntary recruiting from Bacon coach Danny Higginbotham. Throughout past years, Georgia players spent time in the Cape Cod League and entered into a highly-competitive environment where it was difficult to stay on a roster.
The Bacon provides a different avenue for players to focus on development. Once accepted onto a roster, the chances of being booted are slim-to-none. A player is able to become attached to a community, stick with the same group of teammates and become accustomed to the professional leagues with its wood-bat style of play.
King and Williams will return to the Bacon in 2019.
“Riley was a mainstay in the middle of our lineup and was great at third base,” said Higginbotham, who is also an assistant at South Dakota State University. “I knew it clicked when he made the All-Star Game, and it was good validation.”
A chance in the CPL serves as a prime opportunity for collegiate athletes, but it also gave baseball back to Macon. It’s a city starving for baseball since 2002 when the Macon Braves were relocated to Rome as the organization’s Single-A affiliate. Therefore, Luther Williams Field became a hotspot in Middle Georgia and it brought a long-awaited sense of sports excitement to the area.
In turn, the Georgia duo of King and Williams answered the call. Higginbotham recalled a moment during the season where King greeted a young fan in the stands with a pair of baseball gloves.
“It’s different (than Athens), but it’s a baseball town for sure,” Williams said. “They’re excited to get baseball down there again and it’s always a great turnout. We sold out every game — even Tuesday and Wednesday nights. They were all into the game.”
King is the spotlighted Georgia player with the Bacon, but Williams was arguably the Bulldog who developed the most. He came to Macon after a redshirt season with Georgia and has plenty of competition in a loaded pitching staff. Williams had an opportunity to start with the Bacon, however, and took advantage of it. He led the team in earned run average (ERA) with a 2.49 mark in 47 innings pitched.
Those strides have allowed Williams to see two relief appearances this season with Georgia. He has a 4.50 ERA (one run allowed in two innings).
“He didn’t want to come off the mound,” Higginbotham said. “We had to pull him off at times and has that bulldog mentality — no pun intended. He wants to work fast and get the baseball.”
When the duo of Bulldogs returned to Athens, King was the one who stood out. He was continuing to hit with consistency, and left an impression on someone who didn’t even know his name. Georgia volunteer coach Mitch Gaspard, who came to the program from Kansas State, simply turned to Stricklin and asked “Who is that No. 31?”
He now knows King’s name and his baseball talents. A lot of college baseball fans are starting to see the same, too. King already entered the season with the expectation of being a big asset, but that’s enhanced with the season-ending shoulder injury to junior Tucker Bradley.
So, when King steps to the plate during SEC play, Rogers will think back to the Bacon-Blowfish rivalry, and smile knowing that he won’t be the one scared of King on the opposing mound.
“He was that same player all throughout the fall,” Rogers said. “He’s going to step up and be a big help.”