UGA head coach compliments HoCo standout in 13-3 victory over Mercer
After the regular season finale, Georgia third baseman Aaron Schunk moseyed over to the bat rack. He placed his batting helmet inside and turned his head toward a mob of reporters. They waited outside the dugout steps as the jovial junior gave a warm welcome.
Schunk shook each reporter’s hand and spent a second longer to reflect with the Bulldogs’ main, most-dedicated baseball scribe who’s covered the team since 1997. Schunk wrapped an arm around the one who saw the glory days and depths of struggle. A glance toward the clear, sun-shining sky gave Schunk a second to reflect as coaches, parents and fellow teammates poured jubilance after another Foley Field victory.
“We’ve been through a lot,” Schunk said with a sly grin. “...but now we’re here.”
One moment has vividly replayed in Schunk’s mind over the past year. He sat at a podium in front of the same group of reporters as tears rolled down his face. Then-senior Keegan McGovern consoled him in a scene of heartbreak as Georgia had to beat Duke once in two games. It lost both, and the Bulldogs were eliminated on home turf after their first season of significant traction.
From then on, Schunk mandated that Georgia go back to postseason again and build upon it. His chance came Friday night against Mercer, and Schunk brought the energy after feeling the juice from his first breath back on the diamond. He hit two home runs — now with 13 on the season — to lead the team’s celebratory helmet-wearing duties in a 13-3 victory.
As postseason hit, the Schunky Monkey — a rhyming reference to his name and walk-up song — got a little more funky.
“This is a serious grind, but postseason is what you play for,” Schunk said. “You’re dialed in and that’s why our offense, defense and pitching has been as good as it is for an entire year. I’m trying to string consistent at-bats together and wear people down.”
His evening included plenty of dramatics and excitement, too. Schunk’s first home run cleared the trees in left center field, and might’ve reached a rare distance at Foley Field. Schunk stomped on home plate to celebrate it, and the follow-up act brought a bit more angst. Mercer center fielder Collin Price had it pop out of his glove, but it scraped over the fence.
Schunk’s success lived on Friday night. A few things could attribute to it, the quirkiest being his superstition-laden pregame ritual. Each piece of batting practice attire is different than game attire — from gloves, shorts, to bat. Then, Schunk returns to the locker room and changes. Nothing is the same.
“It’s kind of a bunch of silly stuff,” Schunk said. “Those superstitions start when you begin playing the game.”
Schunk also draws from a meaningful motivation and is reminded of it by glancing at the bill of his hat. Before each game, he takes a black permanent marker to write “For each other” and his jersey number, 22. It’s followed by the number of his former teammate at the Lovett School who committed suicide in 2018. Schunk’s junior season is played in memory of his late friend.
After the two-hit night, Schunk’s batting average bumped its way to .342 to lead the team. He has hit in 15-of-16 games, and a minor Achilles injury suffered at the end of conference play didn’t slow any momentum. His average is Georgia’s highest since 2013, when Curt Powell hit .376.
“He’s been the same guy everyday, and is one of the most consistent hitters in the lineup,” said Georgia center fielder Tucker Maxwell, who had a three-hit night with a grand slam.
Eleven MLB scouts sat behind home plate Friday evening. The league’s amateur draft kicks off June 3, and many of them had eyes set on Georgia’s starter Tony Locey and his fiery velocity. Their radar guns rested as Mercer’s Tanner Hall took the mound, but had the added bonus of watching Schunk’s work at the plate. As a junior, he is eligible for the draft and might’ve catapulted his status after his recent streak.
Georgia’s Scott Stricklin has coached for a number of years, and has seen a number of third basemen work at the hot corner. Asked to compare Schunk, he thought for a second and found similarities to one he saw as an assistant at Georgia Tech. Stricklin now calls it “the other school,” but saw Schunk-like qualities in an opposing player who turned long-time big leaguer.
“He reminds me of Ryan Zimmerman,” Stricklin said. “When he was in college, he hit very few home runs and not a lot of power. He developed and got better, and obviously has hit a lot in the big leagues.”
Schunk knows there’s a decision looming once his name is called in the draft, but he’s not yet focused on it. He tries to avoid glancing at scouts even though the ultimate dream is to play professionally. Stricklin probably isn’t focused on them either, but has mentioned him due to athleticism, power and two-way prowess.
Schunk showed up in a big way at the plate against Mercer, but could shine in a closing capacity in Saturday’s tilt with Florida State. His impressive average is complemented with a 2.49 relief ERA and 12 saves. Mercer’s Kel Johnson noticed his “impressive” displays, and awaits to see where Schunk finishes in the John Olerud award race — for the nation’s best two-way player. He’s one-of-two in-state finalists, along with Georgia Tech’s Tristin English.
Each time Schunk returns to that bat rack, however, it’s a reminder that his hard work reaps rewards. He’s Georgia’s biggest piece as postseason lives on, and he’s on a quest toward Omaha.
“Every time he comes to the plate,” Maxwell said, “you know something special might happen.”