What could go wrong, did go wrong for the Georgia Bulldogs in their SEC opener on Friday night at Foley Field. Just a few hours before the game, Georgia head coach Scott Stricklin tested positive for COVID-19 forcing him to isolate and miss the series. Associate head coach Scott Daeley will be the acting manager while Stricklin is out. No other players or coaches were impacted by Stricklin’s positive test, per Georgia officials.
“It was weird, man,” said Georgia infielder Josh McAllister. “When we go out there after we run and coach Stricklin talks to us, that’s when everyone really focuses and locks in. I feel like we really missed that tonight.”
After that surprise, Georgia did not fare much better on the field. It only took three pitches in the top of the first inning for Tennessee to hit a leadoff home run, giving the Volunteers a lead they never had to look back from. Luke Wagner got the start for Georgia becoming the first Bulldogs freshman to start an SEC opener since Sean McLaughlin in 2013.
Following a stellar outing last Friday against Lipscomb, Wagner looked to build off that momentum against the 13th-ranked Volunteers. He did not last long though. Wagner was pulled after 1.1 innings pitched, where he gave up an earned run and two walks. Wagner was the losing pitcher, falling to 3-1 this year. Charlie Goldstein relieved him, giving up two runs in 1.2 innings.
Georgia trailed 3-0 but the deficit felt much larger. Then, the top of the fourth inning rolled around. Freshman Liam Sullivan, who has had a great start to the season, came into the inning with a 0.00 ERA. Sullivan did not have control of his command at all on Friday night though. Sullivan allowed a leadoff triple and then walked four straight batters, giving Tennessee a 5-0 lead. Sullivan finally put one over the plate and Jake Rucker made him pay with a grand slam over the right field wall.
“I think we played to the uniform a little bit more than we played to the player and to the game,” said Daeley. “The common theme when those first three pitchers went out there is that they were all freshmen, I think they made a little too big a deal of [conference play].”
The 9-0 Tennessee advantage sent the limited crowd at Foley Field into complete shock, with the only audible noises coming from the Tennessee dugout. Sullivan’s ERA jumped all the way to 5.59 after only finishing a third of an inning. He walked five batters and allowed six earned runs in that frame.
Walks continue to be a problem for the Bulldogs’ pitching staff. On Friday, Georgia pitchers combined to allow 12 walks. That is not an effective strategy to win even if they were playing a junior college, much less one of the best teams in the country. Hank Bearden and Collin Caldwell were the only Georgia pitchers to not allow a walk; it is not a coincidence that they were also the only pitchers to not allow an earned run.
The offense was too little, too late for Georgia as well. The Bulldogs combined for six runs between the fifth and seventh innings. Unfortunately, Tennessee’s lead proved to be insurmountable, but at least the Bulldogs did not totally give up. Georgia started to become more patient at the plate, battling with Tennessee starter Chad Dallas, which led to better results. Riley King laced a ball over the center fielder’s head for a two-RBI double in the bottom of the sixth inning.
The bigger problem with Georgia’s offense is the health of designated hitter Corey Collins. Collins picked up Georgia’s first hit with a single in the fourth, but walked off the field gingerly, grabbing what appeared to be his hamstring. He was replaced by Kameron Guidry. Collins has arguably been Georgia’s best hitter this season, so losing him at the start of conference play would certainly be a disappointment for the Bulldogs.
Georgia (13-4, 0-1) will look to bounce back tomorrow at 1 p.m against the Volunteers (16-3, 0-1). Ryan Webb will start for Georgia and will not be on a pitch count; he is fully good to go.
“In a league like the SEC… you get one learning lesson,” said Georgia pitcher Jack Gowen. “The thing we can take from it is that walking 12 [batters], and hitting a guy, and having a couple errors here and there, and being sped up isn’t who we are. That’s not a characteristic that we carry as a team.”