ATHENS — For no other reason than the opportunity to see Alex Wood pitch in what will likely be his final home start as a Georgia Bulldog, Friday night would be a great time to come to Foley Field. But then throw in the added element of opponent and stakes, and it’s understandable why tonight’s game against South Carolina is already sellout.
Wood, a redshirt sophomore left-hander from Charlotte, is arguably the SEC’s best pitcher. Tonight, the reigning SEC Pitcher of the Week is on the hill against the No. 4-ranked and two-time defending national champion Gamecocks (37-12, 16-8 SEC). The Bulldogs (28-21, 12-12) not only need to win this game but at least one more to enhance their position to qualify for the SEC tournament and ultimately for an NCAA tournament at-large bid. After this weekend’s three-game series, a Teusday game against East Tennessee State and series at Alabama is all that remains in the regular season.
“It’s definitely a big weekend,” said Wood, who comes into the contest with a 6-1 record and 2.64 ERA. “We feel like we’ve got a great opportunity at hand. Obviously South Carolina is one of the best teams in the country. But even last year, we thought we matched up with them pretty well with pitching and offensively. I think it’s going to be a battle.”
In fact, Georgia was the last team to beat the Gamecocks last season. After defeating them 4-2 in the second round of the SEC tournament, South Carolina went on to win 10 straight and claim its second consecutive NCAA championship. The Bulldogs were also in position to take two-of-three in the regular-season series but lost a 2-1 heartbreaker in the Saturday game that proved the difference.
This year, Georgia’s not necessarily in a desperate situation within the conference — it’s currently tied for fifth with 10 teams qualifying for the SEC tournament — but needs to get busy if it is to return to the NCAA tournament for the fourth time in five years. With an RPI of 38, two victories over a Top 5 opponent could catapult the Dogs deep into postseason conversation.
“We’ve got life,” Georgia coach David Perno said. “It’s not a panic-like situation. But what is kind of a must is we compete like we’ve been competing and we hang in there. Obviously to win a series against a prominent opponent is something we’re probably lacking and we have that opportunity this weekend.”
Wood can get the Bulldogs off to a good start. The 6-foot-4, 220-pound hurler has been the epitome of consistency all season. Against Auburn this past weekend, he struck out 10 in eight innings against the league’s top-hitting team. In SEC action this season, he’s 3-0 with a 2.67 ERA with two of his starts lost to rain.
“He’s been the difference,” Perno said of Wood. “He’s given us life. It could have gotten away from us if not for his ability to pitch good games and not only throw quality innings but quantity innings to give our bullpen some breathing time. The progression of him has been kind of what we expected but his presence on Friday night makes us a better team.”
Unfortunately for Georgia, this will probably be its last go-round with Wood. The Bulldogs had to redshirt Wood after he underwent Tommy John surgery after he led Ardrey High to the 4-A state high school championship. Now three years removed from graduation, the baseball draft beckons. As a lefty who throws in the 90s, one can bet he’ll command early attention.
“It stinks from the standpoint that we’re probably only getting him for two years,” Perno said. “But we did a great job recruiting him and he’s a joy to coach, he’s a great teammate and a great leader. Obviously he has already made his mark, but I hope we can back him a little bit and give him an opportunity to get into a regional.”
The good thing for Georgia is Wood’s mind is clearly in the present. Tonight will represent his seventh Friday night start against a Top 20 opponent this season. A sellout crowd against the defending champs only heightens his anticipation.
“It’ll be an exciting weekend,” Wood said. “A lot of the alumni will be back just because of graduation. There’s a bunch of people in town and it’s going to be a great atmosphere. Hopefully we’ll give our fans a little show.”
Chip Towers, The UGA Blog