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SEC Fall Check-In: Georgia

Georgia coach David Perno’s squad saw their ups and downs last season, concluding with a 31-26 record and an 8-seed in the SEC baseball tournament after finishing fifth-best in the East division. The Bulldogs, who entered last season making two regionals in three seasons, missed out on postseason baseball after a combination of inconsistent play and some injuries. But Perno’s squad has added what the coach thinks could be one of the best classes in school history, and the future looks bright in Athens.

 

Fall Camp

After missing out on a regional last season, the Bulldogs have responded positively in Fall camp. Coach Perno said that this team has “worked harder than any team we’ve ever had,” and with good reason. They needed to. Inconsistency plagued the Bulldogs last year, leading to their 31-26 finish with a first-round exit from the SEC Tournament at the hands of the Auburn Tigers.

A new core of leadership has helped Georgia get past last year’s disappointment, though, with Kyle Farmer, Curt Powell, Blake Dieterich and Bryan Benzor stepping up as vocal leaders of the 2013 Dogs. The veteran core, mixed with a solid recruiting class, have combined to give the belief that this year can be very different from last in Georgia.

“Our expectations are much greater than what’s on the outside,” said Perno. “The expectations are high, but at the same time, we’re realistic.”

The coach was unwilling to put a win count on a successful season, but gave the impression that the Bulldogs expect to compete and surprise some of the “experts” this season.

“We feel like we’ve got the pieces,” Perno said. “We just have to get those guys up and running.”

Fresh Faces

Georgia’s recruiting class adds depth all over the field, something that will be key this season for the team. The class, headlined by Zack Bowers, JT Philips, Sean McLaughlin, and Kyle Carter, contains multiple guys that Perno thinks could be ready to compete for innings come the Spring.

Bowers, a catcher out of Acworth, Ga., used his 6-foot, 190-pound frame to power eight home runs his junior year of high school. While he enters the season as a backup, he will have his chances at the plate to show what he can do this season. Bowers was a third-team Rawlings All American for his senior season, and he was ranked the 13th-best high school prospect in Georgia from the 2012 class.

Phillips, a versatile infielder, was named to the 2012 Southeast All Region first team last year by Rawlings. The 16th-ranked prospect out of Georgia, he was described as “one of the scariest hitters in the state” by Perno. Phillips came from a successful high school program, with his team tallying 32-5 and 30-9 records in 2010 and 2011, respectively.

McLaughlin will be used as a pitcher and outfielder while at Georgia. He posted a .450 average with six home runs and 24 RBI his junior season, and was rewarded with second-team All Underclassmen second team as a result. His fastball currently tops out at 93-94, but Perno believes that he has not yet reached his ceiling.

Carter is another outfielder who will pitch at Georgia. He was a standout both offensively and defensively in high school, posting a .471 average with 46 RBI his junior year to complement his 2.33 ERA on the mound. Carter has potential to become an ace, but his ability to double as an every day position player should make him quite a valuable asset for Perno.

Other freshmen that have made an impact in the fall so far for the Bulldogs include David Gonzalez, a pitcher who was drafted in the 40th round by the New York Mets in the 2012 MLB Draft, and Palmer Betts, also a pitcher.

Key Returners

A talented core of returners highlight Georgia’s roster this season, starting with Farmer, who played for Team USA over the Summer. Farmer batted .302 last year for the Bulldogs with four home runs and 41 RBI. However, a sluggish end to the 2012 campaign led Perno to issue a challenge to one of his leaders, saying that Farmer needs to have a “bounce-back senior year.”

Powell turned in the most impressive season of all Georgia hitters last season, posting a .355 average en route to being named to the All-SEC second team. Powell’s success will be critical for Georgia this season, as he will try to match his production from last season with 11 doubles and 20 RBI.

Hunter Cole was named to the Freshman All-American team last season despite battling an oblique injury later in the year, but Perno said that he appears to have fully recovered. Cole led the Bulldogs with seven home runs in 2012 and added a .276 average as he became one of the more dependable bats in Georgia’s lineup.

One player to watch this season for the Bulldogs will be Justin Bryan. Bryan, a sophomore outfielder, lifted four home runs in just 38 at-bats last year for the Bulldogs. Perno said that he believes that Bryan is ready to take the “next step” as a player, although that may not be a reach. In his limited experience last season, Bryan posted a .289/.632/.357 triple slash as a freshman.

Position Battles

Perno’s staff believes that they have the lineup already figured out for the most part, even though he needs better performance out of some positions this year than he got in 2012.

“I don’t think we did a really good job defensively, or offensively, from behind the plate,” he said.

Regardless, Brett DeLoach has locked up the starting role. As a junior, DeLoach hit .303 with a home run, but Bowers’ presence on the team has pushed him to progress throughout the fall.

“He’s much better throwing,” Perno said, comparing DeLoach’s performance in the fall to 2012. “He’s worked extremely hard, and he’s gotten much better.”

First base looks like it will be a platoon position because Jared Walsh will be needed on the mound in addition to his regular duty at first base. Freshman Daniel Nichols appears to be poised to take over first base when Walsh is on the mound.

Fall Traditions

Perno’s Bulldogs annually hold a “Pups vs. Dogs” World Series, which forces the freshmen team to compete against the veterans in a series. Not surprisingly, the “Dogs” team won over the younger “Pups.”

A strength and conditioning challenge will occur at the end of November, and Perno said that the team usually enjoys the competition that the challenge presents to the squad.