Embedded with Georgia Tech baseball, Part I

FOX Sports South writer Jay Clemons recently spent three days with the Georgia Tech baseball team as the club traveled to Columbus, Ohio, for a two-game series against Big Ten member Ohio State. The following diary, broken into two parts, chronicles that time with the Yellow Jackets, who are vying for their 27th NCAA tournament berth in the last 29 seasons:

Prologue — Monday

The First Distraction Salvo

At the Hilton Garden Inn on Monday night, just a stone’s throw from Ohio State’s campus, the hotel patrons — including Georgia Tech’s traveling carnival of 38 (coaches, players, trainers, support staff), not to mention numerous family members of Jackets players — are alerted to one of the most ear-splitting, decibel-cranking fire alarms one could possibly hear.

The noise level is too headache-inducing to ignore for this writer, prompting an unplanned walk out of the building. And while heading for the fourth-floor elevator, a random thought arises:

Is it possible the good people of Columbus are invoking a football-inspired gamesmanship tactic here, disrupting Georgia Tech on the eve of a crucial series? Or is this experience just a loud coincidence?

After all, through the years, the bad blood between Ohio State and Michigan football has spawned many horror stories of out-of-towners encountering false alarms, no running water or canceled reservations in both Columbus and Ann Arbor hotels. On this night, perhaps the Buckeye faithful are similarly committed to helping Ohio State baseball gain an edge — any psychological advantage — against a formidable program like Georgia Tech.

That brief musing quickly dissipates in minutes, though, as the fire alarm subsides before anyone could exit the premises. At least for the next 41 hours, there won’t be other conspiracy theories to ponder.

Tuesday

What’s At Stake

Heading into Tuesday’s game, the Yellow Jackets (29-18 on May 6) had dropped eight of their previous 10, a downward cycle that was seriously cutting into the program’s chances of making the NCAA baseball tournament. In fact, on March 17, after a weekend sweep of Boston College, Georgia Tech carried a 17-2 overall record and top-15 national ranking.

But such is life in the ACC, arguably the most dominant — and balanced — baseball conference in the land. Series victories over Virginia Tech, BC and Wake Forest soon gave way to series losses to Florida State and Duke on the road. And from April 19-26, the Yellow Jackets dropped six straight games, getting swept by North Carolina State at home and losing a doubleheader to Clemson.

Sandwiched between the in-conference defeats, Georgia Tech had to endure the angst of a 17-0 loss to rival Georgia, an annual charity event at Atlanta’s Turner Field.

But it’s not a dire situation here: Before Tuesday, Georgia Tech still had a No. 25 RPI ranking — a status that would likely improve as the week progressed, thanks to two road games against Ohio State (a top-four team in the Big Ten) and a weekend series with North Carolina, the top dog in the ACC and the nation’s No. 1 team.

At 12-12 in the ACC with six league games left, Georgia Tech remains in good position to clinch a berth in the ACC tourney (May 22-26 in Durham), which takes the conference’s top eight clubs. The Yellow Jackets won last year’s tournament, clinching their automatic NCAA tourney bid.

“It’s always fun when you have to travel, particularly on the trips when you fly. Everyone kind of likes that … like you’re almost in the big leagues,” Jackets outfielder Kyle Wren said. “UNC’s always a huge series for us. It’s going to be a big series, definitely excited.”

Just Like The Pros

From an outsider’s perspective, it might be hard to distinguish the Georgia Tech baseball team from the Columbus Clippers, the long-standing minor league club that calls Ohio’s capital city home.

The Clippers, now the Triple-A affiliate of the Cleveland Indians, and the New York Yankees prior to that (1979-2006), have welcomed some of MLB’s biggest stars on their way to the majors — from Don Mattingly, Mariano Rivera, Bernie Williams, Derek Jeter and Robinson Cano … to current Indians like Jason Kipnis and Carlos Santana.

For the most part, Triple-A teams are older than college ones. But from a maturity standpoint, the Clippers have nothing on the current Yellow Jackets squad.

Georgia Tech flew into Columbus early Monday, essentially giving the coaches and players two days of leisure time before suiting up against Ohio State Tuesday night.

Sure, there’s an evening curfew and the meals are regimented by strength and conditioning coordinator Steve Tamborra. But there’s an overwhelming sense of professionalism to this “amateur” outfit, as head coach Danny Hall and his staff place minimal restrictions on the players — especially now that the spring semester at Georgia Tech has ended.

But rest assured, the players are expected to follow the rules to the letter, namely Be on time and Always be accountable.

“That’s a credit to Coach (Hall), for what he’s been able to do,” said Bryan Prince, who has the dual authority of Tech hitting coach and recruiting coordinator. “There’s a lot of trust (in the player-coach relationship) — he trusts them and they trust him … It’s very professional. You know where you stand.

“I know what’s expected, the players know what’s expected. (Hall’s) philosophy has been successful. It works.”

Brazin’ In The Virtual Grass

Ohio State’s 16-year-old baseball lair shares two names — Bill Davis Stadium (in honor of the businessman and OSU alum) … and Nick Swisher Field (in honor of the current major leaguer and All-Big Ten performer with the Buckeyes a decade ago).

The stadium, which has hosted a number of Big Ten tournaments, has a capacity of 4,450 and offers opposing teams the unique opportunity of playing on AstroTurf Gameday Grass — a modern artificial surface which closely resembles real grass.

According to the Web site SustainInfill.com, AstroTurf GameDay Grass “produces a natural-looking synthetic surface that’s more durable than 100-percent polyethylene systems. State-of-the-art tufting of AstroTurf GameDay Grass 3D more accurately mimics the look and feel of natural grass.”

Georgia Tech catcher Zane Evans (14 HR, 56 RBI, .376 batting through 50 games), a draft-eligible junior, loves playing on field-turf surfaces, perhaps even more than natural grass.

“It’s easier to block the balls,” Evans said. “Everything’s just true, like when a ball bounces off the carpet.”

His teammate, Wren, enjoys the field-turf surface, too. But on this night, playing his first game at Swisher Field, he’s more concerned with the stadium’s dimensions — primarily the fair and foul areas of left field.

When encountering an unfamiliar environment, Wren’s first on-field act during warmups involves surveying the outfield walls and learning the nuances of the fences, particularly Ohio State’s wood-based setup.

“You really have to find your boundaries, it’s something you’ve got to get used to really quick,” Wren said. “There’s not a lot of time (to prepare).”

The two-tone layout of Swisher Field can absorb a tremendous amount of precipitation, making it essentially impervious to anything short of torrential rains.

The one thing the field apparently cannot support: Sunflower seed shells … after being discarded by the players and coaches in the dugout.

The clean-up crew “hates” seeds, according to one stadium worker.

Super Tuesday

In the series opener, Georgia Tech launched its most crucial week of the season by rolling over Ohio State, 9-2.

As a bonus, the Yellow Jackets also extended a personal gift to Hall — a Ohio native and Miami of Ohio graduate — who collected his first victory inside the Buckeye State since leading Kent State to the NCAA regionals in 1993.

“This was a special game for me, just because I grew up here. Parents, my sister, I went to Miami of Ohio, a lot of friends here,” said Hall, a 1973 draft pick of the Oakland Athletics and Kent State’s head coach from 1988-93. “Probably more than anything, it’s a chance to coach in front of people who have meant a lot to me over the years.”

The win had program significance, as well, marking Georgia Tech’s first-ever trip to Ohio — an illustrious history that dates back to 1900 and includes 26 NCAA tourney berths since 1985 alone.

The victory may have also boosted the Jackets’ status (No. 25 on Tuesday) in college baseball’s RPI rankings.

“(Wins like this) are major RPI games,” said Hall, in his 20th season with Tech.

In triumph, Georgia Tech accounted for nine runs and 14 hits on offense, and six shutout innings from Jackets starter Jonathan King — whose previous start came in the forgettable 17-0 loss to Georgia on April 23.

“(King) pitched very well. He’s been very good for us; by far, this was his best performance,” Hall said. “He threw a lot of strikes … We gave him some runs early, which helped him relax a little.”

The Jackets opened with a flurry in the first inning, scoring two runs off Buckeyes starter Jake Post, thanks to one hit (an RBI double from Zane Evans), one steal (Brandon Thomas) and two hits batsmen (Thomas, Daniel Palka). On Evans’ double — a hot shot off the center-field wall — Palka nearly ran past Thomas when approaching third base, before slowing down just enough to let Thomas sprint to home plate, unfettered.

Georgia Tech busted out again three innings later, highlighted by catcher Mitch Earnest’s RBI single and Palka’s three-run triple. Throw in a Thomas RBI single in the seventh inning, a Sam Dove solo homer and Earnest RBI double in the ninth and you have the offensive components to a decisive victory.

After the game, Hall was flanked by a large contingent of family and friends, many Ohio residents who made the short trip to Columbus to see the coach in action.

Hall wasn’t the only one celebrating a homecoming. Pitcher Dusty Isaacs got to enjoy a pressure-free trip to his native state, knowing his moment of pressure would occur in the all-important weekend series with top-ranked North Carolina.