1998 In Review
KEEPING THE STREAK ALIVE
A late season surge vaulted Tech into a second-place ACC finish and its 14th consecutive trip to the NCAA Tournament, where the Yellow Jackets came within two runs of making it back to Omaha.
With a roster half-full of freshmen, bumps and grinds are to be expected. Head coach Danny Hall spent the first half of the season looking for the right combinations, then hit on the right one down the stretch as Georgia Tech won nine of its last 12 regular-season games.
The late surge, which included a sweep of third-ranked Clemson and two wins at Maryland, lifted the Yellow Jackets to a second-place finish in the Atlantic Coast Conference, making 12 straight years Tech has finished fourth or higher in the conference. A fourth win over Clemson in the ACC Tournament locked up a bid to the NCAA Tournament for the 14th consecutive season, a streak surpassed only by Miami, Florida State and Oklahoma State.
Once there, with a surprisingly high No. 2 seed in the Midwest Regional at Wichita, Kan., Tech nearly repeated history. Four years ago, in Hall;s first year at the helm, the Yellow Jackets earned their first and only trip to the College World Series by way of Wichita and advanced to the national championship game. This time, despite dropping its opening game against Oklahoma State, Tech battled through the loser's bracket and came within two runs of returning to Omaha.
Tech finished the year 41-22, winning 40 games for the 12th time in the last 14 seasons, and posted a 14-9 mark in ACC games. The Jackets also were 11-8 against nationally-ranked teams, bettered only by Florida State. Tech's NCAA seeding was a result of a strong year for the ACC, which sent six teams to regionals, five of whom advanced to the final day.
Strong pitching and just enough hitting helped the Yellow Jackets eliminate Southeast Missouri State, Arkansas and the Cowboys to advance to the regional championship game, where Tech lost 3-1 to Arizona State. Six freshmen started in that championship game, including pitcher Cory Vance, who tossed a six-hit complete game, giving Tech confidence for next season. Second baseman Matthew Boggs made the all-tournament team, and catcher-first baseman Bryan Prince and third baseman-DH Ryan Brooks turned in standout efforts.
"We came awfully close," said Hall, who has taken Tech to a regional championship game twice in five seasons on the Flats. "I told our team I was proud of the way they battled back after losing that first game. A lot of teams would have rolled over."
It was never Tech's nature to roll over, despite playing some games during the season, the first-round regional game included, in which the Jackets looked as if they were. Tech rallied from behind in the ninth inning five times during the season for victories, including a five-run rally with two out against Oklahoma State in the regional semi-finals.
Several factors have contributed to the Jackets' late-season run, most importantly the outstanding performances of veteran pitchers Chuck Crowder, L.J. Yankosky and Jase Wrigley. All three hurlers earned all-ACC honors, Crowder chief among them as a first-team selection.
Tech's ERA over its last 16 games was a solid 3.95.
Crowder, who pitched Tech's only shutout of the season against Arkansas in the regional, finished 12-4 with a 3.03 ERA, having won five of his last six decisions with top-ranked Miami and Clemson (twice) among his victims. The junior lefthander ranked second in the conference in victories and sixth in strikeouts. Yankosky, 10-0 during the regular season and 6-0 against the ACC, lost a quality start against Wake Forest in the ACC Tournament but rebounded to win his only regional start. Wrigley, tagged for four straight losses despite pitching well at the end of April, recovered to save two of Tech's three wins over Clemson, earned a win at Maryland and pitched well in the post-season.
Credit must also be given to the return of shortstop Jay Hood, who missed 14 games with a hamstring injury before suiting up for the Clemson series. For the last 14 games of the season, Tech started the same infield with Heath Honeycutt at third base, Hood at shortstop, freshman Matthew Boggs at second and junior Stephen Donaghey at first, which stabilized a porous Tech defense.
If a single moment can be chosen to mark a turnaround, it had to be the grand slam by catcher Eric McQueen against Mercer the night of Apr. 22. Listing badly following a three-game sweep at Florida State where the defense broke down at key times and the Jackets scored just 10 runs, Tech appeared headed toward a fifth consecutive loss trailing 6-4 in the ninth inning. With the bases loaded and two out, McQueen stood at bat behind 0-2 in the count. Trying just to protect the plate, McQueen drove an outside pitch over the right field fence for a home run, sparking a six-run rally and a 10-6 Tech win.
It was that night that Hall also committed to Boggs as his second baseman and leadoff hitter against righthanded pitchers, and he decided to remove himself from the third base coaching box and stay in the dugout, calling signals and preparing Tech's hitters and what to look for from his scouting reports. Assistant coach Jeff Guy moved to the third base box, replaced at first by volunteer coach Scott Stricklin, and Tech operated that way the remainder of the season.
Tech used the impetus to play a solid series against top-ranked Miami the following weekend. The Jackets crushed the Hurricanes, 22-7, in the series opener, ending Miami's 26-game winning streak, and left the bases loaded in a 9-8 loss in the series finale. A 21-4 pasting of arch-rival Georgia followed that, and Tech went on to sweep third-ranked Clemson the following week.
Offensively, it was an off-year by Tech standards, fourth in the ACC in scoring average (8.57 runs per game) and fifth in batting (.306). But the Jackets were anchored by veteran hitters Honeycutt, Hood and outfielder-pitcher Scott Prather, who each earned second-team all-ACC honors. Honeycutt led Tech with a .368 average and 71 RBI along with 14 home runs, a career high, while Prather was solid with a .325 mark, 12 homers and 43 RBI. McQueen, a rock defensively all season, improved markedly as a hitter, leading the Jackets in home runs with 15 to go with 57 RBI and a .298 average.
The surprises on offense were Donaghey, who claimed the first base position from the beginning of the season and finished second on the team in batting average (.338) with 11 homers and 51 RBI, and sophomore centerfielder Jahmal Overton, who paced Tech in batting against ACC
teams and hit .278 with five homers and 24 RBI overall.
Boggs became a thorn in the side of most pitchers with his knack for getting on base, leading the Jackets with a .497 on-base percentage (33 walks, 14 times hit by a pitch to tie a Tech record). In the Midwest Regional, Boggs reached base 18 of 24 times up. Backup catcher Bryan Prince, who also played third base and DH, led the seventh-ranked freshman class in batting (.337-5-38), while first-year outfielder Derik Goffena led the class in RBI (.291-10-42), and Brooks in home runs (.284-12-38).
Outfielders Jason Basil (.313-3-27) and Brad Stockton (.248-5-23) also were solid factors who should help the class become the backbone of next year's lineup.
"With such a young team, I thought this team would get better as the season went on, and certainly did," said Hall. "Our freshmen now have a good understanding of what it takes to play at this level."
The Sporting News
Chuck Crowder, P 1st team
Chuck Crowder, P 3rd team
Heath Honeycutt, 2B 3rd team
Chuck Crowder, P 3rd team
Chuck Crowder, P 1st team
Jay Hood, SS 2nd team
Heath Honeycutt, 3B 2nd team
Scott Prather, UT 2nd team
Jase Wrigley, P 2nd team
L.J. Yankosky, P 2nd team
All-NCAA MIDWEST REGIONAL
Matthew Boggs, 2B
Jay Hood, SS
ACC PITCHERS OF THE WEEK
Chuck Crowder Mar. 24
Scott Prather Mar. 30
Chuck Crowder May 4
L.J. Yankosky May 11