May 9, 2014

Loran Smith: Good day to be a Dawg


— Turning points are easily identified when you look back. You can’t define a turning point as developments take place, though, which is why the University of Georgia baseball team taking two of three in a home series with South Carolina this past weekend does not necessarily signal that the Bulldogs are going to compete for a championship anytime soon.

However, beating the seventh-ranked Gamecocks upped the Bulldogs’ confidence considerably. Get in the postseason and anything can happen.

While this team is not an underachieving lot, it has experienced disappointing shortfalls. Nonetheless, Georgia’s players have in Scott Stricklin a coach who believes that there is still time for his Bulldogs to become a good team, even with just eight games left on the schedule.

Seldom has a coach wearing red and black accentuated the positive more than this Ohio native who is finally getting a suntan.

Last Sunday was the warmest day of the spring. A sold-out crowd — the third in a row — was given an electric dose of adrenaline when Georgia sophomore first baseman Daniel Nichols powered a grand slam in the third inning. As it turned out, his hit was all that was needed to beat the Gamecocks in a 5-3 victory. As Nichols’ blast cleared the fence, there were immediate flashbacks to the many times when the Bulldogs have had the bases loaded this year but runners were left on base, a stat that needs to improve.

If you recall, Stricklin came to Athens last summer espousing the view that to bring about consistency, his teams would hit-and-run, taking the extra base when they could. Stealing bases would be a high priority. The longball would be appreciated but not expected. Nichols’ home run on Sunday was the best tonic the Bulldogs — who had lost eight straight heading into the South Carolina series — have had in a while.

For a tight Southeastern Conference series in perfect weather, nothing could do more for Georgia’s spirits than a grand slam.

What I liked about the Sunday series clincher is that Georgia held on in the end. The Gamecocks (who did not go quietly) used a pair of doubles in the ninth inning to narrow the margin, but the Bulldogs’ pitching stiffened and sent their fans home with a smile on their face.

After the game, many of the kids moved down to the field and took turns running the bases. This is part of the fan-friendly outreach that will bode well for Stricklin with the passing of time. He wants fans to experience a winning and contending program, but whenever you show up at Foley Field, he wants you to enjoy yourself. One of those kids who took the opportunity to run the bases on Sunday could grow up to do the same in a Bulldog uniform one day.

My favorite postgame scene was of a little boy who looked to be about 4 years old. He stood near home plate until it was his turn to run the bases. Then he took off, legs pumping with the greatest of determination, pounding his way to first, deftly stepping on the bag, then on to second and third before breathlessly touching home plate as if he had just hit an inside-the-park home run. He was wearing flip-flops.

Eager young girls took a turn at running the bases. Proud fathers stood behind first base with their cameras, recording the moment — cellphone moments having replaced the Kodak moment.

In the home dugout on the first-base side of the field, before taking their showers and relishing their feel-good weekend, Georgia players were lined up with markers to sign the posters that fans of all ages were placing before them for autographs. The line stretched from first base into right field for 75 to 100 yards.

It was a day to remember.

This fan outreach is important to the Bulldogs’ baseball boss. Stricklin has also reached out to the former baseball lettermen. He appreciates the past and sends out a weekly game report, even when the news is not so good — like the past couple of weeks, when the Bulldogs were swept by Vanderbilt and Florida, two very fine SEC teams.  

In their final regular-season series on May 15-17, the Bulldogs will host Kentucky. Maybe there will be a postseason opportunity after that.

In June, whether or not this past weekend was a turning point, the construction crews will move in to start the Foley Field expansion.

There is no doubt, however, that seeing a few cranes in the sky at Foley will definitely be a turning point.



Loran Smith is a contributing columnist for The Daily Citizen. You can write to him at loransmith@sports.uga.edu.