Difficult circumstances seemed to follow the Georgia baseball team everywhere it went this season.
Despite a scary injury that left Johnathan Taylor in a wheelchair and a ravenous schedule that left no room for error, the Bulldogs proved more than just resilient.
Georgia went 33-32 this year, finished with the fourth-best record in the Southeastern Conference and made the SEC tournament’s final four. The Bulldogs advanced to the NCAA regionals and were the last team eliminated in Corvallis, Ore., when they lost to 6-4 to Oregon State late Sunday.
Georgia put the memories of a 16-37 record in 2010 in the past and not only returned to the top half of the SEC, but won its way to an NCAA regional.
The team liked to joke that it preferred to do things the hard way. Although the Bulldogs seemed to put themselves in tough situations more often than they should, they played their best when the consequences of losing were dire.
Michael Palazzone (10-5, 3.14 ERA) won five straight Saturdays after the Bulldogs had dropped SEC series openers on Friday.
Although not necessarily a natural leadoff hitter, Levi Hyams batted a team-high .332 with 49 runs scored. Kyle Farmer started the season batting .220, but raised his average to .308 and led the team with eight home runs and 58 RBIs. Tyler Maloof broke Joshua Fields’ school record for saves with 18.
Georgia had two signature moments in 2011. The first came in the immediate aftermath of Taylor’s injury when it won five straight, including a 6-2 victory at UCLA against probable top-10 draft pick Gerrit Cole.
The second came in the SEC Tournament when the Bulldogs won three straight elimination games to qualify for the postseason.
Georgia had limped through the first couple of weeks of the season and sat at 3-8 after Taylor broke his neck in a 7-5 loss to Florida State. Instead of sinking into depression and a second straight losing season, the team rebounded to play some of its best baseball to build momentum going into the conference season.
Georgia’s most clutch performance came in the SEC Tournament. After Vanderbilt beat Palazzone and the Bulldogs 10-0 and allowed just one hit, Georgia needed to win three straight to extend its season.
The Bulldogs beat Auburn (3-2), defending national champion South Carolina (4-2) and national No. 2 seed Florida (4-3) to reach an NCAA regional.
Just 16 months after Chance Veazey was paralyzed in a scooter accident, tragedy struck again when Taylor broke his neck in an outfield collision. The team never really recovered from the shock of seeing another teammate in a wheelchair.
Taylor did not stray far from the Bulldogs’ minds off the field. On the field, his absence opened holes in the lineup that they couldn’t quite cover.
Taylor had been the leadoff hitter in 2010. He had reclaimed that position and had the game-winning RBI against Florida State the night before his injury.
The top of Georgia’s batting order did not settle after Taylor’s injury. A succession of No. 2 batters rotated between Hyams and Farmer, but the spot never stabilized.
Experiments also continued in the outfield, but Perno couldn’t find a combination that had the range of Cone, Taylor and Peter Verdin.
Georgia’s preseason schedule included big-conference opponents Florida State, Baylor, UCLA, USC, Georgia Tech and Clemson.
For a team coming off of a 16-37 year, it also seemed a bit ambitious, especially when four of those teams eventually hosted NCAA regionals.
Although the Bulldogs won enough against highly-ranked opponents to build an impressive RPI, they also lost enough to turn the last two weeks of the season into a thrill ride as the team tried to finish above .500.
With that kind of nonconference competition, losses to small-conference opponents like Mercer, Kennesaw State and Furman seemed to count double and the Bulldogs had to make up ground in the SEC.
Perno plans to dial back the level of nonconference difficulty beginning next season.
Although traditional rivals Georgia Tech and Clemson are untouchable, don’t expect to see home-and-home series against teams like Florida State and Baylor anytime soon.
Georgia won its way to the NCAA regionals with more toughness than talent, and lack of depth was a problem all season.
But this week’s Major League draft makes restocking the roster an issue. Professional money cut a swath through last year’s recruiting class, especially the pitchers. So retaining arms is a priority.
Three of the most talented Bulldogs – Cone, Palazzone and Hyams – are juniors and will probably have contracts waved in their faces this summer. High-end recruits like Nick Delmonico, Dante Bichette Jr. and Tyler Greene might also have to decide between the working world and college.
But next season doesn’t depend on new blood. The incoming junior class has three of Georgia’s steadiest performers – Farmer, Alex Wood and Blake Dieterich.
First-year players Curt Powell, Jonathan Hester, Conor Welton and Brandon Stephens became solid contributors and should be ready to take a step forward in their development.
Perno needs to lose as few to the professional ranks as possible.
However, convincing players to stay will be a lot easier now than it was last year.
• Roger Clarkson is a sportswriter for the Athens Banner-Herald.E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.