This time a year ago, Georgia’s baseball players had already cleared their lockers and scattered for the summer after a forgettable season.
On Monday, the Bulldogs began to jubilantly pack their bags for a trip to the NCAA postseason.
Georgia (31-30) will head to the Corvallis (Ore.) Regional as the No. 3 seed and will play No. 2 Creighton (44-14) on Friday. Top-seeded Oregon State (38-17) and No. 4 Arkansas-Little Rock (24-32) will play in the other half of the bracket. Game times will be released later Monday.
Georgia right-hander Michael Palazzone (10-4, 3.24 ERA) will likely start against the Blue Jays with left-hander Alex Wood (5-7, 4.53) starting Game 2.
“I’m just glad we got (a bid),” Georgia second baseman Levi Hyams said. “We were all sitting on edge watching that thing and when our name popped up, we just freaked out. We don’t care where we’re going as long as we get to go.”
Monday’s announcement packed some suspense for the Bulldogs as they watched on the clubhouse television. Likely destinations Georgia Tech, Clemson and Florida State passed without mentioning Georgia which left the players scratching their heads.
“We were all pretty confident that we’d get into a regional,” Palazzone said. “But as the thing kept going, it made us kind of think twice. But it was good to see.”
The NCAA announced the Oregon State regional third from the last of the 16 sites which ignited a celebration in the clubhouse. Georgia will make its 10th NCAA regional appearance in school history and its sixth under David Perno. Georgia’s last trip to the regionals was in 2009.
“It was a little nerve-wracking, I’ll tell you that,” Hyams said. “We were watching everything roll by and we were wondering, ‘What’s going on? Where are we going? A lot of the ones around us are getting filled up.’ But I knew coming back from the Southeastern Conference Tournament once we got that last win, we knew we were going to get one because our strength of schedule is unreal.
“We did really well. We improved all year. We played tough against the toughest teams, even the ones we didn’t pull off. We’re still improving and we’ve got more left in the tank.”
Georgia dramatically improved its level of play this season. After going 16-37 in 2010, the Bulldogs finished with the fourth-best record in the SEC regular season, compiled the No. 16 RPI in the nation and tied for third place in the conference tournament. The Bulldogs won games against four of the top eight national seeds – No. 2 Florida, No. 4 and defending national champion South Carolina, No. 5 Florida State and No. 6 Vanderbilt. Georgia wrote most of its postseason resume after Johnathan Taylor was paralyzed in an outfield collision against Florida State on March 6.
“You couldn’t keep this team home,” Perno said. “We’ve done too much. There’s too many big wins against national seeds and hosts. There were too many road wins. There’s just a lot of good things.”
Monday’s announcement capped a thrilling ride for the Bulldogs over the past week. Georgia needed three wins at the double-elimination SEC tournament to finish above .500 and qualify for a spot in the regionals.
After Georgia opened the SEC Tournament with a 10-0, one-hit loss to Vanderbilt, the Bulldogs rallied to win three straight elimination games, including 4-2 against South Carolina and 4-3 against Florida. Georgia didn’t make the SEC title game, but its strength of schedule and winning overall record put the team into the field.
“We’re all feeling pretty confident right now,” Palazzone said. “The past month or so has been a pretty good preview of what we’re going to face out there, so it should play to our advantage. We’re looking forward to it. It’s going to be fun to see some different teams.”
Georgia went 3-0 on a West Coast trip in March, winning 6-2 at UCLA, 5-3 at Southern Cal and 3-0 against St. Mary’s in Dodger Stadium. Georgia lost two of three in its last visit to Oregon State in 2008. Georgia has never played Creighton.
“That first trip to the West Coast was a lot of fun for us,” Hyams said. “We took care of business there and hopefully we can keep it going.”