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Loran Smith: Stricklin’s family friendly atmosphere palpable

Turning points are easily identified when you look back.

You can’t define a turning point as developments take place, which is why Georgia taking a baseball series from South Carolina does not 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. Though this team is not an underachieving lot, they have experienced disappointing shortfalls.

Nonetheless, the Bulldogs have in Scott Stricklin a coach who believes there is still time for his players to become a good team — even with eight games left on the schedule. Seldom has a coach who has worn the red and black accentuated the positive more than this Ohio native, who is finally getting a sun tan.

Sunday was the warmest day of the spring. A sold out crowd — the third in a row —was given an electric dose of adrenalin when Daniel Nichols powered a grand slam in the third inning which, as it turned out, was all that was needed to defeat the Gamecocks 5-3.

As Nichols blast cleared the fence, there were immediate flashbacks to the many times when the Bulldogs have had the bases loaded this year and runners were LOB, a stat which needs to be positive.

If you recall, Stricklin came to town emphasizing consistency; his teams would hit and run, take the extra base. Stealing bases would be a high priority. The long ball would be appreciated, but not expected.

Nichols’ long ball Sunday was the best tonic in a while.

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

I liked the Sunday series clincher: With three outs to go, the Gamecocks, who did not go quietly, used a pair of doubles in the ninth inning to narrow the margin. The Bulldog pitching stiffened and sent most fans home with a smile on their face. Some, like 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 will grow up to run the bases in a Bulldog uniform one day.

A little boy, who looked to be about 4 years old, stood near home plate until it was his turn to run the bases. 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 and 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.

Over in the first-base dugout, the Georgia players, before taking their showers and relishing their feel-good weekend, were lined up with their sharpies to sign the posters, which fans of all ages were placing before them. The line, initially, stretched from first base into right field for 75 to 100 yards.

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

In two weeks, there will be that last home stand with Kentucky. Maybe there will be a postseason opportunity. 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 that seeing a few cranes in the sky at Foley Field will be thought of as a turning point.

Loran Smith is a contributing columnist for the Athens Banner-Herald.

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RT @chris_starrs: UGA’s Christian Payne saw his first playing time last week against Arkansas. http://t.co/eFBPVIEFWV

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