Georgia started its 2012 season with optimism and expectations of a return to the College World Series.
But the abrupt end left Bulldogs coach David Perno scratching his head and wondering what happened to the senior-laden team that lost four of its last five and played its way out of an NCAA regional bid in the last week of the season to finish.
“I can’t put my finger on it,” Perno said. “We pitched better than we have in years. We had the best defense in school history. Obviously, when you look at it, we didn’t score enough. But there’s more to it than that and I’ve just got to figure it out. There’s some things I probably didn’t do a very good job in managing. There’s some intangibles that this team was lacking.
“I can’t put my finger on it, but it’s hard to believe that we pitched like we did and we played defense like we did and are not getting the opportunity to play next weekend.”
The downward spiral at the end of the season sparked speculation about Perno’s future with the program. But Georgia athletic director Greg McGarity squashed rumors of a coaching change last week. Georgia finished the season with a 31-26 record, including 14-15 in the Southeastern Conference regular season. Georgia was seeded eighth in the SEC Tournament and exited after losing its first two games.
Georgia returned one of its biggest senior classes in Perno’s tenure for the 2012 season, including Levi Hyams who had been one of the cornerstones of the offense and Michael Palazzone who had anchored the weekend rotation as juniors. But neither even came close to matching the previous season’s production. Palazzone’s record dropped from 10-5 to 2-7 and his ERA ballooned from 3.14 to 4.96. Hyams had been a combined .311 hitter his first three years at Georgia but his averaged plummeted into the .220 range much of the season and ended at .250. Of the four senior starters, Peter Verdin had the only career year as he hit .307 with three triples and 15 stolen bases.
When Georgia needed wins the most at the end of the season, it couldn’t produce there either. Georgia lost its last four games by a total of 10 runs and was shut out by last-place Alabama .
“I appreciate what the seniors have done but this year we didn’t do enough,” Perno said. “That’s a tough pill to swallow. I understand. My sympathy is with them. But we didn’t get it out of them and ultimately the responsibility falls on me. For whatever reason, I just did a poor job of managing those seniors because we didn’t the type of production we expected.”
Before the season even started, projected closer Tyler Maloof went down with a lat injury and never returned. Perno said on Monday that Maloof will not be back next season.
In addition to the seniors, Georgia will likely lose redshirt sophomore Alex Wood (7-3, 2.73 ERA) who is projected as a first-day selection in next week’s Major League draft. Third baseman Curt Powell led Georgia with a .355 batting average and shortstop Kyle Farmer had a team-high 41 RBIs to go with a .302 average. Both are juniors and eligible for the draft but Perno believes they have at least an even chance of returning. Georgia probably won’t get help from their top recruit, Byron Buxton. The Appling County outfielder is projected as high as the No. 1 pick by the Houston Astros in the upcoming draft.
Georgia will return its top home run hitter Hunter Cole who will be a sophomore next year. Despite missing nearly two weeks with a chest muscle strain, Cole batted .276 with seven home runs and 23 RBIs. Sophomore starting outfielder Conor Welton and senior catcher-designated hitter Brett DeLoach should be back. Freshmen Justin Bryan, Nelson Ward and Jared Walsh were part-time starters and among Georgia’s most effective players at the end of the season.
The weekend rotation will likely get an overhaul without Wood and Palazzone. But freshmen Pete Nagel, Luke Crumley, Jay Swinford and Jarrett Brown pitched heavy innings and could be ready for expanded roles next season.
“When you break down the numbers and you look at what our freshmen did this year, they hit half of our home runs and they were collectively .270 (batting average),” Perno said. “It wasn’t a great batting average but they did a lot more than some of the other classes. You look at that and you’re good on that. You look at potentially the seniors coming back. … So we’ve got a good nucleus of veterans and you throw it in there with the good production that we got from our freshmen class this year. Then you at the freshmen coming in and they’re potentially the best class we’ve ever had. Everything happens for a reason. We’ll figure it out and we’ll get it right.”