Texas A&M (17-9; 3-3) at Georgia (14-11-1; 1-4-1)
Two steps forward, one step back. Fresh off picking up a very important series win at home over Florida to get back to .500 in SEC play, A&M fell flat on their faces in a midweek game at Olsen against a talented Sam Houston State team. The Aggies went just 4-for-32 (a paltry .125 average) in the midweek loss to SHSU and could not take advantage of 4 errors and 4 walks by the Bearkats. Ryan Hendrix got the start for A&M and after a 1-2-3 first inning which included a pair of strikeouts, the wheels fell off for the freshman and he was unable to get out of the 2nd inning. The 'Kats took a 4-0 lead in that 2nd inning, and that was more than enough run support to cruise to a victory based on the way A&M was hitting (or failing to hit) the ball. After the big series win over Florida, the Aggies had moved up to 55 in the too-early-to-worry-too-much-about RPI, but promptly dropped right back down to 65 after the loss to Sam Houston State.
Georgia, meanwhile, limps into this weekend's SEC series having lost 5 of their last 7 - and one of those 7 was a tie. The Bulldogs dropped consecutive SEC series to start the season against Mississippi State and LSU, although they avoided the sweep both times - winning Friday against MSU and tying Sunday's game against LSU due to travel curfew. Clemson visited Foley Field on Tuesday for a mdiweek game and comfortably took care of business against Georgia, winning by a final score of 16-4. The Bulldogs managed 4 runs on 6 hits in that game, but allowed Clemson to rack up 16 runs on 17 hits against 8 different UGA pitchers.
The Aggies and Bulldogs squared off at Olsen Field last season, with A&M sweeping the 3 game series. There is rain in the forecast for northern Georgia for part of the weekend, so don't be surprised if the teams end up having to play a doubleheader in some fashion.
Friday (6:00pm CT)
RHP Daniel Mengden (2-3, 3.24, 1.15, 46 K, 12 BB)
LHP Ryan Lawlor (2-2, 5.02, 1.57, 17 K, 13 BB)
For the second consecutive week, Daniel Mengden had early-game command issues that put A&M in an early hole. The Gators jumped out to a quick 2-0 lead against the Aggies' ace by tallying 3 hits, a walk, and a hit batter in the first inning, as well as an A&M error by Jonathan Moroney. Mengden allowed another run in the 3rd inning, although the damage could have been worse considering Florida had the bases loaded with no outs. Daniel settled down a bit after that and really competed on the mound to finish with 7 innings pitched, 3 runs allowed on 10 hits and a walk, and 7 strikeouts. The Aggies simply cannot afford to have Mengden continue these early game struggles, as it really makes for an uphill battle in taking the always important first game of the series.
The Bulldogs will hand the ball to southpaw Ryan Lawlor to start the series against A&M. Lawlor, a sophomore from Savannah, GA, is a JUCO transfer who played last season at Middle Georgia, where he went 7-1 with a 1.29 ERA. The 2014 season has gotten off to a bit of a rocky start for Lawlor, as his ERA and WHIP indicate, and he is allowing opponents to hit for a batting average of .296. Lawlor was unable to make it out of the 5th inning last Friday against LSU, allowing 4 runs on 8 hits with a strikeout and 3 walks. The previous weekend against Mississippi State, however, went much smoother for Lawlor. In that game, he scattered 8 hits over 7.2 innings and allowed just 1 unearned run while striking out 7 and not walking a batter.
Saturday (12:00pm CT)
RHP Grayson Long (3-0, 1.13, 1.08, 26 K, 12 BB)
RHP Robert Tyler (1-2, 1.91, 0.85, 21 K, 7 BB)
After 5 very strong starts on Sundays in which he only allowed 1 run, sophomore Grayson Long was moved into the Saturday role by head coach Rob Childress. While his outing against Florida was statistically his worst of the season, Grayson pitched well enough to earn his 3rd win of the year thanks to finally getting some run support from the Aggies' bats. A&M put up 4 runs in the 2nd inning, but the Gators would chip away at the lead with runs in the 3rd and 5th and 2 in the 6th. Long finished with 4 runs allowed on 9 hits and 2 walks to go with 4 strikeouts in 5.2 innings of work.
Robert Tyler - a true freshman from Cordele, GA and a 28th round draft pick of the Baltimore Orioles in 2013 - has been the highlight of the Bulldogs' weekend rotation so far this season. Tyler pitched quite well last Saturday against LSU and gave Georgia a great chance to win against LSU, but the 'Dawgs only managed 3 hits in the game. Tyler allowed 2 runs - 1 earned - on just 5 hits and 2 walks over 7.2 innings and struck out 4 batters. In his previous start against Mississippi State, Tyler tossed 6 innings and gave up 6 runs - 4 earned - on 5 hits and 3 walks with a pair of strikeouts.
Sunday (12:00pm CT)
RHP Tyler Stubblefield (3-1, 2.04, 1.19, 40 K, 10 BB)
LHP Patrick Boling (2-2, 3.26, 1.48, 13 K, 11 BB)
True freshman Tyler Stubblefield made the first weekend start of his A&M career on Sunday against the Gators, and pitched pretty well in order to keep A&M in the game. Stubblefield, who moved into the rotation at the expense of Saturday starter Parker Ray, got through 6 innings against Florida and gave up 2 runs on 5 hits and 2 walks while striking out 3 batters. It was a big spot for the true freshman, and on a couple of occasions he got some crucial outs to end a Florida threat and eventually allow A&M to go on and win the rubber match in the 11th inning.
Redshirt senior Patrick Boling has found himself in the Sunday role in 2014, and the results have been fairly mixed. Boling led the Bulldogs in innings pitched in the 2013 season, but ended the year with a record of 3-7 and a 4.17 ERA. Last weekend in the finale against LSU, Boling gave up 2 runs on 7 hits and 2 walks in 6 innings of work and did not strike out a batter. Georgia jumped out to an early 2-0 lead in that game, but Boling was unable to hold the lead against the Tigers. In his previous start against Mississippi State, Boling was unable to make it out of the 4th inning. He would take his 2nd loss of the season in that game, allowing 3 runs on 2 hits and 4 walks to go with 2 strikeouts in just 3.1 innings.
What to Watch
Georgia comes into this series averaging an even 6 runs per game so far in 2014, and their offensive statistics as a team are fairly similar from those of Texas A&M - with the exception of runs scored (A&M is averaging just 5.16/game). Another notable stat that stands out for the Bulldogs is the number of walks they've drawn - 138 on the season, or about once every 6 at bats. They have struck out a fair deal more than the Aggies have, however, going down on strikes once every 5 at bats. Here's how the 2 squads stack up from a hitting standpoint...
On the other hand, Georgia's pitching has largely not been a strength for them so far this season. The Bulldogs have given up an average of 5.38 runs per game, compared to just 2.92 runs per game that Aggie pitchers have allowed. Outside of Georgia's three weekend starters, there are only 2 pitchers on their staff who have pitched more than 5 innings and have an ERA of under 3. Senior RHP Dylan Cole has been the most reliable guy out of the bullpen for the 'Dawgs, sporting an ERA of 2.53 in 10.2 innings pitched, while RHP David Sosebee leads all non-starters in innings pitched (24.1 in 9 appearances) and has an ERA of 2.96. Junior LHP Jarrett Brown led the team in relief appearances (26) in 2013, but he has struggled so far this season and is currently sitting with an ERA of 6.06.
Here is my best guess at the lineup that the Bulldogs will feature this weekend.
Quick note here - somehow or another, the Georgia Athletics site does not list the batting/throwing details for their roster and also does not include it in any player bios. How that's possible is beyond my comprehension, so I relied on old Perfect Game bios for the Bulldogs' lineup. If those are all correct, that is an extremely left-handed lineup they've got there. Junior 3B Hunter Cole leads the Bulldogs in batting average so far in 2014 and has the second-highest slugging percentage, while junior SS Nelson Ward leads Georgia in a number of offensive categories - slugging percentage (.460), RBI (18), doubles (9 - tie), HR (2 - tie), walks (19), and stolen bases (8 - tie). Although he isn't included above, expect to see sophomore C/DH Zack Bowers (.256/.407/.371) see some time in the lineup this weekend as well.
Had the Aggies taken care of business against Sam Houston State in the midweek, I was going to struggle to pick between whether I think A&M wins this series or actually manages to sweep a team on the road. Instead, the Aggies not only lost to the Bearkats on Tuesday, they got annihilated in that game. Coach Childress seems unwilling to trot out a consistent lineup game in and game out, and A&M simply is not hitting the ball well enough right now. There are other issues for the Aggies as well, namely bad baserunning and a bit of sloppy fielding.
So, now I'm torn between whether or not I think A&M can actually win a series that - based solely on talent alone - they should absolutely be able to win. I've lost all faith in Coach Sawyers and the hitting approach that the team has, and Childress' constant tinkering with the lineup can't be helping either. And on top of all of that, the Aggies have not been good at all on the road so far in 2014 (2-5 record). All of those things are ultimately leading me to pick Georgia to win this series, 2 games to 1, which would be a very, very bad result for A&M looking forward.
I'll be out in Atlanta and then up to Athens on Friday, so I hope like hell that I'm wrong with that prediction. If you want updates from the trip and the games, be sure to follow me (@jzimmermann11) and @emmonsaggie on Twitter. BTHO Georgia!