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February 13, 2014

Something to prove

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Scott Stricklin's maiden voyage as head coach of the Georgia baseball team isn't being met with a lot of high expectations.

At least from the outside looking in.

Earlier this week, league coaches predicted the Bulldogs to finish sixth in the seven-team SEC East, although freshman outfielder Stephen Wrenn said nobody inside the Georgia locker room is conceding anything.

His (Stricklin's) first message to me was we were going to compete and we were going to get after it," the former Walton High standout said. "There may not be too many expectations for the team this year, but his expectations are very high and ours are as well."

First baseman Daniel Nichols agreed.

"It (low expectations) can be a good thing. Nobody is expecting anything from us, you know? We know we're going to make improvements from last year and we know this coaching staff will help us out big time," Nichols said. "But it's going to be important that we come out of the gate and be ready for Georgia Southern. That's our plan and we're expecting to do that."

The Bulldogs will just have to wait a little longer than expected as this week's winter storm forced Friday's scheduled opener to be pushed back to a season-opening doubleheader starting Saturday at noon.

"I think we've got some good versatility. I think we've got some guys who can hit with power in the middle, if we get everybody back, we've got some guys who can hit with power and we've got some guys that can bunt and run to put pressure on defenses," Stricklin said. "I think when you look at 1-2, 7-8-9 I think we're a team that causes trouble for defenses and 4-5-6 we can be a team that hits with a little bit of power. I like what we have offensively."

Unfortunately for the Bulldogs, they'll start the season minus two players who were expected to be key performers this spring.

Freshman Mike Bell, who was projected to start at shortstop, will miss the first few weeks of the season due to a broken hand, forcing junior Nelson Ward - who has 54 career starts at second base - to make his first career start at short for Saturday's double-header. Junior transfer Cody McCance will start at second.

Bell isn't the only missing Bulldog.

Georgia will also be without pitcher/outfielder Jared Walsh for the first nine games of the season after violating team rules, meaning the earliest he will be able to return is the Feb. 28 game against Binghamton.

"We're very thin and a little banged up right now. Michael Bell is a little banged up right now at the beginning of the season with his hand and we've got (Walsh) gone and that hurt's our depth," Stricklin said. "We need to have everybody healthy and we need to have everybody on board once we get into SEC that's for sure."

Fortunately for the Bulldogs, the start of SEC play is still a month away as Georgia does not open the conference portion of its schedule until March 14 against Mississippi State.

Ward is Georgia's top returning hitter while the top power threats back are junior outfielder Hunter Cole and sophomore catcher Zack Bowers. Ward batted .306-2-19 last year while Cole hit .303-4-33 and Bowers finished at .240-6-16.

Stricklin is counting on Wrenn making a big impact atop the Bulldogs' batting order.

A third-team All-American in 2013 according to Baseball America, the 28th-round draft pick last June by the Atlanta Braves, gives Georgia a legitimate stolen base threat after combining for 51 steals in junior and senior campaigns at Walton High.

As a senior, the 6-foot-2, 175-pounder batted .445 with five home runs, 33 RBI and 29 steals. He followed that up by helping lead the East Cobb Yankees to the 2013 Connie Mack World Series Championship.

"It's been crazy. It's been very nice having a coaching staff like this. They've let me know what I'm going to do, they've been honest with me and communicating with me, telling me what is expected," Wrenn said. "It's definitely exciting. I know it's a big role for me but I'm excited for that and I expect a lot from myself."

So does Stricklin.

"He's played from the first pitch and through the fall he's been one of our best guys. He's beyond his year's maturity wise," Stricklin said. "He's handled it well playing at Walton High and East Cobb. He's seen the competition so he's not going to be intimidated at all."

Stricklin feels even better about what he's got on the mound, particularly when it comes to his pitching depth.

"I just think overall the depth of our pitching staff. I think we've got a lot of guys who can contribute and when you look at championship teams you usually see 8-10 guys really contributing and I see 8 or 10 doing that for us," he said. "So I think the depth of our pitching staff is what stands out, that and the lack of depth from our position players."

Sophomore Sean McLaughlin will once again anchor the staff for the Bulldogs after earning All-Freshman SEC honors last year following his 5-6 campaign which saw him post a 3.28 ERA.

McLaughlin will start Saturday's first game with sophomore lefty Ryan Lawlor making his Bulldog debut in Game 2.

On Sunday at 1 p.m., it will be Bulldog senior left-hander Patrick Boling (3-7, 4.17 ERA in 2013) taking the mound.

Stricklin added he's excited the direction his program is heading - both on and off the field.

Last week, the University of Georgia Athletic Association Board of Directors approved a $12 million expenditure for renovations of Foley Field, which is set to begin at the end of the 2014 campaign and be completed in time for Opening Day of 2015.

"I'm just really excited. I'm excited that we're going to have that kind of momentum, with the new coaching staff, all the things we've got going here. We've got a good recruiting class coming in and now we've got a new stadium. It's like a snowball going downhill and it's getting bigger, bigger and bigger. That was important to get the green light on that. We knew it was going to happen eventually," Stricklin said. "Originally we thought it was going to happen at the end of the 2015 season but the guys and gals in the Bulldog Club did a great job of going out there and talking to people, there's a lot of excitement and a lot of people wanted to be a part of that. It gives us momentum, excitement for the program and gives us something to look forward to."

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