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Georgia had just beaten highly ranked UCLA and the nation’s top pitcher in Gerrit Cole with young sophomore left-handed pitcher Alex Wood going toe-to-toe with the imposing right-hander.
Yet, as Georgia coach Dave Perno was leaving Jackie Robinson Stadium in Los Angeles following his club’s important victory, there was no smile from ear-to-ear. Instead, there was the look of a tired man in the midst of an exhausting week.
Just days earlier, the Bulldogs were playing Florida State on Sunday in an important series finale. In that game, junior outfielder Johnathan Taylor was injured, carted off the field, and transported to a hospital in nearby Atlanta.
A full prognosis on Taylor’s injury still isn’t known at this time, but what we do know is that Taylor is progressing well, but still in the Intensive Care Unit at the Shepherd Center, which specializes in rehabilitation for spinal cord injuries.
Taylor’s injury was déjà vu all over again for Perno. Before last season, talented freshman Chance Veazey was driving home on his scooter when he collided with a car. As with Taylor, Veazey suffered major spinal cord injuries and still is rehabbing the injury a year later.
The Bulldogs and Perno were emotionally spent by Veazey’s accident, never recovered and finished the 2010 season with a dismal 16-37 record.
They vow not to go down that path again this season. They were 3-8 following the series loss to Florida State, and had previously lost a road series to Stetson and struggled in midweek affairs against Furman.
Fortunes have since changed for the Bulldogs. They’ve won five-straight contests since Taylor’s injury, and the list includes some solid opponents, including Mercer, Alabama, UCLA, St. Mary’s and Southern California.
“We have a picture of J.T. in our dugout. Last year when Veazey got into his accident, we kind of didn’t come back from the injury and respond the way we should have,” Georgia’s Kyle Farmer said. “J.T. was a great player, a great life to this team, and it’s almost like he’s physically with the team right now.”
“We look at J.T. and he fights all the time. We want to take that aspect to the field each time we’re out there,” he said. “We don’t want to back down from anyone this season. We want to go out there and leave our mark.”
The Bulldogs pitching staff, in particular, left their mark on the trip to California. Wood struck out 11 in seven innings in the victory over UCLA, junior right-handed pitcher Michael Palazzone struck out eight in seven innings in a victory over USC and junior left-handed pitcher Craig Gullickson, who didn’t pitch opening weekend this season, struck out four and allowed no runs in five innings in a victory over St. Mary’s.
Relievers Patrick Boling and Blake Dieterich have helped stabilize the bullpen, while junior right-hander Tyler Maloof is doing a good job in the closer’s role with a 2.45 ERA and six saves in 7 1/3 innings.
“When you have a pitching staff like we do with a lot of guys who have been in the program but haven’t pitched that much, it causes some issues at times,” Perno said. “Maloof has been money in the closer role and Dieterich is starting to throw well. In a perfect world, we’re at the point now where you always want to start the season.”
Piecing things together hasn’t been easy for the Bulldogs. Gullickson missed the first weekend and Wood missed his Week 2 start against Baylor. The two, though, finally are healthy, clear of any off-the-field issues and in the rotation for good.
“The most frustrating thing for us is that we knew the first few weeks what we were capable of, but we just didn’t show it at all,” Wood said. “Then that injury with J.T. happened and it really made us think about our lives a bit. With each time we go out there and have success, we know deep down it’s putting a smile in his face.”
At just 8-8 on the season, the Bulldogs have plenty of work to do the rest of the spring to return to the NCAA postseason after missing the tournament last season. But we’ll know much more about where the team and pitching staff stands after the next seven games, which should be considered Georgia’s murderer’s row.
The Bulldogs open SEC play this weekend at South Carolina, then face rival Georgia Tech in midweek action before returning home to play red-hot LSU.
Finishing that stretch with a winning record will be a difficult chore, but nothing seems out of reach for this club. Just two weekends ago, the Bulldogs were given the ultimate test of adversity with the injury to Johnathan Taylor. They responded by putting together an impressive week.
“We feel great right now and we’re playing with a lot of enthusiasm,” Georgia’s Chase Davidson said. “We knew were going to get things going eventually, and now it looks like we have. Things are suddenly going great.”
This isn’t last year’s Georgia team.
For that reason and more, Perno should crack a smile.
Kendall Rogers is the managing editor of college baseball for Perfect Game USA and has covered the sport for over 10 seasons. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org