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HOOVER, Ala. -- Georgia wasn't expected to be here this long.
The Bulldogs entered the SEC tournament with high hopes of solidifying their place in the NCAA postseason. But after getting run-ruled by Vanderbilt in their opening game on Wednesday, that very much seemed in doubt.
They were sluggish, bad, and certainly anything but clutch against the Commodores. Since then? The Bulldogs have been the opposite.
It started with a solid win over Auburn in an elimination game on Thursday, and continued Friday with a surprising 4-2 win over South Carolina.
"No doubt this team has shown its true identity [the past two days]," Georgia coach Dave Perno said. "We've had a lot of success this season when we've gotten off to a quick start."
With their season on the line Friday, the Bulldogs sent sophomore left-handed pitcher Blake Dieterich to the mound. Dieterich has logged some solid innings this season, but certainly wasn't expected to outduel South Carolina starting pitcher Colby Holmes. He did.
Dieterich ran into some command issues early in the contest, but settled down in the middle innings to put together a solid start. He struck out only two batters (and walked four), but allowed just two runs on six hits in 6 1/3 innings.
"It has been a while for Dieterich. He didn't have any rhythm early and was rigid, not aiming at all and pushing the ball too much," Perno said. "It's unfortunate he had so many early struggles because his middle innings were pretty darn good. He's pretty good when we jump off to an early lead.
Dieterich wasn't alone in taking care of business on the mound. Reliever Bryan Benzor allowed just two hits (no runs) in 1 2/3 innings, while closer Tyler Maloof successfully executed his 17th save of the season with a perfect ninth inning that included a strike out.
"[Maloof] has a great background, is tough minded, nothing rattles him, and it helps that he has a good arm and breaking ball. We've held him back a little this year, so he hasn't pitched a whole lot," Perno said. "He's got some good stuff between the ears and he's going to be a pretty special arm in the years to come."
The Bulldogs now know the task ahead. Win at least one game against Florida on Saturday and they're in the postseason with at least 31 wins. Lose the first game to the Gators and the Bulldogs are done, both in the SEC tourney and when it comes to the NCAA tourney by virtue of the .500 rule.
Beating the rested Gators, who will start either weekend starter Brian Johnson or Karsten Whitson will be an incredibly difficult chore. But this Georgia team has overcome a serious injury to a teammate and other adversity this season.
With their season and a postseason berth on the line Saturday, Jonathan Taylor, who suffered a serious spinal injury earlier this season, will be in attendance.
As if the Bulldogs needed another source of motivation.
"J.T. will be with us tomorrow, and it should be a big, emotional day for us," Kyle Farmer said.
ALL IS RIGHT WITH RYNE … FOR NOW
Arkansas just might have the bullet it needs to make some noise in the NCAA tournament, and his name is Ryne Stanek.
To Arkansas fans, Stanek entered Friday's contest against Alabama with the label of inconsistent freshman. But to those on the national stage, his start was viewed with much intrigue. Stanek, after all, was one of the more highly touted high school prospects last summer, and chose to attend college despite getting offered significant money as a third-round pick to the Seattle Mariners.
Arkansas coach Dave Van Horn was ecstatic last summer when the talented right-hander decided on college, and he certainly expected Stanek to step in and be a big-time contributor. But as with many freshmen, Stanek has fought consistency issues this spring, and he entered the Alabama game with a 4.75 ERA, coming off a start against Ole Miss where he failed to get out of the first inning.
That start against the Rebels had everyone fooled. Stanek definitely has the ability to be the real deal, as he topped 96 mph and threw a slider, curveball and fastball for strikes in a 4-1 triumph over the Crimson Tide in an elimination game.
"I thought we played extremely well, but it all starts on the mound. He [Stanek] probably threw his best game of the season, and it was a good time for it," Van Horn said. "He really pitched well and in and out, and gave us a chance to get a lead. He did a tremendous job."
Though pleased with his start, Van Horn and the Razorbacks were gun shy about Stanek before the game. They contemplated starting left-hander Cade Lynch, but realized the Crimson Tide hit their lefties well in the first meeting in Hoover. That put the weight on Stanek's shoulders.
While Stanek has shown much potential at times this season, starting him also has back fired at times. For instance, in Stanek's last six starts (including Friday), he has been good, bad, good, bad, good and bad. In other words, inconsistent.
"It's about staying in control. The last game [against Ole Miss] I had too many moving parts. I was rushing things and I just have to learn how to have a short memory or you're not going to last very long," Stanek said. "A game like this breeds confidence and I just need to keep getting better each game without letting any bad game set me back."
Against the Crimson Tide, the righty struck out five (walked three) and allowed a run on two hits in 7 2/3 innings. He also threw three pitches for strikes (slider, fastball, curveball) and also threw one change up.
"We didn't have a lot of tape or anything on him, but we knew he had a big-time arm. I wasn't expecting his command to be what it was. But I knew we were going to be dealing with a live arm," Alabama coach Mitch Gaspard said. "He was spotting up his fastball, and the hitters kept coming back to the dugout saying this guy has really, really good stuff."
With the fantastic start by Stanek, Van Horn suddenly has a tough decision to make. Though Stanek has been inconsistent, he showed Friday that he can prevail in a tight situation, against a good team and in a stressful venue, perhaps serving as the springboard for a pitcher oozing with talent.
Only time will tell if this performance was the true turning point.
"Ryne is starting to see that you can be good [early in your career]," Van Horn said. "He's got a good arm, but is a little behind in his development and mechanics, and a lot of mental. He's in a tough league, but I think he grew up a lot today."
Kendall Rogers is the college baseball editor for Perfect Game USA and has covered the sport for over 10 seasons. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org