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We’re only eight games into the baseball season, but already the Georgia Southern Eagles have provided some surprises and some not-so-surprises.
Either way, even though they played three against MEAC upstart N.C. Central, a 6-2 record was just what the doctor ordered to shake off last season’s Southern Conference tournament.
Not so surprising
— Eric Phillips.
The junior shortstop has been quietly going about his business at the plate this season. All he’s done is gotten off to a .433 start with four doubles and a homer. The numbers seem pretty great on the surface, but when you consider that two years ago, as a true freshman, he spent time as the cleanup hitter in a lineup with Ty Wright, Phillip Porter, Griffin Benedict, A.J. Wirnsberger and Kyle Blackburn, you just kind of knew there was something to this kid.
— The leadoff spot.
Only in college baseball is it not surprising that your leadoff hitter also leads the team in strikeouts. But Shawn Payne also leads the team in walks (8 — twice as many as anybody else), doubles (5) and stolen bases (5). And when your on-base percentage is .553, you can afford to go down on strikes every once in a while.
— A 6-2 start.
Looking over the schedule before the season started, you kind of got the feeling that a 6-2 start would have GSU in good shape heading into this week. The only surprise there was that one of the losses came in the season opener against George Washington and one of the wins came in the two-game midweek series against then-No. 19 Georgia Tech.
I don’t care who you are or who you’re playing — a team ERA of 2.34 is sick in college baseball. Granted, earned run average is one of those stats that doesn’t tell you much until there’s at least a double-digit sampling of games to draw from, but the fact of the matter is that the Eagles are outscoring opponents 86-26 and have already pitched three shutouts.
Runs are hard to score, but giving up none through nine innings is even harder.
True freshman Ben Morgan has been out in the field in every inning, and barring any unforeseen circumstances, is the guy at second base. Either Georgia Southern is very, very lucky or coach Rodney Hennon is one heck of a recruiter (a little bit of both, if you ask me), but GSU seems to have a knack for finding kids who can be four-year starters in the middle infield.
Then you have Justin Piccolo, a junior-college transfer who has already spent time at first, third and behind the plate, Steve Cochrane who hits from both sides of the plate and, while he has spent a bulk of his time at first can catch and play outfield, Andy Moye, who pitches, plays third and first and Brent Pugh, who has only started twice but is hitting a cool .643 with nine hits in 13 at-bats.
In the outfield, Payne is your centerfielder, but you can plug in Michael Burruss, Arthur Owens, Scooter Williams, Victor Roache, the aforementioned Cochrane and D.J. Henderson.
— The weaknesses.
The bottom line is that the losses were due in large part to errors (11 on the season) and unearned runs (7).
There is plenty of depth for pitching, fielding and pinch-hit situations, but a lot of it is young, and youth equals a lot of mistakes.
As for the pitching, the weekend starters haven’t exactly run out there against offensive juggernauts. While the numbers look good, the SoCon schedule hasn’t started yet. You can bet that once it does, this staff is going to be asked questions it hasn’t even thought about.
Once league play gets underway, you can bet these guys – who are all new to the weekend rotation - are going to be asked to go out there and win a ballgame and put the team on their backs. Chris Beck has put up big numbers, but hasn’t really been asked to go out there and just be flat-out better than the other team’s ace. Yet.
To me, that will be the difference between a 40ish-win season with a bid to the NCAAs and a trip to the bubble heading in to the SoCon tournament.
Matt Yogus can be reached at (912) 489-9408.