Of the six teams Scott Stricklin has coached for Georgia baseball, the 2019 team was the one most likely to make a postseason run.
The 2019 Bulldogs finished the regular season with a 42-14 record and was led by a defense that set a school-record fielding percentage of .980. They also had the best pitching staff in school history, collectively setting two school records with 601 strikeouts and the lowest opponent batting average of .200.
It was an improvement from 2018, when the Bulldogs finished 39-21 and ended their season by losing two straight games at Foley Field at the hands of Duke.
2019 was supposed to be different. Georgia’s NCAA Regional opponent, Florida State, disagreed.
The Bulldogs hosted the 2019 NCAA Baseball Athens Regional as the No. 4 national seed. Then, they watched as another team advanced on their own field — just like the year before.
Following the end of last season, eight players were drafted in the 2019 MLB Draft — the most for Georgia since 2009. Two of those eight, Cam Shepherd and Riley King, decided to come back.
Shepherd, who has started at shortstop in every game for three years, announced his return to Georgia on Twitter less than 24 hours after Georgia’s postseason elimination.
His tweet meant the Bulldogs would have their best defensive player returning for another season. It also started Georgia’s theme this year — unfinished business.
“When I was putting together the tweet, I kind of put it like what my mindset was,” Shepherd said. “And that was kind of what it was. I feel like we had unfinished business here. I feel like I had unfinished business here, which is why I decided to come back.”
After posting a .987 fielding percentage that set an individual school record in 2019, Shepherd was awarded the Rawlings Gold Glove Award, which is given to the “finest in the field” at his position.
Like Shepherd, King chose to return after being drafted. Also like Shepherd, King started in every game of 2019 for the Bulldogs. However, his decision to return wasn’t initially as clear as Shepherd’s.
“Riley was kind of on the fence,” Stricklin said. “We had a lot of conversations about what he wanted to do. At the end of the day, his goal was to win a championship [at Georgia] and then play in the big leagues.”
Georgia is expected to be as solid defensively as it was a year ago. While replacing pitchers Tony Locey and Tim Elliott brings forth early concerns, the Bulldogs return right-handed pitchers Emerson Hancock — who finished last season with a team-best 1.99 ERA — and Cole Wilcox, who finished with a 2.57 ERA in SEC games last season.
Georgia needs to find replacements for its best hitters from 2019. The Bulldogs had three players finish with a batting average over .300 last season — Aaron Schunk, LJ Talley and John Cable — and lost all three.
Outfielder Tucker Bradley’s return to the lineup should help. After earning a .299 batting average in 2018, he missed all but three games last season due to injury.
Shepherd and King are the only active players to hit more than three home runs in a single season, so scoring might have to come from solid situational hitting.
The Bulldogs open 2020 with high expectations from D1Baseball.com, which ranks them as the No. 5 team in the country. Georgia hopes this will be the year the Bulldogs put the pieces together in the postseason and avoid another postseason collapse.