Special Day At SunTrust For Mizzou, UGa.

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ATLANTA – The draw was the ballpark. The game was about more than that for Missouri and Georgia, who settled their series with the Tigers’ 6-1 victory Saturday. On a picturesque day at brand new SunTrust Park just north of Atlanta, Missouri rode a pair of pitchers to limit Georgia to four hits and received a three-run home run from Trey Harris to clinch the series, two games to one.

The announced attendance of 33,025 was the second largest crowd in college baseball history behind the 2004 opening of Petco Park in San Diego, where San Diego State and Houston drew over 40,106.

“The crowd was huge,” said Georgia first baseman Adam Sasser. “really special. Our fans really got behind us.”

The home state team did not give the locals much to cheer about, but many of the fans were there to get a peek at the new MLB facility.

“It is top-notch facility,” added Sasser. “I don’t think you could do anything else with it to make it any better. The playing surface was really nice. There were not any bad hops.”

“It was fun with all these people here,” said Georgia DH Michael Curry. “It was pretty awesome. The most important thing to remember for all of us to understand it is still just the same game we played growing up.”

It wasn’t just the players and fans who were raving about the new yard.

“What an outstanding venue,” said Missouri coach Steve Bieser. “If you can’t get excited and pumped up to play in a stadium like this, something is wrong. How can it not make your players see what it is like in the big leagues and say, ‘All that hard work is worth this’? What a beautiful place. I have been in several myself and played in them but when you walk in, it is surreal.”

Missouri Streaking

After consecutive series losses, Missouri’s win Saturday was just what the Tigers needed. After their early season 20-game winning streak, they dropped a series at Arkansas and were swept at home by Florida. The Tigers snapped a seven-game losing streak with a win over Georgia on Friday. With a 20-game winning streak and a seven-game losing streak, how do you explain the streaky play?

“I think a lot of it has to do with age,” said Bieser. “When you look at us age-wise, we may not be a young club but we are an inexperienced club. We have a lot of junior college transfers playing for the first time in the SEC. We have freshmen we count on. We have guys who didn’t have a lot of success last year having to bounce back. We have everyone learning a new system. Anytime you win 20 games in a row, you start thinking about yourself a little differently. We kind of had that belief that it was going to happen for us. Then when you lose one, it snowballs and you have to right the ship. I thought this was a weekend that we showed that we could battle through the adversity. We have a tough weekend next week (vs. Kentucky), we just have to continue to build off of that.”

An intriguing subplot to this series victory centered on the Saturday game starter Bryce Montes de Oca. The 6-foot-7, 260-pound junior righthander is an intriguing pro prospect. As a freshman in 2015, he showed flashes flirting with three digits on the gun. He made six starts and was 3-1, 2.67 in 30.1 innings. Last season he was injured after recording the first out of his first appearance.

Healthy this season, Montes de Oca has made six starts and is 3-1, 2.70. He appears to have solidified Missouri’s third starter role after six innings of two-hit ball against Georgia Saturday.

“I think Coach (Patrick) Hallmark has done an outstanding job with him, just working on him being an overall athlete,” said Bieser. “Also by giving him the opportunity to be a starter in the fall and throw 60, 70 pitches an outing. Then he was able to be a midweek starter and get his feet wet. He has to continue to build on the confidence that he is gaining now. We know how the stuff works. The 92-100, whatever it is going to be, we know that the sinking fastball works and that he has a breaking ball he can throw at any time. Actually, his changeup isn’t bad. He just hasn’t had the chance to use it much.”

Against Georgia Saturday he impressed. In addition to allowing just the two hits, the junior struck out six, walked four and allowed just one run. Opponents are now hitting just .162 against him for the year. The walks are a concern, he has 21 in his 30 innings, but the absence of hits allows him to pitch around them.

“We know he can throw strikes because we can watch a bullpen session and he throws eighty percent strikes,” Bieser explained. “It had nothing to do that he wasn’t a strike thrower. It was about, ‘How do we get him to do that in a game setting?’ We didn’t give up on him.”

With Tanner Houck (3-4, 3.04) and Michael Plassmeyer (4-0, 3.38) pitching ahead of Montes de Oca in the rotation, Missouri has the arms to keep hitting coaches awake at night.

Closer T.J. Sikkema worked three scoreless innings Saturday to pick up his fourth save. He also has five wins and a 0.64 ERA. Bullpenmate Cole Bartlett is 4-0 with a 2.27 ERA this season. The duo has worked over 80 combined innings this spring.

“When you look at our club, pitching is our strength,” Bieser. “We have the two bullpen guys who have been solid all year. Our starters have been throwing really well. If they can get us five innings, somewhere in that range, then we can turn it over to those two guys and we like our chances.”

SunTrust Park view from left center

Georgia’s Youth Movement

Georgia coach Scott Stricklin started five freshmen Saturday. Stricklin is hoping those around the program show patience as his youngsters gain experience. This is his fourth year in Athens and he has yet to find the success that made him a heralded hire after he took his Kent State program to Omaha in 2012. After Saturday’s loss, the Bulldogs are 14-19 overall and 4-8 in league play. They figure to be one of the teams fighting for one of the final twelve spots in the conference tournament.

Those five freshman in the starting lineup combined to go 0-for-14 Saturday.

“The toughest thing to do with these young kids is teach experience,” said Stricklin. “You can’t do it. They have to play. That is what we are doing. We just put them out there and let them compete.

“We had a chance to win the series two different times. It just didn’t happen offensively. You have to find a way to score some runs. Credit them, they pitched it well. When you win the opening game of the series, you feel good about your chances to win the series but we couldn’t finish it off.”

Like many clubs struggling in close games, the Bulldogs are not great at anything, but when they pitch, the tend to field better and the offense doesn’t have to do as much. In the games where their starting pitchers have given them a chance, they have kept games close and won their share. The flip side is the offense has not been able to break through with big innings. In 14 of its 33 games, Georgia has scored three runs or fewer. That puts a ton of pressure on the offense.

“One game our pitchers have 17 strikeouts and we have three hits,” said Sasser. “The next game we get fifteen hits but the pitchers walk five people. That has been a struggle for us all season long. A lot of times I feel we (the Georgia hitters) are swinging at balls in the dirt. We have to lay off balls out of the zone. As soon as we get that together we will be fine.”

“I think you are seeing the young guys grow up but still see inconsistencies,” Stricklin said. “I think that is pretty normal when you have those young kids. They are going to have ups and downs. They are certainly not freshmen anymore. I think we had a chance to be a pretty good defensive team and while we are talented enough, we haven’t played very well defensively. That has really been disappointing. We have to get better at that.”

They will need to get a lot better when you consider the murderers’ row of opponents in the next six weekends. They visit Arkansas, host Vanderbilt and Florida, visit Kentucky, host Mississippi State and close the regular season at South Carolina. To have success, they will have to fight off the frustration of a series loss to Missouri, their third losing SEC series in four opportunities.

“No question,” said Stricklin. “You get into this thing to win games. It is really frustrating. I felt like we had a chance to be in better position than we are right now. The close one run games really hurt us early in the year. I think our kids got a little tentative. They are certainly pressing a little bit. It is not from a lack of effort.”

Mark’s Day At SunTrust

Sid Bream’s knee brace on that fateful play in 1992

For the folks at SunTrust Park, this was an opportunity to work through some of the logistics like traffic, parking, ticketing, ushers, concessions, and operations before next Friday night’s Braves’ opener versus the Padres. Many of the fans did as I did and spent much of the game wandering around soaking in the new ballpark.

In many ways it feels similar to Turner Field once you get inside. Being a new park, there are all of the modern niceties that fans will enjoy. There was nothing wrong with Turner, but SunTrust is nicer. It is a little smaller, 41,500 capacity compared to Turner’s 49,586.

I spent the early part of the game in the outfield bleachers before moving behind home plate for a few innings. Yep, that is the place to be. The swanky area behind home plate features theater seats, gourmet food with waitstaff and personal replay monitors. The waitstaff basically is stationed in your section awaiting your next request. While I was there, I saw people eating everything from grilled shrimp and fish to hot dogs to ice cream sandwiches.

For those wondering what a seat like that would cost, it is a cool $500 per ticket per Braves game, or $42,500 for a season ticket. Those seats are already sold out, as are the more modestly priced Chop House seats in right field. The Chop House features two covered patios and a field level area – “below the chop” – that allows a view through the clear outfield wall.

The night before the game I visited the Terrapin Taproom. The Terrapin Taproom has a full selection of the Athens, Ga., brewery’s creations. For those not into the craft beer scene, the brewery was purchased by MillerCoors so some Miller and Coors products are also available. The taproom is located outside the right field fence and is accessible during games from inside the stadium gate. It is accessible to the public without a ticket when games are not occurring. They have more than just beer since the Taproom also features Fox Bros. barbecue.

Some of the food vendors inside the stadium include First and Third Hot Dog and Sausage Shack, Waffle House, Field of Greens, Intentional Wok, and assorted snacks like catfish tacos, pimento cheese patty melts, fried pork chops along with the traditional ballpark fare.

I enjoyed walking through the Braves’ Monument Garden. You can see the 1995 World Series championship trophy, jerseys worn through the years, a big statue of Hank Aaron and a structure signifying his 755 home runs. There are photos, videos, and moments showcasing past Braves’ greats like Dale Murphy, Chipper Jones, Greg Maddux, John Smoltz, and Tom Glavine. My favorite part is a photo of a gimpy Sid Bream sliding into home to beat the Pirates. In front of the photo sits Bream’s bulky knee brace.

Entering the press box, you are greeted by portraits honoring long time Atlanta Braves announcers Skip Caray, Ernie Johnson Sr., and Pete Van Wieren, all deceased but who live on in the memories of so many 1980’s era TBS viewers.

While SunTrust Park lacks any one item that makes it truly unique, the opportunity is there to make it a great experience primarily because of the potential of the area around the stadium. Dubbed ‘The Battery Atlanta,’ it features hotels, bars, restaurants, and shopping. This collection offers the chance for fans to come into Atlanta, park at your ballpark area hotel and not use your car again until you complete your stay.  If Atlanta can pull that off (minimizing traffic and parking concerns), the new stadium will end being a destination trip for baseball fans.

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