The University of Georgia baseball team will likely go as far as its arms carry it this season.
The Bulldogs, who start the season on Friday with a three-game series against Richmond, are loaded with good, quality pitching. They have the sort of pitching depth that the club will need to thrive in the Southeastern Conference, perhaps the toughest baseball league in the country.
Georgia went 46-17 a year ago and reached the NCAA playoffs, where they were eliminated by Florida State in the regional final. Coach Scott Stricklin’s program is one of just two that have earned a top-eight national seed in each of the past two seasons.
Georgia’s pitching staff features two guys who could be No. 1 draft picks at the end of the season. Right-handers Emerson Hancock (8-3, 1.99) and Cole Wilcox (3-2, 4.07) join southpaw C.J. Smith (3-3, 4.30) to make up a solid core. Hancock is a consensus All-America and Wilcox made Baseball America’s third team. Smith had impressive starts against No. 5 Vanderbilt and No. 10 LSU.
The back end of the bullpen features left-hander Ryan Webb (1-0, 3.75), who is expected to close.
The offense has a few holes to fill. The Bulldogs must replace their top three hitters from a year ago — Aaron Schunk (.339, 15 homers), L.J. Talley (.332, eight homers) and John Cable (.314, eight homers).
The top offensive player returning is outfielder Riley King, a junior from Collins Hill. King batted .295 with eight home runs — two of them grand slams — in 2019. King brings versatility to the lineup; he can play both corner outfield spots and third base.
The remainder of the lineup must prove it can hit elite pitching. First baseman Patrick Sullivan, a senior from Marist, hit .263 with three homers, one of them in a win over Georgia Tech. Cam Shepherd, a Gold Glove caliber shortstop from Peachtree Ridge, hit only .231 but had eight homers and was drafted by Tampa Bay.
The starting catcher will be Mason Meadows, a hard-nosed junior who missed nine games due to a facial fracture after a foul tip struck him in the right eye. He came back and played the last six weeks with a special mask. Meadows is expected to be a better hitter than the .180 he produced in 2019.
Meadows and Shepherd are important pieces of a Georgia defense that established a school record for fielding percentage last season. Shepherd already holds the school record for fielding percentage for a shortstop (.987).
Other starters should be outfielder Ben Anderson, third baseman Garrett Blaylock and outfielder Tucker Bradley, infielder Cole Tate and designated hitter Connor Tate.
Anderson is a sophomore transfer from Furman, who hit leadoff in 52 games for the Paladins as a freshman and led the team with 73 hits and a .461 on-base percentage. Bradley missed almost his entire junior season after sustaining a shoulder injury; he hit .299 with three doubles in 54 games as a sophomore.
Connor Tate hit .270 with three homers and 19 RBIs in 74 at-bats as a redshirt-freshman and hit .333 with 12 RBI against SEC opposition. Cole Tate hit .190 with eight RBI in limited time as a sophomore.
Georgia begins play in the SEC on March 13 with a three-game series at Florida. In non-conference games, the Bulldogs have series against Georgia Southern, Kennesaw State and Georgia Tech, which this year will be a weekend series for the first time and concludes on March 1 at Coolray Field in Lawrenceville. The schedule also includes single games against USC-Upstate and Coastal Carolina, a regional participant last season.