Bulldogs shake things up for LSU series

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ATHENS, Ga. -- Georgia baseball coach David Perno hinted that lineup changes might be ahead after the Bulldogs went 1-for-15 with runners in scoring position in Tuesday’s 4-3 loss to Georgia Tech.

Perno announced after Wednesday’s practice that he will in fact shuffle the lineup in this weekend’s series at No. 6 LSU (33-9, 12-6 SEC) -- with the biggest change being freshman slugger Hunter Cole’s return to competition.

Cole, who leads the Bulldogs (24-18, 8-10) with six home runs and is batting .370 in SEC play, missed the last six games with a strained muscle in his right side. Perno said Cole is not pain-free, but the injury has healed to the point that he would not risk further injury by playing.

“I think he’s in there Friday. I don’t think it’s his choice anymore,” Perno said with a grin. “I think he’s cleared. It’s more of a situation where he’s not going to re-injure himself. I think he’s over that hump, so just having him in the lineup, presence alone, it’s just like having [Alex] Wood, keeping him out there and Michael [Palazzone]. They’re your better players and they’ve got to play.”

Starting pitchers Wood (5-1, 2.57 ERA) and Palazzone (2-5, 5.46) have been outstanding over the last two weekends, but the Bulldogs’ offense struggled mightily in Cole’s absence. They were 2-4 and averaged just 3.7 runs per game while he was sidelined.

Searching for a spark, Perno also said he plans to move the Bulldogs’ leading hitter Curt Powell (batting .353 with a team-high 34 runs) from ninth to first in the lineup and that Jonathan Hester will replace Colby May at first base.

“Colby has been struggling for quite some time now and we’ve got to find a presence at first, so Johnny’s going to get his shot to play a few games and see if he can give us some better at-bats,” Perno said.

Perno said after the Georgia Tech loss that he had been trying to balance the lineup by keeping Powell at the bottom of the order, but it was time for a change.

“Curt’s having great at-bats,” Perno said. “I look like a complete idiot hitting him in the nine hole. He should be hitting three for us. So we’ve got to visit that. We’re trying to have a sneak attack to at least have some punch down at the bottom and leading to the top.”

Picking up the pace on offense will hardly be any easier this weekend in Baton Rouge than it was last weekend at No. 2 Florida. Just as the Gators rank among the SEC’s top pitching staffs, the Tigers’ pitching numbers are extremely similar.

Weekend starters Kevin Gausman (7-1, 3.00), Ryan Eades (5-2, 3.26) and Aaron Nola (5-1, 3.55) have been stellar throughout the season, although Eades and Nola both started games the Tigers lost last weekend against No. 3 Kentucky.

“I was happy with what we did in Florida,” said Georgia senior Kyle Farmer, who leads the team with 27 RBIs. “They were the best pitching staff we faced all year and now we’re going to face a better one -- or one that’s as good as Florida’s -- at LSU.”

This weekend concludes a murderous stretch of Georgia’s conference schedule, as the Bulldogs visited No. 17 Arkansas and hosted No. 19 Ole Miss before visiting Florida and LSU in the month of April alone.

The strength of schedule lessens only a bit over the remainder of the regular season with home series against Auburn and No. 5 South Carolina and a trip to Alabama still to go. The Bulldogs know they must improve their offensive production if their record over the next month will be better than the middling results in April.

“The competition’s not changing. Teams are only getting better or as good as the teams we’ve been playing so we’re going to have to change,” Perno said. “That means you’ve got to start making that pitch, you’ve got to start making that play and start getting some timely hits.”