Bulldogs aim for NCAA bid in Hoover

ATHENS, Ga. -- Georgia is not in exactly as desperate a situation as it was a year ago at the SEC baseball tournament, but the Bulldogs’ NCAA tournament chances could once again hinge on what happens this week in Hoover, Ala.

Needing to finish with a winning record at last year's league tournament to secure a .500 record and become eligible for an NCAA bid, the Bulldogs used a miracle run to the tournament semifinals -- with unlikely consecutive wins against Auburn, eventual national champion South Carolina and eventual national runner-up Florida -- to reach the NCAAs.

Georgia (31-24, 14-15 SEC) slid from the SEC tournament’s No. 5 seed to No. 8 last weekend when it lost two of three games against Alabama, which finished last in the SEC West, so the Bulldogs might need a couple of wins in Hoover to ensure a return trip to the NCAA tournament.

“We knew last week that we could be anywhere from a No. 5 to a No. 10 seed because we’re all bunched together as far as our SEC records,” said Georgia coach David Perno, whose team opens the SEC tournament Tuesday night against Vanderbilt (29-25, 16-14). “We’ve played well of late, we’ve just been a little short in the run category.”

Georgia lost two of three games at Vanderbilt earlier this season, although the Bulldogs carried the lead into the eighth inning in both of the games it lost before bullpen meltdowns proved costly. Staff ace Alex Wood (7-2, 2.58 ERA) started the Bulldogs’ 1-0 win in the series opener and will start Tuesday night against against Drew VerHagen (5-2, 3.63), who allowed one run in 6 1/3 innings of relief in the Georgia series.

Senior right-hander Michael Palazzone (2-6, 4.89) will start Georgia’s second game on Friday, forming the second part of the tandem that has kept the Bulldogs in many SEC series when their offense struggled. Palazzone’s record is unsightly, but he pitched better in conference play after an awful start to the season. He pitched a complete game in Georgia’s 4-0 loss to Alabama last Friday and made the all-tournament team in Hoover last year.

“We knew a few weeks ago that this would be an important tournament again for us, just like last year,” Perno said. “Alex and Michael Palazzone will go in the first two games. We scaled back their workload in between outings for a few weeks now, knowing they would go the first two here and both should be good to go.”

Although it might reside on the NCAA bubble entering the league tournament, Georgia already has a reasonable case to make the 64-team field. The Bulldogs have the No. 50 RPI rating according to WarrenNolan.com and have a 10-18 record against top-50 RPI clubs and 5-1 mark against teams between 51 and 100.

Their record against those teams is as follows: No. 2 Florida (1-2), No. 3 UCLA (0-3), No. 6 LSU (1-2), No. 8 South Carolina (1-1), No. 15 Arkansas (1-2), No. 17 Kentucky (1-2), No. 22 Clemson (1-1), No. 23 Ole Miss (2-1), No. 27 Vanderbilt (1-2) and No. 31 Georgia Tech (1-2).

The Bulldogs start off with a tough opponent in Vanderbilt, which closed the season on a 10-2 run to get past the .500 barrier required to make the NCAA tournament field. The Bulldogs will take on the Commodores at approximately 9 p.m. ET, as their game will start 30 minutes after the conclusion of Auburn-Florida, which starts at 5:30 p.m. ET.

“Unfortunately Vanderbilt’s playing probably better than anyone right now, but that’s part of it,” Perno said. “This is a different part of the season and it’s tournament time and you just never know what’s going to show up.”