UGA keeps to specific goal in facing Florida

ATHENS, Ga. -- David Perno recently set an offensive goal for his Georgia baseball team to work toward -- one that seems to be the dividing line between success and failure.

“We set out a couple weeks ago to score six runs a game and that’s all it would’ve took [against Furman],” Perno said after Tuesday’s 5-4 loss to the Paladins. “That’s not a tall order.”

In fact, entering this weekend’s series at top-ranked Florida (29-8, 9-6 SEC), that six-run benchmark has been a nearly automatic signal of victory for the Bulldogs (23-15, 7-8). Georgia is a sparkling 11-2 when it scores at least six runs in a game, but 12-13 when it scores five runs or less.

Before the setback against Furman, the Bulldogs had seemingly broken out of a lengthy slump by winning four games in the previous five days. They took two of three against No. 22 Ole Miss and also beat Clemson and Liberty in that stretch -- scoring at least six runs in three of the four victories.

The clutch hits that came with runners in scoring position in the previous victories were not there against Furman, however. The Bulldogs stranded nine runners and squandered numerous prime scoring chances.

“We just didn’t do enough to produce enough to win that game,” senior outfielder Peter Verdin said. “You’ve got to do a whole lot more than four runs, that’s for sure.”

Verdin was one of Georgia’s offensive spark plugs during the recent six-game grind, reaching base in 13 of 23 plate appearances. But the Bulldogs’ problem has typically been with driving runners in, not getting them on base.

In SEC play, Georgia ranks second in the league with a .291 batting average. But the Bulldogs have still scored fewer runs (63, or 4.2 per game) than all but one team in conference play.

They know it will be difficult to win low-scoring games at Florida, as the Gators lead the conference with 48 home runs and have some of the SEC's top offensive performers in Mike Zunino (.346, 10 home runs, 39 RBIs, 15 doubles and 91 total bases -- home run, doubles and total bases counts that lead or tie for tops in the SEC), Preston Tucker (.322, nine home runs) and Nolan Fontana (.326, 36 runs).

“We’re going to have to go down and play well this weekend, but you can play very well at Florida and still not win,” Perno said.

After starting the season 24-4, the Gators hit a recent lull of their own, dropping two out of three against LSU and also losing to North Florida. They recovered by winning four of their last five, regaining the top spot in the ESPN/USA Today poll by taking two of three from Tennessee and beating rival Florida State last week and then defeating Georgia Southern 8-2 on Tuesday.

Despite his struggles as a relief pitcher against Furman while under the weather, Michael Palazzone -- who allowed all five runs in an inning of work and took the loss against the Paladins -- looked to finally be back to his dominant form from last season when he pitched a complete game last Thursday against Ole Miss.

If Palazzone (1-5, 5.81 ERA) and Alex Wood (5-1, 2.61) begin forming the effective 1-2 punch Perno expected when the season started and the offense begins hitting the six-run plateau more consistently, the Bulldogs will likely advance in the SEC East standings down the stretch.

Their goal is to begin that march this weekend in Gainesville.

“We’re still going to be very confident and hungry going into Florida,” said first baseman Jonathan Hester, who scored twice and drove in a run against Furman. “It’s a big, huge weekend for us. If we can go down there and hopefully win the series at Florida that would be huge for us.”