ATHENS — After falling woefully short of the college baseball postseason last year, Georgia will find out very quickly how it stacks up in 2008.
The Bulldogs open at home Friday with the first of three games against Arizona, ranked No. 1 in the Collegiate Baseball preseason ratings. Then, Georgia travels west to play two-time defending national champion Oregon State.
“We are excited about the opportunity,” pitcher Trevor Holder said.
This weekend’s intersectional series against Arizona was hatched out of the 2004 College World Series, where Georgia beat the Wildcats twice in Omaha, Neb.
Oregon State, which eliminated Georgia at the 2006 CWS, swept the Bulldogs in Athens last year.
Sandwiched between those two series is an exhibition game against the Atlanta Braves in Kissimmee, Fla. A winless week is a possibility for a team that slumped to 23-33 last season, including 11-19 in the Southeastern Conference.
“Yes,” coach David Perno admitted, “but we could still be playing good baseball. The egos on this team are not too fragile. They understand the kind of schedule we are playing. The key with a tough schedule is having leadership.”
Georgia will rely on a deep pitching staff and a veteran infield. Shortstop Gordon Beckham (.307, 13 home runs, 51 RBIs), third baseman Ryan Peisel (.295-4-29) and first baseman Rich Poythress (.282-3-24) will anchor the middle of the order.
Along with rightfielder Matt Olson (.317-5-43), those veterans will be expected to improve an offense that ranked next to last in the SEC.
“I think everybody figured out about halfway through last season that if the top of the order didn’t score for us, then we were not going to score,” Perno said.
Peisel batted .374 over the last 21 games of the season, after struggling in the early going.
“Once you get your confidence, you ride it as long as it is there,” Peisel said. “Our guys came back hungrier, chomping at the bit. We have retooled, and we have the right talent this year.”
Joining the infield is sophomore second baseman Michael Demperio, who transferred to Georgia after backing up at Texas last season.
“He’s really been a rock so far,” Peisel said. “He makes us so much better.”
Georgia is also looking to an unusual source for hitting: its pitching staff.
Joshua Fields, an All-American closer as a sophomore in 2006, struggled out of the bullpen a year ago. His saves dropped from 15 to seven, largely because he blew six chances. This year he will double as a designated hitter.
“Josh has already gotten back to form,” Perno said. “We have decided that we will pitch him only one inning at a time instead of cleaning up the eighth with him.”
Fields saw limited hitting action as a freshman, though he did homer off Vanderbilt.
Georgia’s weekend starters have been settled for months: Holder (2-3, 4.50), Stephen Dodson (4-6, 3.56) and Nathan Moreau (6-2, 4.65). They pitched better than their numbers, victimized by a number of lost leads.
“Once we started losing those late-inning games, our confidence was shot,” Peisel said. “It was a morale disaster.”
Perno said he has three solid arms waiting in the wings if Holder, Dodson or Moreau should falter. Dean Weaver (1-3, 8.04), Alex McRee (2-4, 4.81) and freshman Justin Grimm give Georgia good depth on the mound.
“Grimm is as good a freshman arm-wise as we have ever brought in,” Perno said.
For the first time, college teams were prohibited from starting their seasons before Feb. 22. The compressed season will mean more weeks with five games, which should work to Georgia’s advantage with its deep pitching.
As if opening with Arizona and Oregon State is not tough enough, Georgia’s schedule includes nine teams in the preseason top 40: No. 2 South Carolina, No. 4 Mississippi, No. 11 Vanderbilt, No. 12 Florida State, No. 13 Clemson, No. 20 Kentucky, No. 25 Georgia Tech, No. 27 Mississippi State, and No. 30 LSU.
“This schedule will be good for this team,” Perno said, “as long as we can hang in there and put together one of our patented runs.”