ATLANTA — This was just what the Atlanta Braves envisioned a year ago.
Joshua Fields was dominant on the mound at Turner Field on Tuesday night, throwing fastballs clocked at 97 mph and striking out two batters in the ninth inning for another save.
Such outings prompted the Braves to select Fields in the second round of the draft last June. One problem: Fields didn’t sign, so he’s still collecting saves for the University of Georgia. This one came in the Bulldogs’ win against Georgia Tech in the teams’ annual game at Turner Field.
Fields, who was represented by agent Scott Boras, chose to return for his senior season at Georgia. The decision made him 2007’s highest drafted player who did not sign, and it left Braves management disappointed.
Fields is still working on his consumer economics degree instead of working his way up the Braves’ farm system. He said the decision to complete his college career has worked out just as he planned, and denies his choice was only the result of tough negotiating by Boras.
"It was all my decision to come back here," Fields said. "I just really didn’t want to finish out with the type year I had last year. I wanted one more go at it, and I just felt like I should be here. I just felt it was right to come back and I just went with that decision."
Fields led the Southeastern Conference with 15 saves in 2006 while posting a 1.80 ERA as he helped lead Georgia to the College World Series as a sophomore. He couldn’t repeat that success last year, when he was 1-6 with a 4.46 ERA and six blown saves in 13 chances.
"Last year after the draft, I didn’t think I was really ready to go into professional baseball," Fields said. "I feel like this year has prepared me. Going through last year and to bounce back has helped me tremendously on the mental game."
Georgia, ranked seventh in Baseball America’s poll, clinched the SEC championship last weekend before opening its final regular-season series against Alabama..
Fields’ perfect ninth inning in the 3-2 win over Georgia Tech gave him a Georgia-record and Division I-leading 16 saves. He also extended his SEC career record to 39 saves.
"I came back just to prove what I could do," he said.
Entering the Alabama series, the right-hander had allowed only two earned runs in 27 À innings for a 0.66 ERA. He hasn’t blown a save and is averaging almost two strikeouts per inning.
"If there’s a better closer in the country, I’d like to see him," Georgia Tech coach Danny Hall said. "He’s going to be a first-round draft pick. He’s got electric stuff. His fastball is 96, 97 mph. He’s got a great breaking ball. He’s got to be a big reason they’re where they’re at. He’s outstanding."
Fields was ranked No. 17 on Baseball America’s list of the top 20 draft prospects this month, but he wasn’t the top Georgia player on the list. Shortstop Gordon Beckham, who has ranked among the nation’s leaders in homers all season, was No. 8.
Georgia is promoting Beckham as a national player of the year candidate and Fields as the nation’s top closer.
"It’s a comforting thing knowing you’ve got those two guys if things get tough," Georgia coach David Perno said. "We’ve got go-to guys. We’ve got superstars. And we have a tremendous nucleus of veterans and super players who have been through it. It’s a lot of fun to be around this team."
Last year was not as fun for Fields or the Bulldogs, who were 29-33.
"Last year I didn’t really have any confidence," he said. "I started off the season rough and just really couldn’t get my feet under me."
Fields spent last summer and fall working to "get that confidence back, get that feel back."
Perno said he wasn’t surprised by Fields’ hard work or his 2008 results.
"Like every superstar, he’s a worker," Perno said. "He’s always the first one here and last one to leave. I never doubted he would turn it around."
The word has spread throughout the SEC: To beat the Bulldogs, you must beat them before the ninth inning. Otherwise, said Alabama coach Jim Wells, "You don’t like your chances."
"He, at the end of the game, makes a world of difference in the modern-day world," Wells said.
Wells was overwhelmed by video he saw of Fields’ performance in Georgia’s 7-4 win at Florida on April 24. With Georgia leading by three runs, Florida loaded the bases with one out in the eighth. Perno turned to Fields, who struck out two batters to end the threat. Fields returned for three more strikeouts in the ninth.
Said Wells: "They brought in Goose Gossage. He’s amazing."
Perno is just happy Fields is still at Georgia, closing things out for his team.
"You’re playing a short game," he said. "You’ve just got to find a way to get the lead and get the ball to him. It’s a confidence thing and something that helped us in a big way this year."