Georgia baseball hosts crucial series against Vanderbilt, shortstop Cole Tate expected to return

Georgia baseball expects to have a star veteran return from injury as it hosts Vanderbilt with SEC and national implications hanging in the balance.

Shortstop Cole Tate is cleared to return to action for the No. 22-ranked Bulldogs (31-14, 12-9 SEC), who will face the Commodores (29-14, 10-11) in a high-stakes weekend starting at 6:30 pm on Friday at Foley Field.

“To me, this is the biggest series of the year,” UGA coach Scott Stricklin said. “Now, we’re 12-9, they’re 10-11, right on our heels and if we win this series, we separate ourselves a little bit.”

Georgia is tied at third in the SEC with No. 13 Texas A&M, No. 19 Auburn, and No. 20 LSU at 12-9. Those four teams, along with Vanderbilt, are all looking to secure a top four finish in the conference to a bye in the SEC tournament.

Just two games ahead of Vanderbilt in the standings and a week away from a facing No. 1-ranked Tennessee in Knoxville, a series win seems imperative if the Bulldogs want the bye.

“So, there’s six teams vying for the top four right now,” Stricklin said. “If we can win this series, I think you give yourself a little bit of separation.”

On a national scale, a series win over a perennial powerhouse like Vanderbilt would also grab the attention of the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee as UGA aspires to host an NCAA Regional in Athens.

Tate, who missed the last three weeks with a stress fracture in his leg, has been an anchor in the infield and the lineup all season. The 23-year-old graduate was hitting .331 with 16 RBI before his injury.

Tate’s next start will be the 100th of his career. His return will likely move Josh McAllister back to third base, Parks Harber to first, and Chaney Rogers to right field.

“I think that makes our defense better because you’ve got a good third baseman becomes a great first baseman, Chaney is a really good outfielder, and it just strengthens your bench if that’s the move we end up making,” Stricklin said. “Then now you’ve got Cole Wagner and Garrett Blaylock with bats in their hands waiting to hit.”

Georgia’s improving health does not stop in the infield. It is also the first weekend that none of the three starting pitchers are limited to a pitch count. Jonathan Cannon and Liam Sullivan both sustained injuries and missed SEC action but are now back without limitations.

UGA will need strong outings from its starters to keep the pressure off an inconsistent bullpen. That begins with Nolan Crisp, who will start Friday night. Crisp has been solid as a starter all season apart from last weekend when he gave up five earned runs and a couple of homers in 3.1 innings against a vaunted LSU offense.

Cannon, who has dominated the SEC this season, will look to bounce back from surrendering four runs in five innings last Saturday. Sullivan continued the weekend theme of short outings for Bulldog starters last Sunday, giving up two runs in 4.1 innings.

The Commodores will try to replicate what LSU did so well last weekend: get to the Georgia bullpen quickly.

Vanderbilt’s Dominic Keegan, whose .394 batting average is second in the SEC, leads an explosive lineup. The speedy Enrique Bradfield Jr. is head and shoulders above the rest of the conference in stolen bases with 28.

Harber is red-hot entering the weekend for Georgia. The Atlanta product is 8-for-14 with two home runs and four RBI in his last three games. Harber also leads the team with 43 RBI.

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