Poythress, Georgia ride wave of positive thoughts to CWS finals

OMAHA, Neb. -- To get to his tiny hometown of Grovetown, Ga., Rich Poythress recommends looking for the signs to a much-more-coveted destination.

"Grovetown is right next to Augusta," says Georgia's gregarious sophomore first baseman. "I'm a Masters kid."

From the time he was 8 up until he graduated high school, Poythress attended the hallowed event with his father, marveling at how the participants could use their clubs to put a little white ball pretty much anywhere they wanted.

Of course, it's another spread of turf that the 6-foot-4, 235-pounder prefers, and on Saturday, thanks to some of his stick work, the Bulldogs are going to a place they most treasure: the College World Series finals.

Their feat is not all that different from Trevor Immelman's performance in coming out of nowhere to win the 2008 Masters after missing the first eight weeks of the PGA Tour recovering from surgery to remove a tumor.

Consider that a year ago, Georgia finished with a 23-33 record.

"You know what?" Poythress said after the Bulldogs' 10-8 victory against Stanford left them awaiting either Fresno State or North Carolina as its opponent in the best-of-three series that begins Monday. "I think everybody in our locker room felt this was the way it'd be. Don't get me wrong -- last year we weren't very good, but that record could be flipped 15 games, easily.

"Definitely weren't this, though. This team … the heart is something special. It's one of those things where I think sometimes this team plays better than it is. Sometimes you find 25 guys that just jell like that, and I think that's what we've got."

It doesn't hurt the Dawgs that they can start with a couple of first-round major league draft picks.

Junior shortstop Gordon Beckham brought his season hit total to 106 with a pair Saturday, making him 5-for-9 at the Series.

Georgia also has a Mr. Automatic on the mound in right-hander Joshua Fields. After spurning second-round money from the Atlanta Braves last summer, Fields has produced a senior season in which he's 17-for-17 in save opportunities.

But it's guys like junior third baseman and leadoff hitter Ryan Peisel, who has started every game since 2006 and this season has 102 hits, and Poythress who give this club its real identity.

A few weeks ago, after Georgia lost its NCAA regional opener to Lipscomb, coach Dave Perno told Poythress, who'd gone 0-for-4, that he was considering pulling him from the lineup for the next game.

"I told him I was going to start playing [Robbie] O'Bryan if he didn't start pulling balls," Perno said.

Poythress, who had been in the lineup for 89 straight games until missing the SEC tournament with a sprained wrist, got the message.

While helping the Bulldogs win four straight elimination games, he hit .350 with three homers and 11 RBIs. In a rematch against Lipscomb, he drove in five.

He followed that up by hitting .500 with three RBIs and five runs in a three-game super regional against North Carolina State.

In Omaha, though, Poythress was just 1-for-6 after two games and Perno was on him yet again.

All-SEC catcher Bryce Massanari even took ground balls at first during Wednesday's practice.

And Poythress continued the cycle again Saturday.

He doubled and scored in the second, doubled in a run and scored in the third, hit a two-run single in the fourth and doubled in a fourth run in the eighth. His three doubles tied a Series record for most in one game.

"I definitely wanted to have a big day, hopefully taken some pressure off Gordon and so many guys at the top of the lineup," said Poythress, whose NCAA tournament totals include a .419 average (18-for-43) with three homers, six doubles and 18 RBIs. "I got some good pitches to hit and finally got a few balls to squeak through that I really didn't hit that hard. It was a good day."

Strangely enough, though, it was one that had him thinking back to his freshman year, when there was little to celebrate.

Poythress had shown plenty of "want to" in the fall of 2006 and last spring. After tearing an ACL while trying to avoid a tag during his first at-bat of a fall scrimmage, he worked hard at rehabilitation and was lucky enough to be able to return four months later.

"That was a reality check. I told a bunch of people that more than anything it made me appreciate the opportunities I get every day," Poythress said. "A million kids would give the shirts off their back to play baseball for the University of Georgia. I'm still trying to take advantage of that."

In the next breath, Poythress was talking about how it's much better to have good health. He was talking in the physical sense, but when his thoughts turned to the Bulldogs, his definition took on a different meaning.

As Beckham noted after Saturday's outcome, what the Bulldogs learned most from going through last season's struggles was how to approach the game better mentally.

"Last year, it was one of those things where if something could go wrong like we thought, it would happen," Beckham said. "And this year we think better thoughts, I guess. Think a happy thought."

Through its 12-game NCAA tournament happyfest, Georgia has hit .379 and bashed 16 home runs. And only one of the seven Bulldogs who have pitched in Omaha have thrown more than four innings.

For Poythress, it has the makings of a possible new way for him to tell people when they're approaching Grovetown.

Look, he might soon be able to say, for the sign that says: "Hometown of Rich Poythress, 2008 College World Series champion."

Curt McKeever is a reporter for the Lincoln Journal Star.