Beckham's bat, Fields' outs key to Georgia's rising ranking

ATHENS, Ga. -- Two years ago, Georgia shortstop Gordon Beckham couldn't hit a pitch when it mattered most. Last season, Bulldogs closer Joshua Fields couldn't throw a strike.

Now, neither player can miss.

Thanks to Beckham's hot bat and slick glove, and Fields' dominating performances in the ninth inning, No. 10 Georgia (28-12-1, 14-3-1 SEC) has won each of its first six SEC series to build a 3½-game lead in the league standings heading into this weekend's series against Florida (25-15, 10-8). The Bulldogs' résumé includes back-to-back sweeps of nationally ranked South Carolina and Kentucky.

The Bulldogs, picked to finish fourth in the SEC East in preseason voting by the league's coaches, have matched the program's best start in SEC play. The last Georgia team to win 12 of its first 15 SEC games won the 1990 College World Series.

"I felt like we were going to be really good," Georgia coach David Perno said. "I told the group of juniors and seniors who went to Omaha two years ago that this would be our best team from a pitching standpoint. I thought we could piece together enough offense to go with our pitching. But I didn't think we'd be where we are right now."

Few people believed Georgia would be an SEC championship contender this season. Beckham, a junior from Atlanta, was considered a very good college baseball player the past two seasons. He hit .280 with 12 homers and 54 RBIs as a freshman in 2006, helping the Bulldogs reach the College World Series for the second time under Perno. Then Beckham hit .307 with 13 homers and 51 RBIs last season, when Georgia finished 23-33, 11-19 in the SEC.

This season, Beckham is hitting .422 and leads the nation with 19 homers. He's been prolific in tight spots, such as when he hit a three-run homer in the bottom of the ninth inning to lead Georgia to a 7-5 win over Georgia State on April 16.

"It's just getting older and understanding what it takes to be successful," Beckham said. "It's almost learning to fail, I guess is the best way to say it. This is a game of failure. When you finally understand you're not going to be perfect, the game gets easier."

Beckham has been as close to perfect as any player in the country. He has hit two home runs in a game five times this season, and his .965 fielding percentage is near the top among shortstops. Baseball America named Beckham the 12th-best pro prospect for the 2008 amateur draft before the season started.

"He always had the tools and skills, but he always got off to a bad start," Perno said. "He was trying to do too much too soon. Now, he's letting the game come to him. He's not having to carry bad at-bats out to the field. I think that's all it was -- him understanding what kind of talent he has and slowing it down."

Beckham has even been patient enough to let his teammates do the damage. In Georgia's three-game series against Kentucky in mid-April, the Wildcats intentionally walked Beckham four times. He went 4-for-8 with one homer, two doubles and three RBIs in the series. Sophomore first baseman Rich Poythress is hitting .374 with nine homers and 41 RBIs in the cleanup spot.

"I'm just not trying to do as much," Beckham said. "When I get two strikes, it's not, 'Let's try and hit it out of the park.' I'm just trying to put the ball in play and help my team win."

Fields, a homegrown product from Prince Avenue Christian School in Athens, was a second-round choice (69th overall) of the Atlanta Braves in last year's amateur draft. After making an initial $425,000 offer to Fields, the Braves refused to negotiate with his agent, Scott Boras. So Fields returned to Georgia for his senior season, becoming the highest-drafted college player to return to school.

"I prayed about it over the summer and at the beginning I was seriously considering it," Fields said. "I was thinking, 'There's no way I'm coming back.' But by the end of it, I thought there was no place I'd rather be than here."

With the way Fields has pitched this season -- he hasn't allowed an earned run in 20 2/3 innings and is 11-for-11 in save opportunities -- his decision probably will pay big dividends in June's amateur baseball draft.

"He's going to get more money," Beckham said. "I'm very happy for him. He's pitching unbelievable. He's back to where he was as a sophomore. He's not pressing as much and is going out and enjoying it."

Fields, a right-handed closer, felt like he had unfinished business at Georgia. Before the 2007 season, he didn't throw much during the team's offseason conditioning program. Fields felt he needed to rest his arm after throwing 50 innings during the 2006 season and pitching in the Cape Cod Summer League. When the 2007 season started, Fields couldn't locate his fastball and struggled throwing a slider. He finished the season with a 1-6 record and 4.46 ERA.

This season, Fields has touched 98 mph on the radar gun with his fastball and replaced his slider with a curveball. He has 33 strikeouts and only eight walks.

"Last year, I felt like I let my teammates down," Fields said. "I wanted to show them they could count on me and I could get the job done."

Georgia's bullpen has gotten the job done more often than not this season. The Bulldogs didn't allow an earned run in 40 consecutive innings against SEC opponents until giving up a run-scoring sacrifice fly in a 6-4 win over Kentucky on April 13.

And Fields has been nearly perfect in the ninth inning.

"Fields has been incredible," Perno said. "He's been automatic. I think us finding the setup guys to get through the eighth inning has helped him tremendously. It has kept him fresh. Nearly all of his outings have been one inning."

And three outs from Fields is often enough for the Bulldogs.

Mark Schlabach covers college football and men's college basketball for ESPN.com. You can contact him at schlabachma@yahoo.com.