story by Chris Rushing
Follow me on Twitter: @rushicw
It’s going to feel like Memorial Day’s right around the corner this weekend as some very important series take place on the diamond within the Southeastern Conference.
The following ranked teams will appear as the visitors throughout the league over the span of the next four days: No. 3 Arkansas travels to Mississippi State; No. 12 LSU faces Auburn on the Plains; No. 13 Kentucky takes its surprising unbeaten record into Knoxville to take on Tennessee; the No. 17-ranked Georgia Bulldogs will visit reeling (but always dangerous) Vanderbilt; and No. 20 Ole Miss will look to rebound on the road against struggling Alabama.
However, no series will upstage the rematch of the 2011 College World Series’ championship series between No. 1 Florida and No. 6 South Carolina.
The Gators (20-1, 3-0 SEC) have won a school-record 18 straight contests and will look to avenge the season-ending loss to the Gamecocks (16-4, 0-3 SEC) in Omaha last June. The two-time defending national champion South Carolina will have played five games in five days by the time the series wraps up Saturday.
Kevin O’Sullivan’s UF squad disposed of Vanderbilt in three home outings a week ago, while USC was surprisingly swept in Lexington against Kentucky with the Wildcats notching three come-from-behind triumphs over Ray Tanner’s bunch.
The Gators’ pitching staff has been unbelievable this year, holding opponents to fewer than five runs in 17-straight contests during this record-setting win streak. UF notched its 12th come-from-behind victory of 2012 with a 5-3 triumph over Samford on Tuesday.
Meanwhile, Carolina is 11-4 in games decided by three runs or less so far on the year, which should be a stat that changes throughout the series between these two juggernauts. The Gamecocks do not give up many runs, owning a team ERA of 2.37 through Tuesday night’s action.
Scoring will be at a premium throughout the three contests, the first of which opens ESPN’s Thursday Night SEC Baseball coverage. Dave Neal leads the broadcast team from Carolina Stadium tonight beginning at 6:30 p.m. CT.
The game times for this pivotal series are as follows: Thursday – 6:30 p.m. CT (ESPNU); Friday – 6 p.m. CT; Saturday – 12:30 p.m. CT.
Bold prediction: Florida 2-1
No. 3 Arkansas at Mississippi State
Game Times: Friday – 6:30 p.m. CT; Saturday – 2 p.m. CT; Sunday 12 p.m. CT (SportSouth)
Mississippi State’s Friday night starter Chris Stratton achieved a rare feat of earning NCBWA National Pitcher of the Week as well as Louisville Slugger National Player of the Week, SEC Pitcher of the Week and SEBaseball.com’s co-SEC Pitcher of the Week honors after a no-decision outing in Baton Rouge, La., in the Bulldogs’ (15-7, 1-2 SEC) league opener a week ago. Stratton hurled 8.2 innings, tallying an SEC season-high 17 strikeouts, against LSU. The Bayou Bengals, however, would win the game in extra innings as well as the series by taking the Saturday matchup as well.
Arkansas (20-2, 3-0 SEC) is in the midst of a season-best 10-game winning streak, which includes a three-game sweep of Alabama in the SEC opening series. Jacob Morris was huge against the Tide, notching a .375 average in the series with two RBI and a pair of runs scored. Matt Reynolds provided four runs scored as well as a pair of RBI on the weekend. Matt Vinson had an unbelievable catch in the Friday night win that was the No. 1 play on ESPN’s SportsCenter daily top 10 plays Saturday night/Sunday morning.
Bold prediction: Arkansas 2-1
No. 12 LSU at Auburn
Game Times: Friday – 6 p.m. CT; Saturday – 3 p.m. CT; Sunday – 1 p.m. CT
This is a pivotal series for both sets of Tigers when LSU and Auburn tangle at Plainsman Park this weekend. Auburn (13-8, 2-1 SEC) has won three-straight contests after taking advantage of Rebel miscues in Saturday’s victory and belting back-to-back doubles after being down to the final strike of the game on Sunday’s rubber match to surprisingly take the series against then-No. 12 Ole Miss.
LSU (17-4, 2-1 SEC) took the first two contests in dramatic fashion over Mississippi State a week ago, staying near the top of the West Division standings with Auburn and Arkansas. JaCoby Jones had the game-winning single in the 10th inning on Friday night and was 4-for-12 in the series with a pair of RBI. Mason Katz drove in five runners in the MSU series.
Bold Prediction: Auburn 2-1
No. 13 Kentucky at Tennessee
Game Times: Friday – 5 p.m. CT; Saturday – 3 p.m. CT; Sunday – 1 p.m. CT
No one has been more surprising in the country than the 13th-ranked Wildcats, owners of an unblemished 22-0 mark, which includes a 3-0 showing against South Carolina a week ago. Kentucky has defied expectations time after time in those 22 wins, and UK needs two more wins to reach the school record for season-opening triumphs.
Tennessee dropped two of three to Georgia a week ago in Dave Serrano’s SEC debut series. The Volunteers have won just five contests in their last 16 outings.
Bold Prediction: Kentucky 3-0
No. 17 Georgia at Vanderbilt
Game Times: Friday – 6 p.m. CT; Saturday – 2 p.m. CT; Sunday – 1 p.m. CT
The 17th-ranked Georgia Bulldogs (16-6, 2-1 SEC) have won three of their last four games after crushing in-state rival and No. 15-ranked Georgia Tech 7-1 Tuesday night. This will be the first road test of the season for UGA, however, since the Bulldogs have played all their previous series within the friendly confines of Folsom Field.
Vanderbilt (7-14, 0-3 SEC) can’t seem to get on track this year, losing four-straight after Evansville followed up Florida’s sweep of the ‘Dores with a 5-3 triumph in Nashville on Tuesday. The 2011 College World Series participants need something good to happen ... and fast.
Bold Prediction: Georgia 2-1
No. 20 Ole Miss at Alabama
Game Times: Friday – 6:35 p.m. CT; Saturday – 2:05 p.m. CT; Sunday – 1:05 p.m. CT
Much like Vanderbilt, Alabama (8-13, 0-3 SEC) needs something good to happen and soon after getting swept in the opening series against Arkansas and following it up with a fourth-consecutive defeat on Tuesday night at Troy. The Tide managed only four hits in a 9-0 loss to the Trojans.
Ole Miss (15-6, 1-2 SEC) committed five errors in the first inning of Saturday’s 10-5 loss to Auburn and had the Tigers down to their final strike on Sunday before losing a 2-1 lead and eventually the game, 3-2. The hot-starting Rebels have fallen in three straight after losing 10-0 to Southern Miss Tuesday night. The Rebels absolutely cannot afford to lose this series with Florida and Kentucky looming in the next two weeks.
Bold Prediction: Ole Miss 2-1