story by Chris Rushing
Follow me on Twitter: @rushicw
How crazy has the first two weeks of Southeastern Conference baseball action been? If the SEC Tournament, featuring the top 10 overall squads of the 12 league institutions, were held today, the two-time defending national champions would not make the field.
That, my friends, is the definition of parity.
South Carolina now sits at No. 14 in the Collegiate Baseball top 25 rankings, but the Gamecocks have won just one of six contests against No. 1 Florida and No. 2 Kentucky to start SEC play. Of course, there’s not much of a taller order to start the most demanding conference schedule in college baseball than taking on the top two teams in the polls, but we still expected a little more than one win from USC thus far.
Meanwhile, No. 4-ranked Arkansas (22-3) holds a one-game lead in the SEC West standings over surprising Auburn after going 5-1 against Alabama and Mississippi State the past two weeks. The Razorbacks rebounded from an 11-2 loss in the series opener last weekend in Starkville to take the final two games and the series from MSU, winning 8-0 on Saturday and scoring five runs in the top of the 11th Sunday en route to a rubber-game 8-5 victory.
In all, UA put up a 3-1 mark in games last week and took a break from midweek action in preparation for this weekend’s trip to Alex Box Stadium to tangle with the No. 12 Bayou Bengals of LSU.
LSU (19-6, 3-3 SEC) is coming off a 1-2 showing last weekend in Auburn, a series which featured no decisions from all six starters in the three contests. It wasn’t a lack of pitching that hurt the visiting set of Tigers in the matchups – Auburn scored just 10 runs combined on the weekend. The Tiger bats will need to come alive if they intend to hold serve at home and take two of three from the division leaders.
The game times are as follows: Friday – 7 p.m. CT; Saturday – 7 p.m. CT; Sunday – 1 p.m. CT.
Bold prediction: Arkansas 2-1
Alabama (9-16, 1-5 SEC) at Tennessee (15-10, 2-4 SEC)
Game Times: Friday – 5 p.m. CT; Saturday – 12 p.m. CT; Sunday 1 p.m. CT
Last weekend, Tennessee managed to do something no one else has done in college baseball so far in 2012. The Vols were able to beat the Kentucky Wildcats. However, the joy was short-lived as UK rebounded to take the final two meetings in the series in Knoxville.
The Tide continues to struggle, dropping two of three at home to Ole Miss last weekend and another midweek outing Tuesday against UAB. The Blazers put across a run in the 12th to take the contest by a 1-0 margin. This is a make or break weekend for Mitch Gaspard and Co. as too many more losses could cost UA a chance at a regional bid, much less an invite to Hoover in late May.
Bold prediction: Tennessee 2-1
No. 2 Kentucky (25-1, 5-1 SEC) at Georgia (17-9, 3-3 SEC)
Game Times: Friday – 6:35 p.m. CT; Saturday – 3:05 p.m. CT; Sunday – 1:05 p.m. CT
The Wildcats are off to the best start in school history as well as college baseball this year, and Gary Henderson is pretty much a shoe-in for SEC Coach of the Year (if not national Coach of the Year) should this start keep up. Henderson’s bunch is in a win/lose situation when trying to capture the attention of the Big Blue Nation, however.
As long as John Calipari’s basketball team is still hooping it up, UK fans will flock to see the contests on the hardwood, not the diamond.
Georgia was last week’s biggest surprise, dropping two of three to reeling Vanderbilt in the first true road series test of the year. If the Bulldogs are going to struggle that much away from Athens, it’s not going to be as deep of a run into June as many were predicting in the preseason for UGA. Luckily, this weekend’s series will take place at Folsom Field.
Bold Prediction: Georgia 2-1
No. 1 Florida (23-2, 5-1 SEC) at Ole Miss (18-7, 3-3 SEC)
Game Times: Friday – 6:30 p.m. CT; Saturday – 1:30 p.m. CT; Sunday – 12:30 p.m. CT
The series between South Carolina and Florida proved to be as entertaining as advertised as the final game hung in the balance until the final out recorded to allow the Gators to slip out of Carolina Stadium still atop the national polls and the SEC East. Wins over top-10 opponents didn’t end in Columbia last week as UF followed the huge series triumph with a 4-1 victory over No. 5-ranked Florida State in the second of three meetings between the rivals.
It’s hard to imagine this machine Kevin O’Sullivan has built in Gainesville slowing down any time soon (nor before it achieves winning a national championship).
Ole Miss’ bats seem to be coming alive after rallying from a 4-3 deficit in the eighth on Sunday at Alabama to win the game and the series by a final score of 8-4. Spurring the comeback was one of the craziest plays you’ll ever see on a scoresheet: a 2-RBI sacrifice fly courtesy of Zach Kirksey. Kirksey’s long out to the wall in center field was deep enough to score Auston Bousfield all the way from second base to give the Rebels a 5-4 lead they would never relinquish.
UM kept up the hot hitting on Tuesday when it posted a 12-0 victory over Jackson State. It’s good that Ole Miss has regained its swagger at the plate, but it will take a much better effort than what it has given so far in league action to win a series over Florida.
Bold Prediction: Florida 2-1
Mississippi State (17-9, 2-4 SEC) at No. 24 Auburn (15-10, 4-2 SEC)
Game Times: Friday – 6 p.m. CT; Saturday – 3 p.m. CT; Sunday – 1 p.m. CT
Last year, Auburn got off to a great start in SEC play by taking two of three in the opening series against Arkansas. For a squad that had lost so much from the previous season, to gain such an important series victory was pleasantly surprising for the AU faithful.
The wheels for a season that ended with a failed attempt at reaching NCAA postseason play came off in Starkville the second week of league play as the Bulldogs swept the Tigers to give MSU skipper John Cohen his first series win over Auburn in three tries.
The Tigers are enjoying a productive start once again in league play by winning their first two series with timely hitting and tremendous pitching performances from both the starters and bullpen. Those two elements will have to remain in top performance levels to start off with three series wins over Western Division opposition.
The Bulldogs feature one of the SEC’s best aces in Chris Stratton, who held Arkansas’s hot bats in check all night last Friday in the only victory on the weekend for the Maroon and White. Cohen’s club also got some good news on Wednesday when it was revealed that outfielder C.T. Bradford should be cleared to rejoin the starting lineup after missing the past month with an injury.
Bold Prediction: Auburn 2-1
No. 14 South Carolina (18-7, 1-5 SEC) at Vanderbilt (10-15, 2-4 SEC)
Game Times: Friday – 6:30 p.m. CT; Saturday – 3 p.m. CT; Sunday – 1 p.m. CT
I never expected these two teams to come into this pivotal series with a combined three league victories between them, but that’s how the starts have been for this pair of 2011 College World Series participants.
Vanderbilt has had a March to forget en route to a dismal 10-15 start, but things are looking up after winning three of its last four after following up the series win over Georgia with a 6-0 shutout over Tennessee Tech in midweek action. You can never count the ‘Dores out as long as Tim Corbin is the manager in Nashville, a fact that should not go unnoticed by the Gamecocks.
South Carolina may have opened with a murderer’s row of sorts by facing Kentucky and Florida to open up SEC play, but a bit of a reprieve is waiting for them after this weekend with Tennessee, Mississippi State, Auburn and Alabama on the horizon. While no series in SEC play is ever easy, USC has owned all of those opponents in recent years as Ray Tanner and Co. have marched on to back-to-back national championships.
The getting back on track starts this weekend for South Carolina.
Bold Prediction: South Carolina 2-1