story by Chris Rushing
Follow me on Twitter: @rushicw
With just four weeks left in the Southeastern Conference baseball season, the race for Hoover and the SEC Baseball Tournament is starting to take shape. A pair of teams coming off extremely successful weekends in front of spring football-fed crowds will face off in a pivotal matchup this week in Starkville, Miss.
No. 19 Ole Miss (27-14, 9-9 SEC) has positioned itself to take a top-two spot within the West Division by weathering the storm of a schedule that featured Florida, South Carolina, Kentucky and Arkansas over the past five weeks. The Rebels took three of those four series — a feat that is incredible within itself — and should continue to move up the polls and the lists of potential NCAA Regional hosts as they face only LSU in the final month of the season amongst the SEC’s top four squads.
Mississippi State (25-16, 8-10 SEC) swept Tennessee over the weekend to climb back into the SEC’s top 10 and into the field for Regions Park in late May. The Bulldogs took a ton of innings to get the wins (11 on Thursday, 14 on Saturday), but I’m sure John Cohen doesn’t care since his squad was triumphant both times against the Vols.
These two teams don’t care very much for each other, and it wasn’t until Cohen’s third year at the helm of the MSU program that he was able to take a series from Ole Miss and Mike Bianco. The duo met on April 17 in Pearl, Miss., in the annual Governor’s Cup non-conference contest, with the Rebels claiming a 6-3 victory.
Chris Stratton will most likely power the home team to a win on Friday night, but Ole Miss has enough weapons and momentum to get the last two games in the series that could be the difference in a top-five and lower-five seed for the SEC Tournament.
The game times are as follows: Friday – 7 p.m. CT (SportSouth); Saturday – 2 p.m. CT (SportSouth); Sunday – 1:30 p.m. CT. (CSS)
Bold prediction: Ole Miss 2-1
• Alabama (17-25, 6-12 SEC) at No. 7 South Carolina (30-11, 11-7 SEC)
Game Times: Thursday – 6:30 p.m. CT (ESPNU); Friday – 6 p.m. CT; Saturday 12:30 p.m. CT
The Gamecocks have completely shaken off the slow start to the SEC slate by devouring SEC West competition over the past two weeks. Winners of six-straight league contests, the two-time defending national champions have swept both Mississippi State and Auburn in preparation for the West Division’s last-place squad, Alabama.
The Tide defied expectations of your’s truly by taking two of three from Vanderbilt last weekend, but, in what has been a signature theme for the 2012 season, UA blew a late-inning lead on Sunday that prevented a sweep and a four-way tie for the 10th and final spot in the SEC Tournament. Outside of senior Taylor Dugas, there just isn’t much to Bama’s lineup that would strike fear into one of the league’s and country’s most experienced pitching staffs.
South Carolina will continue to put pressure on Florida the rest of the way for a first-day bye in Hoover.
Bold prediction: South Carolina 3-0
• No. 20 Arkansas (29-12, 9-9 SEC) at No. 4 Florida (31-10, 11-7 SEC)
Game Times: Friday – 6 p.m. CT; Saturday – 6 p.m. CT; Sunday –2:30 p.m. CT (ESPN)
Florida dropped just its second midweek game of the season on Tuesday, but the Gators are more than capable of shaking off the defeat at the hands of USF to focus on the Razorbacks in an extremely important three-game set for both squads.
If the Hogs do not win the West for the second-straight year, it will be thanks to a treacherous road slate that featured trips at LSU (0-3), Ole Miss (1-2) and now UF. After losing two-of-three in Oxford a week ago, Arkansas is in dire needs of wins – which won’t be easy to come by in Gainesville this weekend.
Bold Prediction: Florida 2-1
• Tennessee (22-19, 7-11 SEC) at Auburn (22-19, 7-11 SEC)
Game Times: Friday – 6 p.m. CT (CSS); Saturday – 3 p.m. CT; Sunday –1 p.m. CT
No one in the league is struggling more than Auburn. The Tigers, winners of the first three SEC series against Ole Miss, LSU and Mississippi State, are just 1-8 over the past three weekends, which features losing series against lowly Alabama and Vanderbilt – two teams with losing records overall. John Pawlowski may start feeling some heat from the AU fans as his squad is dangerously close to missing out on NCAA postseason play for the second year in a row and third time in four seasons Pawlowski has guided the program.
To avoid that notorious distinction, Auburn’s next two series are must-wins with Arkansas and Florida looming at the end of the league schedule.
Tennessee, like its opponent, is coming off a sweep but could have won two of the three if not for being the visitors and not possessing the last at-bats in Starkville. The Vols will look back on several contests at year’s end with a “woulda, coulda, shoulda” mindset, but that should only make this team stronger going forward under the direction of Dave Serrano.
Until AU proves it can win a series, I’m going to have to go with the visitors in this one.
Bold Prediction: Tennessee 2-1
• No. 1 Kentucky (35-7, 13-5 SEC) at Vanderbilt (18-22, 7-11 SEC)
Game Times: Friday – 6:30 p.m. CT; Saturday – 2 p.m. CT; Sunday – 1 p.m. CT
No one knows exactly how Kentucky keeps doing it, but the Wildcats just continue to win, no matter what. Time after time this year, they have defied everyone’s expectations and predictions of this weekend being the one that derails the magic. A national seed is almost a lock at this point, but it wouldn’t surprise me if this was, in fact, the weekend that some weaknesses began to get exposed.
Tim Corbin’s Vandy squad is much better than its record indicates. If that sounds familiar, it’s because I’ve written that line just about every week that this column has been running. I believed that – until the ‘Dores dropped two of three to Alabama. Now, they’re just going to be labeled as “Kentucky’s next victim” – which means that Corbin and Co. will probably win the series.
Bold Prediction: Kentucky 3-0
• Georgia (24-18, 8-10 SEC) at No. 3 LSU (32-9, 12-6 SEC)
Game Times: Friday – 7 p.m. CT (Cox Sports); Saturday – 6:30 p.m. CT (CSS); Sunday – 1 p.m. CT (ESPN2)
The LSU train got a bit derailed a week ago in Lexington, with the Bayou Bengals losing just their second series of 2012 (conference and non-conference alike). It will be interesting to see how LSU rebounds this weekend with Georgia. The third-ranked Tigers are much better than their counterparts, but, if there is any hangover, it could get interesting in Baton Rouge.
The Bulldogs are staying in the thick of the SEC Tournament race by winning just enough games to not fall out of the top 10. A series win over Tennessee in week one will probably be the difference in making the field and not making the field for Hoover. A couple of wins at Alex Box Stadium would go a long way to solidifying UGA’s postseason footing.
Bold Prediction: LSU 2-1