story by Chris Rushing
Follow me on Twitter: @rushicw
Plenty of must-wins fill the eighth weekend of Southeastern Conference baseball action, including a do-or-die series in Knoxville, Tenn., between slumping Tennessee and suddenly-hot Vanderbilt to decide which squad might join Alabama on the outside looking in on the 10-team SEC Tournament in Hoover, Ala., just three weeks from now.
The ‘Dores became the first squad to win a series against Kentucky this season, a feat that is quite surprising (and unsurprising, if you read my column last week) in itself considering Vandy was coming off a 1-2 showing in three outings against lowly Alabama. We’ll touch more on that later.
Don’t look now, but it appears as though No. 13-ranked Arkansas (32-13, 11-10 SEC) is heating up at just the right time of the year, shaking off some disappointing series losses to Ole Miss, LSU and Kentucky with a huge two-win performance over Florida in Gainesville last weekend. The Hogs followed the big series triumph with a pair of midweek victories over future SEC opponent Missouri on Tuesday and Wednesday, giving Dave Van Horn’s club tons of momentum heading into the weekend.
No. 4 South Carolina (34-11, 14-7 SEC) has moved into a tie for first place in the East Division, erasing a 1-5 start to league play by winning 11 of its last 12 league contests – including three-straight sweeps over SEC West foes Mississippi State, Auburn and Alabama. The two-time defending national champions have gone from last place in the East to first by taking advantage of a schedule that has gotten easier week-by-week after facing Kentucky and Florida to open the SEC slate.
Arkansas will be powered by huge and electric crowds throughout the weekend at Baum Stadium, but it may not be enough to slow down the train that is South Carolina baseball right now. The Gamecocks are following the same script that has earned them back-to-back titles in Omaha the past two summers. One thing is for sure: we are all in for a treat considering the implications surrounding these three outings.
The game times are as follows: Friday – 7 p.m. CT (ESPNU); Saturday – 12 p.m. CT (ESPN2); Sunday – 1 p.m. CT.
Bold prediction: South Carolina 2-1
• No. 8 Florida (33-12, 12-9 SEC) at No. 3 Kentucky (36-9, 14-7 SEC)
Game Times: Thursday – 6:30 p.m. CT (ESPNU); Friday –6 p.m. CT (CSS); Saturday 1 p.m. CT
The Gators have been up and down a bit through April, dropping home series against both LSU and Arkansas, after getting off to a tremendous start to the 2012 season. Not that there is anything to be ashamed of in losing to those two squads, but UF has visions of getting back to Omaha again this summer and being the last team standing.
To do that, series like the last two weeks cannot keep popping up in May and, more importantly, June.
UK finally came back to reality a bit by losing a series. It’s not surprising that the Wildcats didn’t get through an entire SEC season without losing a series (that’s just about impossible no matter how good the squad is), but for it to come to Vanderbilt is a bit out of the ordinary for 2012. However, every big time series that Kentucky has hosted in SEC play has led to at least two wins in Lexington, Ky. I have no reason to believe that adage won’t hold true at least one more time this weekend against the Gators.
Bold prediction: Kentucky 2-1
• Vanderbilt (21-23, 9-12 SEC) at Tennessee (22-22, 7-14 SEC)
Game Times: Friday – 5 p.m. CT; Saturday – 12 p.m. CT (CSS); Sunday –1 p.m. CT
After finding itself behind the eight-ball after a terrible non-conference showing and a tough-luck start to SEC play, postseason play suddenly isn’t off the table for Vandy after series wins over Auburn and then-No. 1 Kentucky in the last three weeks. A series win this weekend against the spiraling Vols would only help the Commodores to get to above .500 overall and, subsequently, to earn an NCAA Regional bid.
Tennessee has now dropped six-straight SEC games after getting swept by Auburn on the Plains a week ago. First-year head coach Dave Serrano dismissed junior closer Nick Blount prior to the Saturday loss against the Tigers, and Nick Williams was forced to start both Friday’s and Sunday’s losses thanks to an already-depleted pitching staff that got even smaller after Blount was removed from the roster. The team had a great shot at a spot in Hoover as well as an NCAA Regional as a possible No. 3 seed. Now, it appears as though there is just three weeks left in Serrano’s opening campaign.
Bold Prediction: Vanderbilt 2-1
• Auburn (25-19, 10-11 SEC) at Georgia (25-20, 9-12 SEC)
Game Times: Friday – 6 p.m. CT (SportSouth); Saturday – 3 p.m. CT (CSS); Sunday – 1 p.m. CT
The Tigers stopped the bleeding and ended April on a high note with a huge three-game sweep over Tennessee to firm up their own postseason hopes. Teetering in a tie for 10th overall in the SEC standings coming into last week, AU is now in sixth place – tied with Ole Miss and Mississippi State but ahead of both having won series against the Magnolia State duo.
This is a big chance for Georgia to move up the overall standings on its own, sitting just a game behind Auburn, MSU and Ole Miss. With the games in Athens, it will only help UGA’s cause to get right into the mix to get an easier first-round opponent at Regions Park in three weeks.
Bold Prediction: Georgia 2-1
• No. 5 LSU (36-10, 14-7 SEC) at Ole Miss (29-16, 10-11 SEC)
Game Times: Friday – 6:30 p.m. CT; Saturday – 2 p.m. CT (SportSouth); Sunday – 1:30 p.m. CT
The Rebels squandered a golden opportunity to stay in the top two of the SEC West standings by falling twice against hated rival Mississippi State over the weekend. By virtue of the pair of losses at the hands of MSU, UM now is in fifth place in the West and could find itself in a bigger hole after this weekend.
LSU just kept winning by taking two from Georgia, and the Bayou Bengals are set to continue distancing themselves from the rest of the West Division pack. Winning twice at Swayze Field will be difficult (just ask Florida and Arkansas), but it’s not impossible – especially for a team playing as well as LSU is currently.
Bold Prediction: LSU 2-1
• Mississippi State (27-17, 10-11 SEC) at Alabama (17-28, 6-15 SEC)
Game Times: Friday – 6:30 p.m. CT; Saturday – 2 p.m. CT; Sunday – 1 p.m. CT
It’s moving weekend for Mississippi State as it faces the easiest opponent of everyone within three games of the Bulldogs in the league standings. If John Cohen and Co. can just keep finding a way to win like they have done the past three weeks, it’s not out of the question for this team to find itself within the upper half of the league standings when all is said and done and the field is set for the SEC Tournament.
About the only good thing that has happened for Alabama baseball this year is that the Tide swept Auburn. Unfortunately, that was a month ago. Three weeks from now, UA may be looking for a new coach unless it shows massive improvement on the field – and soon.
Bold Prediction: Mississippi State 2-1