10 players to watch in SEC's baseball Super Regionals
It’s here — Super Regional time for 5 SEC squads. (Well, Tennessee and Texas A&M open their best-of-3 series on Friday. Arkansas, Ole Miss and Auburn start their series on Saturday.)
And here are 10 players to keep an eye on — you may know Trey Lipscomb and Sonny D., but here’s a key (and perhaps unknown) player for each SEC squad and their opponent to watch in the Super Regionals.
Tennessee: Evan Russell
Yes, the Vols have a ton of personalities (hello, Drew Gilbert) and dangerous bats, and Russell (.303, 13 home runs, 44 RBIs) is one of those. But where is he more important? Notre Dame is not blessed with a ton of big bats, but they run pretty well, going 73-for-87 on steal attempts this season. Russell is Tennessee’s primary catcher, and he hasn’t had a great year throwing out runners (opposing thieves are 58-for-67 against him). If he can keep the Irish from running wild, his hitting is just a bonus.
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Notre Dame: John Michael Bertrand
Bertrand is Notre Dame’s ace, boasting a 9-2 record and a 2.27 ERA. He has 103 strikeouts in 99 innings and has held opponents to a .223 batting average and just 5 homers. His 7 2/3 innings of 1-run pitching against Texas Tech got the Irish their matchup with the Vols, and if Notre Dame’s pitching staff is going to even slow (forget about stop) the Vols, Bertrand is a key.
Texas A&M: Micah Dallas
Louisville isn’t much of a threat on the mound, but the Cards can hit. Dallas, who pitched the 2nd-most innings this year for the Aggies, did a fine job in his first NCAA start, giving A&M 5 innings of 1-run pitching to get them off on the right foot. Similarly, playing from ahead against Louisville could be key. Dallas led the Aggies in strikeouts (79) but also allowed a dozen homers and opposing hitters batted .291 against him. Nathan Dettmer does a better job of keeping hitters in the park, but Dallas could make A&M’s life easy with a nice start.
Louisville: Dalton Rushing
Dalton Rushing (.310, 22 homers, 60 RBIs) is one of the big bats in Louisville’s lineup. As the main catcher, he’ll also be trying to nurse a staff with a 5.12 season ERA into working through A&M’s dangerous lineup. Whether Louisville ends up trying to win 13-12 or 5-4, Rushing figures to be in the thick of whatever goes down.
Auburn: Cole Foster
Auburn’s offense was red-hot in their regional games, and they’ll look to keep that trend going. Enter Foster, whose season statistics are OK … but who has been red-hot. In the regional games, Foster went 6-for-15, with the 6 hits going for 3 doubles and 3 home runs. That’s a slugging percentage of 1.200. Sonny DiChiara and Blake Rambusch will get more attention from Oregon State, but that just paves the way for Foster to continue his hot streak.
Oregon State: Cooper Hjerpe
What can counter a red-hot offense? An ace like Hjerpe. He’s 10-2 with a 2.40 ERA and 155 strikeouts in 97 2/3 innings. After going a solid 6 2/3 innings of 3-run, 10-strikeout ball against New Mexico State in the Beavers’ regional opener, he came back for his first relief outing of the season: 2 innings of 5-strikeout work to stave off Vanderbilt in a 1-run win to seal the Super Regional spot. Don’t be surprised it Hjerpe pitches Saturday and then comes back Monday out of the bullpen. Auburn has to solve him, or at least make him throw enough pitches to have to leave earlier than he’d prefer.
Arkansas: Jalen Battles
Battles was part of a revamped Arkansas offense in the regionals, going 6-for-18 with a home run and 6 RBIs. He’s also shown elite defensive skills at shortstop and that could end up being the difference in a very competitive series at North Carolina. Arkansas has the talent but hasn’t always shown the consistency to reach Omaha. Battles is a veteran of last season’s disappointing ending and will give everything he has to avoid a repeat finish.
North Carolina: Vance Honeycutt
Most college stars are notable for either power (think Auburn’s Sonny DiChiara) or speed (think Vandy’s Enrique Bradfield, who has some power, but won games with his stolen bases and not slugging). And then there’s the rare guy like Carolina’s Honeycutt, who hit .292 with 24 homers but also swiped 29 bases. The superb freshman had 8 hits and 2 homers in UNC’s regional win, and Arkansas will have to contend with him at the plate and on the basepaths.
Ole Miss: Tim Elko
Tim Elko is very much a known quantity, but he is absolutely key to Ole Miss’ hopes. How much does it help to have Elko hitting like Babe Ruth? Well, with Elko struggling (0-for-11 in the last 4 SEC games), the Rebels barely snuck into the NCAA Tournament. But then the Rebels swept through their regional field, largely because Elko was 7-for-9 with 3 doubles and 3 homers (all 3 blasts coming in the clinching win). That’s a 2.111 slugging percentage. Now, if Elko continues to average a double in every plate appearance, the Rebels will be fine. But even if he doesn’t, his impressive power hitting and veteran leadership will be key if the Rebels hope to keep overachieving.
Southern Miss: Tanner Hall
Hall, who pitched 8 innings of shutout, 4-hit, 9-strikeout ball in the Golden Eagles’ 2-0 opening win over Army, could be the key to the entire series. Several times this season, he flashed big games in key situations. In an early win over Mississippi State, he pitched 7 shutout innings and struck out 13 batters. That said, he went 2 innings and allowed 3 runs in their final win over LSU, which stretched the USM bullpen farther than they would like. If the Rebels can hit Hall, their task gets much easier.