Extra Innings: No. 1 Vols' dream season continues, but SEC West looks like a race to the bottom
There’s no question that a dozen games into the SEC baseball conference season, the story of the year is Tennessee. Winners of 23 games in a row, and absolutely indisputable as the best team in the nation, Tennessee isn’t just ahead of the field, it’s ahead of the entire history of the sport.
Meanwhile, the SEC West, the division that produced the sport’s 2021 national champion, is floundering. But there’s a long way to go. That said, here are 9 stories from the week that was.
1. Vols keep it going
No, nobody in their right mind thought UT’s peerless run was going to end in a home series against Missouri. But like a long hitting streak, the mind-numbing consistency of UT”s winning ways is astounding. They bested Mizzou by a combined 23-10 margin, with only Sunday’s 4-3 win being competitive. UT won that one behind Drew Beam, who by giving up 2 earned runs in 6 1/3 innings, saw his ERA rise to a still-SEC-leading 1.14. He’s also won 7 games, also leading the league. Blade Tidwell also made his pitching debut after struggling with injuries. The rich get richer.
A new career-high in strikeouts for Drew Beam with punchout No. 7 🔥
— Tennessee Baseball (@Vol_Baseball) April 10, 2022
As for the bats? The Vols rocked 8 more home runs in the series, extending their national lead to 79. Florida is 2nd in the SEC with 61. Tennessee has homered in 8 consecutive games and in 28 of 32 games this season.
🔸 23 straight wins
🔸 12-0 in SEC play
🔸 Leads the country in HRs
🔸 Leads the country in ERA
🔸 No. 1 team in the country
— SEC Network (@SECNetwork) April 11, 2022
2. Bama with a shocker
Fresh off a series win over Texas A&M, the Alabama Crimson Tide rolled into Oxford and swept No. 9 Ole Miss, the first time they’ve swept the Rebs on the road since 1997. The Tide put up 26 runs against an Ole Miss pitching staff that has dissolved into disarray. If there was one play that signaled the change in direction of both teams, it was Tide OF Andrew Pinckney’s absolute seed of a throw from right field on Friday. There’s a short list of outfielders who make throws like the one Pinckney made. And sure, it was just one out … but in the first game of the series, it was a pretty good sign whose series it would be.
— Alabama Baseball (@AlabamaBSB) April 9, 2022
3. What’s wrong with the Rebels?
Ole Miss’ highly touted pitching staff was lit up in the sweep. The Rebels are tied for last in the West at 4-8 and their overall 4.87 ERA is 9th in the SEC. In a dozen SEC games, the Rebels have allowed 90 total runs. Derek Diamond, anticipated as a possible ace, has a 5.91 ERA. Ole Miss won’t be down all season — the offense is too good. But without quality pitching, the Rebels won’t go where they anticipated going in postseason play.
4. Auburn takes down Vandy
Meanwhile, lest Ole Miss get lonely as an underachieving preseason pick, Vandy is sitting at a less than robust 5-7 after losing their weekend series to an upwardly-mobile Auburn team. Auburn won at LSU last weekend and managed to not get discouraged by a 19-4 beatdown from Vandy on Saturday, winning the other two games easily, 5-1 and 8-2. Transfer Sonny DiChiara continues to be the league’s surprise entry for Player of the Year. Sunday, he hit a pair of homers and knocked in 5 runs, leaving him at .449 on the year with 11 homers and 32 RBIs.
Sonny DiChiara with a BLAST!pic.twitter.com/AM0HHFki1c
— Brian Stultz (@brianjstultz) April 10, 2022
Auburn’s Joseph Gonzalez went the distance in the 8-2 win, lowering his ERA to 1.95, 4th-best in the SEC. The Tigers are a game off the lead in the SEC West and are currently the feel-good story of the SEC season.
5. LSU sweeps State
LSU dropped a series to Auburn last weekend but then rebounded to sweep the injury-hampered Bulldogs this past weekend. The story of the weekend probably centered on LSU’s pitching holding State to 2, 3 and 3 runs in the sweep. The Tigers are 3rd in the SEC in ERA, and given the offensive juggernaut that they possess, that might lift LSU to the top of the West.
6. Florida upends Arkansas
Meanwhile, Arkansas had a firm grip on the SEC West when they blasted Florida 8-1 in Gainesville to open their series. The Gators were plummeting down the SEC standings. But then UF bounced back with 7-2 and 9-7 wins to claim the series and narrow Arkansas’ West lead to a single game over LSU, Alabama and Auburn. Wyatt Langford hit his 12th homer on Sunday, just a blast behind teammate Jud Fabian for the SEC lead (shared with Ole Miss’ Tim Elko and Tennessee’s Trey Lipscomb). Langford’s .350 average and 36 RBIs are both ahead of Fabian, and Saturday’s impressive start by Brandon Sproat (5 2/3 innings of 1-run ball) suggests that maybe the Gators are still a team to watch … particularly in an East where UT has rendered it pretty much a battle for 2nd place.
7. Georgia stays strong
After a tough nonconference loss to Clemson on Tuesday, the Bulldogs went to South Carolina and won 2 of 3 in the series. UGA hasn’t been glamorous. Their 4.90 ERA is 10th in the SEC, and their .292 batting average is 6th. But the Bulldogs are 6-1 in 1-run games (that Clemson loss on Tuesday is the only blemish on that record). Jonathan Cannon’s 6 wins and 1.71 ERA give them a starter who can beat anybody. With Vandy and Florida both 5-7, UGA is in excellent position to claim 2nd in the division.
8. A&M holds off Kentucky
Texas A&M dropped the middle game of their series with Kentucky on Thursday 7-3 but won the other 2 games to claim the series, largely because of an 11-inning marathon on Thursday. Catcher Troy Claunch picked a good time for his first homer of the season to win that game.
— Texas A&M Baseball (@AggieBaseball) April 8, 2022
A&M stayed at .500 in conference play with the series win, just 2 games off the pace in the West.
9. Way-too-early postseason thoughts
Yes, we’re only a month into league play, but it’s not too early to start thinking about the NCAA Tournament.
Baseball America forecasted 10 SEC teams making the field, heading into the weekend.
That said, they had Mississippi State as their last team in and Texas A&M as one of the first four out, which might have flipped given the weekend. BA also had Kentucky in the field, so maybe A&M and State would stay and the Wildcats would go. Or Alabama, not in the Baseball America list, probably played its way into the way-too-early projection of the field. The only SEC teams not in the NCAA picture, other than the Aggies and Tide were Missouri and South Carolina.
Cover photo via Twitter @Vol_Baseball