10 moments we'll remember most from 2021 SEC baseball season
What a season it was. Since Mississippi State blasted Vandy to grab its first national title in any sport, we finally have time to reflect on a truly historic SEC baseball season. Frankly, there were so many memorable moments that it’s hard to narrow them down, which is why, among other options, the skirmish between Arkansas coach Dave Van Horn and Tennessee coach Tony Vitello didn’t quite make the cut. But here are 10 we’ll remember from 2021’s hardball show-stopper.
1. The preseason rankings
You had to know it figured to be a pretty good season when no fewer than 6 SEC teams found themselves ranked in the top 10 of more than one of the major preseason baseball polls. If that doesn’t sound crazy, think of it this way — Most Polls contemplating the top-10 teams: SEC 6, Everybody Else (Combined) 4.
This was particularly glorious for Florida, which opened the season as consensus No. 1 and debuted their glorious new stadium, McKethan Field. Of course, the season didn’t work out as well for the Gators, but starting the season in the new park as the No. 1 team in the nation was pretty darn glamorous.
2. Jack Leiter’s SEC debut to remember
Because of the COVID-shortened 2020 season, we all had to wait a long time to see Jack Leiter’s SEC debut. Suffice it to say, it was worth the wait.
Poor South Carolina. Leiter carved up the Gamecocks as if preparing a family feast. He not only threw a no-hitter in his first SEC appearance but did it while striking out 16 batters.
Coming into the season, teammate Kumar Rocker was the presumptive ace of the Commodores, but by the end of the season, many scouts were higher on Leiter than Rocker — and with an SEC debut to remember, it wasn’t hard to see why.
3. Defining sweep for the Hogs
While Arkansas will get more discussion below, one thing they won’t forget was a 3-game sweep of Mississippi State in Starkville back in late March. How big was this series? No. 1 vs. No. 2, the future SEC regular-season and Tournament champ vs. future College World Series champ … and the Razorbacks absolutely ran away with it by a combined 25-11 score. Whoo-pig-sooey indeed.
4. Tim Elko’s comeback
Ole Miss star Tim Elko tore his ACL early in the second half of the SEC season. And after a couple of weeks off, Elko just went ahead and played with one and a half knees. Not just played, but he crushed many, many baseballs. It was bionic, it was crazy, it was outstanding.
5. Arkansas’ SEC Tournament title
Arkansas was the class of not just the league, but all of the sport for most of the season. By Week 3, the Hogs had ascended to the top of Baseball America‘s rankings, and they stayed for the rest of the season.
Arkansas did not lose an SEC series … and they parlayed their great year into the top spot in Hoover and, eventually, into an SEC Tournament championship. Surprisingly, it was the first such trophy Arkansas has claimed, and given the fine year that Dave Van Horn’s team had, they certainly earned it.
The final out. pic.twitter.com/TmHTeoHirz
— Arkansas Baseball (@RazorbackBSB) May 30, 2021
6. Drew Gilbert’s Regional walk-off grand slam
Tennessee was one of the SEC’s most pleasant surprises in 2021. The Vols emerged to win the East and reach the SEC Tournament finals in Hoover. But there was some concern that in the NCAA Tournament, UT’s lack of big-game experience could bite the Vols. And in fact, UT trailed its opening NCAA matchup with Wright State … until Drew Gilbert walked it off in style — blasting a game-winning grand slam.
UT played its way to Omaha after that, and while the 0-2 mark in the CWS was tough, it was a season to remember in Knoxville.
— Tennessee Baseball (@Vol_Baseball) June 5, 2021
7. LSU’s rally for Mainieri
LSU had a rough season, complete with a season-ending injury to anticipated ace Jaden Hill. The Tigers limped into the NCAA Tournament … and then put together an impressive run to send off retiring coach Paul Mainieri. After an opening game loss to Gonzaga, LSU rolled off 4 straight wins, stunning host Oregon in a 9-8 decision that sent LSU on to the Super Regionals. While the rally ended there, Mainieri and his Tigers ended up putting a positive spin on a difficult season.
8. Kevin Kopps, class act
After a wonderful season, Arkansas found themselves on the wrong end of a couple of close games in the Super Regional, and just like that, the championship chase was thwarted. It was especially tough for Razorback relief ace Kevin Kopps, who was absolutely lights out all season, until he was left in the elimination game for roughly a bajillion pitches and gave up the home run that allowed NC State to squeak past the Razorbacks.
But even in defeat, Kopps was a star. After likely the toughest loss of his life, the young man spent his time signing autographs and taking photos with Razorback fans. Kopps was a winner, even if he threw one pitch he’d love to have back.
Kevin Kopps is still on the field at Baum-Walker Stadium. Signing every autograph and taking every picture. pic.twitter.com/7DeUJFwfHA
— Pig Trail Nation (@PigTrailNation) June 14, 2021
9. Vandy’s rally to stave off elimination
It was an odd season for Vanderbilt. Acknowledged as one of the nation’s most talented squads with a pair of generational pitching stars, the Commodores didn’t win the SEC East division, didn’t win the SEC Tournament in Hoover, and then were a single strike away from being eliminated in Omaha by Stanford.
The unlikely rally that followed propelled them (ahem, with a little NCAA help) into the CWS finals, a single win from back-to-back CWS wins and the 4th in the past 10 years. Sure, the Vandy Boys ended up one game short, but a rally like this is one we’ll all remember. Walk, infield hit and error, base hit to right, sprint-off wild pitch. Vandy didn’t get the CWS title, but they did have the guts of a burglar.
10. State brings it home to Starkville
Mississippi State has long been one of the best programs in the SEC, but there was something special about seeing the Bulldogs finish the deal, particularly against the defending champs … and particularly to do it in style.
Ace Will Bednar, on extremely short rest, pitched 6 no-hit innings before closer Landon Sims slammed the door shut on Vandy in a decisive Game 3.
Looking back through the rankings for the season, Baseball America at various times had MSU ranked 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th, 6th and 8th. But never No. 1. It’s not where you start, or where you are at the middle, it’s all about where you hit the finish line — and the Bulldogs did it right.
Mississippi State has waited 126 years for this celebration pic.twitter.com/ctJINjxyp3
— Baseball Bros (@BaseballBros) July 1, 2021