10 takeaways from the opening weekend of college baseball
Football is over, hoops is edging closer to March Madness, but SEC baseball is officially underway. Granted, even in much of the league’s footprint, spring is still a distant hope … but the diamond warriors hit the ground running this past weekend. After literally a couple days of baseball, what should we know?
1. How nice is it to have Astro-less (and Astro-talk-less) baseball?
Yes, pitchers and catchers have reported in big league camps, but the games are still exhibitions for more than a month … and meanwhile, college baseball promises a ton less talk about sign stealing, buzzers, apologies, etc. The big leagues are tainted with (yet another) scandal, but on the college level, the only sign stealing to watch for is a runner at second base … and the answer is probably a fastball in the batter’s posterior. Leave Altuve, Bregman, etc., for another day and enjoy the college game.
2. Vandy’s 1-2 start should not inspire panic
Yes, the defending champion Commodores started 1-2. They dropped a tough 4-3 opener to Michigan, with the winning runs coming across in a 9th-inning rally, beat UConn and then blew another 9th-inning lead in a loss to Cal Poly.
But, hey, it’s February.
The Commodores still have a historically good pitching staff, led by stud sophomore Kumar (son of Alabama football legend Tracy) Rocker, Mason Hickman and closer Tyler Brown (even if he did falter in Game 1 and Game 3). We’ll be watching to see heralded freshman Jack Leiter get his shot on the bump as well.
The bright spots? Rocker, of course. He won his first start Saturday, striking out 9 in 6 clean innings against UConn. And true freshman catcher CJ Rodriguez, who went 6-for-12 with 3 RBIs in the event.
3. But Vandy does have an issue …
While we’re prepared to write off the opening weekend for Vandy, and we love that pitching staff, how will the Commodores manage to score runs? Yes, third base standout Austin Martin (potential No. 1 pick in the 2020 MLB Draft) is back, but plenty of new faces highlight the Commodore lineup. They scored 8 against Cal Poly but only hit 1 home run and batted .240 overall in the 3 games. J.J. Bleday isn’t walking through that door.
4. Respect for the Rebels
Unlike a couple of league squads that decided to open the season against light competition, the No. 15 Ole Miss Rebels hosted No. 2 Louisville for a 3-game set. Not only did the Rebels keep the entire series competitive, but after dropping the opening game, they won the final 2 games, beating Louisville 8-6 on Saturday and 7-6 on Sunday. Ole Miss was picked 6th in the West by the coaches in the preseason rankings, but they are definitely capable of making some noise, even if football additions John Rhys Plumlee and Jerrion Ealy both struggled in the opening series. Ealy started 1 game and played in all 3. He went 0-for-3 with 2 strikeouts. Plumlee appeared in 2 games and struck out twice in 2 at-bats.
5. (Relative) struggles for Georgia
Again, it’s earlier than early, but No. 7 Georgia had some opening series struggles. First, ace Emerson Hancock gave up 6 runs in 4 innings against Richmond, and the Bulldogs escaped only due to a walk-off winner from Cole Tate, who started alongside his twin brother Connor, making them the first Bulldog brothers to start together in 6 seasons. After a solid win Saturday behind pitcher Cole Wilcox, Sunday required a comeback to squeak through win another 1-run win over Richmond on Sunday. The Dawgs are 3-0. It probably doesn’t mean much … but it wasn’t an ideal start.
6. It’s hard to say yet whether Tennessee and Auburn are very good
On the other end of the spectrum from Ole Miss, No. 13 Auburn played 4 with Illinois-Chicago and Tennessee hosted Western Illinois. Both series were absolute dominations, with UT outscoring the Bulldogs 45-4 and Auburn winning by a combined 44-7 mark. Like football teams playing FCS foes in Week 1, both teams showed impressive skills … but it’s hard to take much away from it.
7. Heston Kjerstad might be the SEC Player of the Year
Arkansas bowed out of last year’s College World Series after scoring just 4 total runs in 2 games. If switch-hitting junior outfielder Heston Kjerstad has anything to say about it, scoring runs in 2020 shouldn’t be an issue. In the Razorbacks’ opening series with Eastern Illinois, Kerstad hit 4 HRs as the Razorbacks picked up 3 wins. Pairing Kerstad with outstanding shortstop Casey Martin feels almost unfair.
8. Mississippi State might have found a standout pitcher
State boasts one of the most potent offenses in the SEC and thus the nation (5 starters chosen All-SEC 1st or 2nd team by the coaches), but the issue in 2020 will be quality pitching. Granted, the Bulldogs’ first series was against Wright State, but they still might have found (part of) the answer. Redshirt freshman Christian MacLeod struck out 11 Wright State hitters in 5 innings, allowing just 1 hit in a Saturday victory. It’s worth noting that State had 11,006 fans at the game — the school’s highest February attendance ever. They got an eyeful of the outstanding young lefty who might emerge as a key component for the Bulldogs.
9. Struggle bus for Kentucky
Kentucky opened its season by being swept by a TCU team that went 34-28 last year. The Wildcats struggled to score runs, and generally looked like the last-place team in the SEC East that the coaches predicted in the preseason. They were the lone SEC team to finish the opening weekend without a victory.
10. We could see 4 teams in Omaha again
The SEC was up-and-down, but there’s no shortage of teams in the league that showcased themselves as legitimate contenders for a spot in the College World Series. Last year, of course, the SEC made up half of the 8-team bracket. This year, Vandy, Florida, Georgia, Arkansas, Mississippi State, LSU and Auburn are all legitimate contenders, and opening weekend one suggested that sleeping on Texas A&M or Ole Miss might not be wise. It should be a wonderful season, at least based on the opening weekend.
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