6 biggest SEC storylines heading into Super Regionals
Omaha is just 2 wins away for 6/14ths of the SEC. Granted, either LSU or Tennessee will knock out the other, so all 6 can’t advance … but it still seems likely that Omaha will look a lot like Hoover did, in terms of the numerous SEC participants. What should we watch this weekend? Here are 6 storylines to follow as Super Regionals start Friday.
1. Can Arkansas advance without burning out Kopps?
First things first — the Hogs have to keep winning, and that was a little close for comfort in their regional bracket. But they also used bullpen ace Kevin Kopps for 71 pitches on Saturday and then brought him back for 90 more in Monday’s comeback with over Nebraska. He’s a massive weapon for Arkansas, but only once all season had Kopps thrown as many as 71 pitches — he threw 72 in an April win over Texas A&M. But Kopps hadn’t pitched for 6 days before that game, didn’t pitch for 5 days following it, and threw 34 pitches when he did. The Hogs can’t afford to save him against a superb NC State squad, but they could hit some snags in Omaha if they keep using him so extensively.
2. What happens with Vandy if they get to Sunday?
The Commodores will throw Kumar Rocker on Friday and Jack Leiter on Saturday. If they win both, they’ll advance. But if they don’t, it could get interesting. Vandy’s No. 3 starter has been unsettled at best. In the regional, they went with Patrick Reilly, who has a 4.89 ERA on the season. And Vandy had to score 14 runs to win that game in extra innings. Thomas Schultz (4-2, 4.19) and Christian Little (3-1, 5.02) would also be possibilities, but Vandy would love to get to Omaha without the benefit of a third game. If they don’t, they might need to score plenty of runs to ward off East Carolina.
3. Can Tim Elko keep it up?
Slugging Ole Miss first baseman Tim Elko tore his ACL on April 5. Elko had 9 home runs at the time of his injury, and the Rebels stood to miss his power for the rest of the season.
Or not. Elko was back playing again, with a brief appearance on May 1, but he was back in the regular lineup soon thereafter. The crazy thing is that Elko his 9 home runs with 2 ACLs. He’s now hit 7 more with only one intact knee. He had a pair against Vandy in Hoover. He had a pair in the elimination game of Ole Miss’s regional (including a grand slam) and had another grand slam in the first game of regional play.
Despite giving up 19 runs to Southern Miss in the last 2 games in Oxford, the Rebels have pitching depth. They looked like they might not have much power without Elko. But as long as he can hobble up to bat, Elko can keep rewriting that narrative … and might just lead the Rebels to an upset at Arizona.
4. Can Jackson Fristoe contribute for MSU?
Freshman pitcher Jackson Fristoe was outstanding early in the season for Mississippi State. But tabbed for a regional start on Monday, Fristoe got just a single out and allowed 3 runs before departing. Command of the strike zone has been a significant issue. Since the beginning of May, Fristoe has walked 12 batters in 8 1/3 innings. He still has the rocket arm (67 strikeouts in 48 innings). But the Bulldogs might need the pitching depth in the Super Regional matchup with a hard-hitting Notre Dame team that put up 50 runs in their regional matchups.
5. Will Vols act like they’ve been there before?
It’s been a season of outright firsts and plenty of first-in-a-long-time moments for Tennessee baseball. The Vols haven’t hosted a Super Regional since … well, ever. The field expanded in 1999, and while they’ve won 2 Super Regionals since then, both were on the road.
The Vols find themselves in something of a surprising spot as a solid favorite over a surprising LSU team. The Tigers played a 3-game set in Knoxville in March and UT swept that series, albeit by a total of just 4 runs cumulatively. With a (relative) rags to riches story like the Vols’, the next question is can they handle success? Will UT play like it did in March and handle this easily. Or will the gravity of the moment catch up with them?
6. Does retiring LSU coach Paul Manieri have any more motivational aces up his sleeve?
On the other hand, Paul Manieri is a wily old veteran of the NCAA field. He’s been to Omaha 5 times at LSU, but one thing he hasn’t done is win a Super Regional as a road team. But his team is motivated by their coach’s impending retirement, and infielder Gavin Dugas is swinging a red-hot bat.
The SEC-on-SEC battle for a spot in Omaha might be the biggest story in the sport. And while LSU is an underdog, if Manieri hasn’t used his last “Win one for the Gipper” speech, he might just pull it out in Knoxville.