9 Innings: Arkansas/Tennessee showdown, surprises from Ole Miss and Mizzou highlight the week
We only have one week left in the SEC baseball regular season. While one division race is all but finished, another is very much up for grabs. Meanwhile, one of the SEC’s baseball dwellers just beat a top-5 team in a series. It was a week that will resonate in terms of postseason implication s… so let’s track down exactly what happened and what it all means.
1. Arkansas rallies late to hold off UT, stays No. 1 in country
The Arkansas/Tennessee series was as good as it should have been. The showdown of division leaders was a split heading into Sunday. Friday, the Vols scored 5 in the 1st inning and then watched Arkansas rally for a 6-5 win. In part, the win was saved by a brilliant catch in left field by Arkansas’ Braydon Webb.
— Arkansas Baseball (@RazorbackBSB) May 15, 2021
Saturday, it was UT rallying for 3 runs in the bottom of the 9th, including a Max Ferguson walk-off shot to even the series.
— SEC Network (@SECNetwork) May 15, 2021
Heading into the 7th inning in Knoxville on Sunday, UT led 1-0 and had a chance to grab the series. Then the Hogs put together a single run in the 7th, 8th and 9th innings. UT wouldn’t be outdone, rallying for a run to draw within 3-2 before a fly out ended the series with another impressive Arkansas win. But that’s not all …
2. Postgame melee
File under “What was that?” It’s hardly the first rodeo for Dave Van Horn or Tony Vitello. Remember that Vitello coached for Arkansas in the middle of the previous decade. Something certainly had both men riled up after the end of Sunday’s game. Neither coach wanted to put a name to the cause of the scuffle, but suffice it to say that UT and Arkansas might not be exchanging Christmas cards anytime soon.
Tony Vitello and Dave Van Horn postgame of Tennessee-Arkansas. pic.twitter.com/9tpxROC7Jy
— Dan Harralson (@danharralson) May 17, 2021
3. Mizzou with a shocker
So with Arkansas battling for its life against UT, second-place Mississippi State had a chance to pull back into the driver’s seat in the SEC West. Until the Bulldogs lost their series against Missouri (7-20), owners of the worst record in the SEC.
Thursday, State rallied with a 3-run 7th inning to grab a 5-4 win. But then the bottom fell out. Friday brought a 9th-inning run via an infield single that handed Mizzou a 7-6 victory. Saturday was the kicker, though — 8 MSU pitchers gave up 16 runs as the Tigers took an 8-0 lead en route to a 16-8 victory. Four MSU errors didn’t help the struggling hurlers. By losing a series at home to Mizzou, the Bulldogs fell to 2 games back of Arkansas heading into the final week of play, all but assuring the Razorbacks of the division title.
They also slipped in the weekly Baseball America Top 25 poll.
Arkansas stayed No. 1 for the 12th consecutive week. Vanderbilt stayed No. 2, despite losing a series to Ole Miss (more on that in a minute). Tennessee remained at No. 5, Mississippi State fell 3 spots to No. 6, Florida moved up 1 spot to No. 8, Ole Miss surged 6 spots to No. 11 and South Carolina moved up 3 places to No. 21.
4. Ole Miss tops Vandy after Leiter dominates
Meanwhile, Ole Miss looked stuck in 3rd in the West, particularly with Gunnar Hoglund now shut down for the season due to arm issues. Funny thing was that nobody told the Rebels, who faced down Vandy in a crucial series in both SEC divisions.
The Rebels opened with a 3-1 victory on Friday as Doug Nikhazy outdueled Kumar Rocker. Then they won the series Sunday, taking out the whooping stick with a 10-run 3rd inning en route to a 13-10 victory.
— SEC Network (@SECNetwork) May 16, 2021
The Rebels are still a game behind MSU for 2nd place, but between their success and the Bulldogs’ struggles, they could yet move up a spot.
It wasn’t a total loss for Vandy, however. Rocker pitched fairly well Friday, but more important, Jack Leiter returned to the mound with authority Saturday. After being roughed up in 3 consecutive starts, Leiter struck out 13 and allowed 1 run in 6 dominant innings as Vandy won Saturday’s game 13-2.
5. Florida flubs a chance
So in the East, UT lost its series and so did Vandy. Florida entered Sunday with a chance to pull even with the Vols and move ahead of the Commodores in the East. All they had to do was finish off a series with Georgia in which UF had won the first 2 games 4-3 and 9-2. But the Bulldogs picked up 3 first-inning runs and then scattered 8 UF hits into only a single run allowed in a 6-1 win.
The fallout from this game? Well, UF stays in 3rd in the East (and tied for 4th overall). UGA climbs over Kentucky in the East standings, and the Bulldogs may yet nab the league’s last NCAA Tournament spot with a good performance in Hoover.
6. Carolina hoping to host
Meanwhile, South Carolina climbed out of its recent struggles with a sweep of Kentucky that leaves the Gamecocks drawing closer to a potential regional hosting spot. Columbia was among the 20 potential spots the NCAA singled out.
The Gamecocks host Tennessee in the final series this weekend. Saturday’s finale is on SEC Network (12 p.m. ET). The Gamecocks need a series win to improve their hosting status.
7. LSU staying alive
Meanwhile, LSU picked up a pivotal win, nabbing its home series against Alabama. The Tigers gutted out a 2-1 win on Friday, despite being out-hit by Bama 13-5. Saturday saw the Tide draw even in a 6-5 contest. But Sunday’s rubber match had LSU up 8-2 after the 3rd inning en route to a 13-5 victory. This leaves LSU 1.5 games behind Bama, but the Tigers will play Texas A&M this coming weekend, while the Tide take on Mississippi State.
8. Auburn shooting for the SEC Tournament
Auburn won its series with Texas A&M, leaving the teams with identical records heading into the final week. The Tigers will take on Missouri while A&M plays LSU, so on the surface, it looks like Auburn has a healthy advantage for the final SEC Tournament spot. Speaking of which …
9. Postseason considerations
The situation for the SEC Tournament is getting clearer. The Top 4 seeds get byes into the double-elimination round. Arkansas is all but guaranteed a spot, Tennessee is in pretty good shape, and Vandy is getting ready to finish the regular season with Kentucky. That final bye could go to Florida, Mississippi State or maybe Ole Miss. Florida has to play Arkansas, so the tie between UF and MSU is likely to break in the Bulldogs’ favor.
The bottom 2 teams don’t make the tournament. Auburn and A&M are tied at 8-19 in SEC play and Mizzou (7-20 in SEC) trails both by a game. As Auburn just won its series and has the easier road this week, it is likely to grab the last spot.
In NCAA terms, Arkansas, Florida, Mississippi State, Ole Miss, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Vandy all made the list of 20 potential regional host sites, from which the NCAA will choose 16. Carolina feels like the team most likely to be sweating out that process, and the others seem more or less safe. Who else makes the field? It could be 2 teams from a final 3 of Georgia, LSU, and Alabama, but it feels more like only 1.