9 Innings: Arkansas, Vandy shine in a wild SEC week
Another SEC week, another group of big stories and big endings. Vandy struggled, but ultimately won a big series with Mississippi State; Ole Miss also struggled but provided an ending for the ages, and Arkansas just kept moving along.
Here’s the SEC baseball week that was:
1. Vandy finds a way in top-5 showdown vs. MSU
The Commodores followed last week’s series in Knoxville by hosting then-No. 2 ranked Mississippi State in yet another massive SEC showdown.
Vandy won 2 of the 3 games, which helped it jump up to No. 2 in this week’s Baseball America Top 25 poll. (Arkansas remained No. 1 for the 10th consecutive week. MSU slid back to No. 4. Tennessee remained No. 7. South Carolina dropped 3 spots to No. 12. Florida moved up 2 spots to No. 16. Ole Miss fell 5 spots to No. 17, and Georgia entered the rankings at No. 22.)
Kumar Rocker was sharp on Friday, pitching a complete-game 3-hitter in Vandy’s 6-2 win. But State answered on Saturday, with Will Bednar outdueling Jack Leiter in a 7-4 MSU win. Leiter gave up 4 earned runs in his 5 innings of work, and his ERA continues to threaten rising to humanly possible levels (currently 1.49, just ahead of Rocker’s 2nd place 1.55 in the SEC standings).
Leiter, nearly untouchable in his first 8 starts, has allowed 7 earned runs in his past 2 starts, both Vandy losses.
In Sunday’s rubber match, State jumped out to a 4-0 advantage in the second inning and looked likely to nab the series in Nashville. Not so fast.
Vandy scored 2 runs in the 4th, 3 more in the 5th and another pair in the 6th for a 7-4 victory. Sophomore Carter Young’s 3-run blast in the 5th was the shot that cinched Vandy’s comeback, and kept the ‘Dores on top of the SEC East after another must-see series.
— Vanderbilt Baseball (@VandyBoys) April 25, 2021
2. Top-ranked Razorbacks stay on top
No. 1 Arkansas won the first and last games of its series with South Carolina, and despite dropping the middle game, ends the week a full 2 games ahead of the SEC West division race. They’re also the lone SEC team that hasn’t lost a series this season. The Razorbacks succeeded largely with pitching, giving up just 8 runs over the series. This was kind of a surprise, as UA’s 4.08 ERA is in the middle of the SEC pack.
What Arkansas has been great at is slugging homers — the Hogs lead the country with 74, more than a dozen ahead of the rest of the SEC. Robert Moore slugged a pair on Thursday … but that wasn’t the weekend’s big homer story.
3. Have a day, TJ Collett
Kentucky won its series with Alabama, moving to 9-9 on the SEC season. The story was senior first baseman TJ Collett, who hit 3 homers in the second game of Sunday’s doubleheader win. That moved him to 14 for the season, just 1 behind Carolina’s Wes Clarke for the league lead. Collett his 3rd in the SEC with 45 RBIs. Can he carry Kentucky into NCAA Tournament contention?
Today was like one of those (big) fly dreams…
— Kentucky Baseball (@UKBaseball) April 25, 2021
4. A comeback for the ages
Ole Miss had spent the last 2 weekends losing matchups with Arkansas and Mississippi State. The bad news is that they lost yet another series, as LSU won 5-4 on Thursday and 7-2 on Friday. A Tigers sweep would have hurt the Rebels’ standing in the West and might have redeemed an awful season for LSU. And when the Tigers jumped to a 9-1 lead in the 5th inning on Saturday, it looked likely. When that lead was 9-1 in the 8th inning, it looked certain.
Ole Miss had a runner on first base with 2 outs. They trailed by 8 runs, with 4 outs left in the game. And they won.
Ole Miss was down 9-1 entering the 8th.
— SEC Network (@SECNetwork) April 25, 2021
Walk, single (9-2), homer (9-5), single, hit by pitch, walk, homer (9-9).
That looks easy on paper. But to run through that without making the final out of the inning? And particularly when facing a potential sweep in a season-altering moment? Well, it’s the stuff of legends.
What else could happen in the 9th but a walk-off blast? Rebels 10, Tigers 9.
5. But still …
Despite the heartbreaker, LSU won its first series in Oxford since 2014. Don’t sleep on the Tigers. After next week’s series with Arkansas, they finish SEC play with weekends against Auburn, Alabama, and Texas A&M. LSU has a great chance to finish 4th in the West and will be very much in play for the NCAA Tournament.
6. Tennessee keeps pace
With Vandy’s big series win against MSU, the Vols had to win their series to hold serve against Texas A&M, and they did just that. After a 6-1 UT win and a 6-5 A&M win in Saturday’s doubleheader, on Sunday, UT dropped the offensive hammer with a 20-run juggernaut.
The Vols actually trailed 6-5 in the 5th inning, but they ripped 21 hits off 8 Aggies pitchers. UT’s bullpen shut down A&M and ensured a needed series win that kept UT within a single game of first-place Vandy in the East.
— Tennessee Baseball (@Vol_Baseball) April 25, 2021
7. Florida being kind of meh
For the second straight week, against one of the SEC’s lowest-ranked squads, Florida won the series but did so in about as unimpressive of fashion as possible. This time, it was Auburn, stuck in the SEC West basement. Florida won 2 of 3 games, with the final series margin being 18-16. Probably more disturbing, Tommy Mace and Jack Leftwich combined forces on one of Saturday’s doubleheader games — the one the Gators lost, with each of them allowing 5 runs.
UF won the series and remains just 2 games behind Vandy, but the Gators squandered a golden chance to gain a game.
8. Likewise, Georgia … but Dawgs climb into Top 25
Meanwhile, Georgia ended up in the same situation in its series with last-place Missouri. UGA lost 6-4 Friday but won the final 2 games by 7-5 and 9-4 counts.
Georgia is tied for 5th in the East with Kentucky, with each team holding a 9-9 record. That’s probably mild overachievement for UK, but equally, a struggle for the Bulldogs.
UGA, which entered Baseball America’s Top 25 this week, needs a big weekend against Auburn, because their last three weekends include Arkansas, Florida, and Ole Miss.
9. NCAA Tournament talk
We’ve got a month’s worth of baseball left, not counting the SEC Tournament in Hoover. But it’s not too early to think about the NCAA Tournament and, ultimately, the College World Series. Potential regional hosting slots? Arkansas, Mississippi State, Vandy, potentially Tennessee and Ole Miss or Carolina. Also earning bids? Florida (which could still end up hosting), Georgia, LSU and one more — Alabama or Kentucky would be the 2 most likely to climb in. Still uncertain? That’s why they play the games.