9 Innings: Big battle on top of the SEC as conference play arrives
Conference play is finally here. Well, almost. After a pre-conference slate that’s seen the SEC dominate the national polls but also play musical chairs with the No. 1 spot, SEC play begins Friday. With teams going through the final pre-conference tune-ups, there was plenty of must-see baseball in the season’s fourth week. Here are the 9 things to know as we count down toward the start of SEC play:
1. SEC teams still dominating the polls
The top 4 teams remained unchanged in this week’s Baseball America poll. And all 4 are SEC teams: No. 1 Arkansas, No. 2 Mississippi State, No. 3 Vanderbilt, No. 4 Ole Miss. Florida is No. 6.
2. Arkansas is human … but Hogs still No. 1
The fourth SEC team to occupy the nation’s top spot, Arkansas looked like they would remain the league’s last unbeaten team. That lasted until Sunday, when they met Louisiana Tech ace Jarret Whorff, Whorff held the Razorbacks to 2 hits and piled up 10 strikeouts in a 2-0 win that left the entire SEC holding at least 1 preconference loss. Before that, the Hogs had looked good.
Friday’s game was an instant classic for Arkansas, as a 3-run rally in the 8th inning tied the game, only for shortstop Jalen Battles to deliver an impressive 10th-inning blast that preserved the perfect season for the time being. Last week, it was Robert Moore and this week it was Battles. Certainly a promising sign ahead of what promises to be a crazy SEC season.
JALEN BATTLES WANTS TO STAY UNDEFEATED pic.twitter.com/5jSkUQYvFV
— Céspedes Family BBQ (@CespedesBBQ) March 13, 2021
3. Aces dominate, but then Vandy loses, too
Arkansas’ loss might have left Vandy poised to jump the Razorbacks. But the Commodores couldn’t handle prosperity either, dropping a 10-6 decision to Oklahoma State on Sunday. Vandy fell behind 8-0 in the third and battled to within 9-6 before the comeback ran out of steam. That said …
Surprise, surprise, but the Rocker & Leiter continue to be untouchable. Before the loss to OK State, the Commodores won the first two games of the series easily. In a Saturday doubleheader, Rocker worked 8 shutout innings of 2-hit, 9-strikeout ball. Leiter followed with 5 shutout innings of 2-hit, 7-strikeout pitching. The season ERA numbers? Rocker’s at 0.39, Leiter’s at 0.45.
— NCAA Baseball (@NCAACWS) March 14, 2021
4. LSU ace Jaden Hill bounces back
Hill, a potential early first-round pick in June, was rocked last week, but he quickly got back to his dominant ways Friday.
The hard-throwing righty struck out 6 in in 6 2/3 scoreless innings to lead LSU to a 3-1 victory over UT-San Antonio.
The Tigers went 5-0 last week. They’re unranked in the BA poll but do appear in a few other college polls.
5. Mississippi State’s pitching steps up
How can you compete with teams like Vandy? Well, Mississippi State has been working on its own staff. The Bulldogs played 5 games this week, and while Grambling, Louisiana and Eastern Michigan won’t be mistaken for the 1927 Yankees, State held them to a combined 2 runs and 18 hits over the week. On a week with 3 shutouts, State made its claim to edge into the No. 1 spot ahead of conference play. State is second in the SEC in ERA and strikeouts, and given their solid approach on offense, that bodes well.
6. Ole Miss also with the Sunday struggles
Ole Miss also had a chance to return to No. 1, but then the Rebels lost 8-3 Sunday to UL-Monroe. On the strength of a 5-run fourth inning, the Warhawks took control of the game. That was especially unfortunate because …
7. Rebels had some walk-off magic
Junior outfielder Kevin Graham had previously pulled off the late rally for Ole Miss on Saturday. The Rebels trailed 5-4 in the ninth inning, but after a hit by pitch to SEC RBI leader Tim Elko, Graham sent everybody home a little early.
WALK IT OFF! REBS WIN! pic.twitter.com/W1pdORJLMM
— Ole Miss Baseball (@OleMissBSB) March 13, 2021
8. Tough week for South Carolina
After an 11-0 start, South Carolina was swept in a 3-game set with Texas over the weekend. Texas jumped from No. 20 to No. 10 in the BA poll; South Carolina slipped 2 spots to No. 12. The shocking part was that Texas shut out the Gamecocks on Friday and held them to a single run Saturday. Wes Clarke did deliver his 9th home run on Sunday, but the Gamecocks have to do a better job of manufacturing runs in SEC play.
It won’t be easy. The Gamecocks open SEC play this weekend against Rocker & Leiter at Vanderbilt.
9. Up and down Florida
Florida had a rough Friday in a wild home contest, giving up four ninth-inning runs to Jacksonville to apparently open up a competitive game into a 10-5 deficit. Lo and behold, the Gators rallied for four runs in the bottom of the ninth on a pair of two-run homers from Josh Rivera and Jud Fabian. UF then ran out of gas, losing 10-9. The Gators did rally to comfortably win the other two games of the series. The Gators are 10th in the SEC in ERA (3.36), but if they can lower than even slightly, they’ll be fine by the late-season run.