9 Innings: Down goes Vandy, and more from a big SEC baseball week
SEC baseball had its usual crazy week — two top-3 teams faced off, Kentucky pulled off a nonconference surprise and Tennessee continued an historic run. But the story of the week was Vanderbilt losing a series (to Georgia) and seeing one of its two pitching aces fall to Earth. Here’s that story, and what else was going on in the SEC this week.
1. Georgia rocks Rocker, shocks Vandy
On the heels of a Tuesday loss to Georgia Southern, UGA entered their series in Nashville near the bottom of the SEC East and struggling with an 18-10 overall mark. And then they promptly won the series, racking up 14 runs on Vandy on Thursday and 9 on Saturday. In between, the Commodores had a 5-2 behind co-ace Jack Leiter (3 hits, 13 Ks in 7 innings), but Georgia was the talk of SEC baseball. UGA’s Connor Tate had 3 homers and 6 RBI in the series, but most shocking of all …
Georgia teed off on Kumar Rocker on Thursday. Yes, there had been whispers that Rocker’s velocity was down … but how much could a guy with a sub-1.00 ERA actually be struggling?
Well, Thursday, Rocker had a dozen strikeouts, but he also gave up 6 earned runs in his 5 innings of work, jumping his ERA to a merely human 1.88. Rocker gave up 3 homers on Thursday … which is more homers than he had allowed in his entire previous Vandy career.
Kumar Rocker 91-93 so far through three innings. FB command has been spotty. Slider has been what is always is sharp and 81-84. Threw one odd 77 mph CB spiked. Cutter is inconsistent/flat at times, 86-88. 7 Ks through 3 IP. 3 ER on 3-run bomb. #MLBDraft pic.twitter.com/MKTDvj7CS9
— Joe Doyle (@JoeDoyleMiLB) April 8, 2021
2. Arkansas upends Ole Miss
Meanwhile, in a top-3 battle, No. 1 Arkansas pulled off a series win at then-No. 3 Ole Miss, winning the first game of a Saturday doubleheader 7-3 before dropping the second game 13-6. (How about this celebration after Hayden Leatherwood smashed a 3-run homer in Game 2?)
— NCAA Baseball (@NCAABaseball) April 11, 2021
But if anybody thought the Razorbacks couldn’t win by doing things like giving up 13 runs, well, Sunday held yet another story.
3. Sunday slugfest
Arkansas won the series on Sunday despite allowing 14 runs … because it scored 18 themselves. Arkansas jumped out to an 11-0 advantage in the 3rd inning, and then held on for dear life. The Rebels actually pulled even at 14-14 after the seventh inning. But then Lane Kiffin’s offense bogged down… wait, this was baseball. Between both teams, 14 pitchers took the mound and only one, Ole Miss’s Tyler Myers, managed to avoid giving up a run. For the Rebels, control was the bugaboo, as they walked 17 Arkansas hitters.
Can Arkansas survive like this? Well, maybe. The Razorbacks have the most homers in the SEC, and interestingly, have hit into the fewest double plays. While having the 11th ranked ERA in the SEC might not be optimal, there’s no questioning whether the Hogs can put runs on the board.
4. Poll shuffling
After Arkansas, however, SEC teams shuffled around in the BA poll.
Mississippi State moved up 1 spot to No. 3. Tennessee continued its surge, jumping 2 spots to No. 5. Vanderbilt fell 4 spots to No. 6. Ole Miss fell 6 spots to No. 9. South Carolina slid back to No. 10. And Florida tumbled 9 spots to No. 19.
5. UT rise continues
Meanwhile, with Vandy’s surprising loss and another (mildly) surprising series result, UT finds itself tied for the lead in the SEC East. The Vols won 2 of 3 from Florida, knocking the Gators further to the middle of the SEC East race. UT held off Florida 6-4 on Friday and 5-4 on Saturday. Florida rallied in the 8th inning of Sunday’s game to pick off the finale by a 7-6 count.
How has UT fared so well? The pitching staff has been pretty solid, ranking 4th in the SEC with a 3.32 ERA. The hitters have gotten big hits. But perhaps a hidden key is walks. UT has a great dual-threat factor in leading the SEC in the most walks taken (195) and the fewest walks allowed (83). Three UT hitters are in the league’s top 10 in walks, including Liam Spence, who is also leading the league in batting average.
6. State lays the smack down
Mississippi State continued its banner season with an impressive sweep of Auburn. The first two games were fairly competitive at 6-5 and 7-2, but the Bulldogs dropped a 10-spot on the Tigers in the first inning of Sunday’s game en route to a 19-10 victory for the sweep. Outfielder Tanner Allen pulled off an impressive feat with 2 hits in that first inning alone, singling his first time up and then tripling later in the frame.
While the bats get the headlines, State is quietly second in the SEC in ERA and opposing batting average. While Vandy might (if Rocker is right) have better pitching and Arkansas might have better hitting, don’t sleep on State as the best all-around squad in the league.
7. Up and down week for Kentucky
Kentucky had a big Tuesday, pulling off a surprising 11-7 nonconference win at No. 7 Louisville. (The Cardinals rebounded over the weekend and now are No. 2 in the country, making UK’s win look even better.) Neither team had a top pitcher throwing, but Kentucky capitalized with 3 runs in the 2nd inning and 5 more in the 3rd to take a solid lead the Wildcats would not relinquish. Kentucky then faced struggling LSU, in a series that could have given the Wildcats momentum toward moving up in the East race but …
8. LSU rallies after losing ace Jaden Hill
Early in the week, the Tigers got the news that pitching phenom Jaden Hill was done for the season with a UCL team sustained in his disappointing outing against Vandy’s Jack Leiter. Despite first-round arm talent, Hill now has 3 wins and 51 1/3 innings pitched to show for three seasons in Baton Rouge.
— Kiley McDaniel (@kileymcd) April 5, 2021
But with his team’s backs against the wall, the Tigers, who opened SEC play 1-8, came out swinging. They blasted Kentucky for 15 runs on Friday and 8 more Saturday. Kentucky avoided the sweep with a 13-4 win on Sunday, but LSU did a great job finding some momentum after a rough start to the week.
9. Bama sweeps A&M
With the SEC season slated for its midway mark this coming weekend, Alabama is a team that’s seen a few ups and downs. On Tuesday, the Tide fell to UL-Monroe 5-3. But then they rallied for a sweep of struggling Texas A&M in College Station. That’s the kind of performance that could end up helping Alabama sneak into the College World Series — which isn’t that far off.