9 Innings: Jack Leiter's no-hitter highlights opening weekend of SEC play
It’s been a long time — almost two calendar years — since we had SEC league baseball. Of course, COVID cut off the 2020 season before conference play. In the first weekend of SEC matchups since 2019, the word of the day was … parity. Only two teams pulled out the broom and swept their first series. But we had surprises, walk-offs, and least surprising, a sterling Vandy pitching performance. Here are 9 things you shouldn’t miss from the beginning of SEC baseball.
1. Jack Leiter throws no-hitter in SEC debut
So yes, we waited a long time to see Vandy second-year hurler Jack Leiter in SEC play. Saturday, he showed exactly what we waited for. Playing a top 20 South Carolina squad, Leiter allowed a first-inning walk … and absolutely nothing else. Not only was he almost perfect in no-hitting the Gamecocks, he also whiffed 16 batters.
Kumar Rocker was sharp on Friday in his conference opener, but Leiter stole the show. Not hard to see why some scouts think he might be the eventual standout of the dynamic duo.
— SEC Network (@SECNetwork) March 20, 2021
2. Rocker and Leiter and pray for rain?
Again, Rocker was superb on Friday, with 14 strikeouts over 8 strong innings. He did allow 2 earned runs, raising his ERA to 0.87. What a problem to have! Meanwhile, Leiter’s ERA dropped to 0.31. But third starter Thomas Schultz, who was so-so in Sunday’s 6-5 loss to South Carolina, has a 6.19 ERA.
Vandy’s hitting might not be at the top of the SEC. Rocker and Leiter are … but can the rest of the staff get them the ball in a position when they don’t have to be near-perfect come NCAA Tournament time?
3. Florida shows out
Florida had been a bit underwhelming since opening the season as the national No. 1 pick. But the Gators, after a 10-2 Wednesday loss to Florida State, opened SEC play with a 3-game sweep of Texas A&M. Tommy Mace and Jack Leftwich keep their hat in the ring for the SEC’s second-best pitching duo by each picking up wins on Thursday and Friday and keeping their ERAs around 2. Meanwhile, Jud Fabian hit his 8th homer of the year and could well end up as SEC Player of the Year.
4. Ole Miss answers the bell
The other SEC favorite to be strong out of the box in conference play was Ole Miss Rebels. Like Florida, they had an odd pre-conference loss, 13-1 against Louisiana Tech. But they followed that rocky moment by sweeping Auburn, showing some versatility in the process. From a 1-0 squeaker on Friday to a solid 6-5 Saturday win to a bizarre Sunday game that saw a 14-0 lead become a 14-9 game and then a 19-11 final, the Rebels showed a little of everything. Ace Gunnar Hogland was sharp on Friday, striking out 13 in 8 scoreless innings. Obviously, 19 runs on Sunday shows that the offense can show out as well.
5. An ugly Arkansas week gets turned around
What a weird week for Arkansas. After they had opened 12-0, the Razorbacks lost last Sunday to La. Tech, but held on to the nation’s top spot in the polls. They then had an 8-5 loss to Oklahoma on Tuesday, and opened league play by getting blasted by Alabama 16-1.
The Hogs then bounced back strong by winning Saturday and Sunday, 9-1 and 3-1, respectively. Obviously, when the pitching gives up 24 runs in two games, things will be a little harder than when they give up 2 runs in two games. Second-year pitcher Peyton Pallette had been sharp before Alabama jumped on him in an inning on Friday. Getting more consistent work from him in conference play might be a key.
6. State sharp, but can’t sweep LSU
Meanwhile, Mississippi State, another of the SEC squads bunched near the top of the standings, made its pitch to move up with a 10-2 win over Sanford on Tuesday and then 6-1 and 3-0 wins over LSU on Friday and Saturday.
LSU ace Jaden Hill was roughed up for the 2nd time in 3 starts Friday. MSU got to him for 9 hits and 6 earned runs in 7 1/3 innings. It was the 2nd time Hill allowed at least 6 runs in a start.
The Bulldogs do lead the SEC in ERA, at just over 2, and frankly, they were looking pretty sharp, holding LSU to 1 run while racking up 22 strikeouts over the Friday/Saturday wins. But the Tigers rallied on Sunday, picking up an 8-3 win to salvage something out of the week. That game was 2-2 in the sixth before LSU exploded late. The Tigers are 3rd in the SEC in runs scored, but are 12th in ERA, and could have a brutal season if the guys on the mound don’t turn it around.
7. A tough loss and then a walk-off winner for UGA
— Georgia Baseball (@BaseballUGA) March 20, 2021
The Bulldogs missed their midweek game but got a nice boost on Saturday, when Cole Tate delivered a walk-off winner in a 6-5 win over Tennessee. That came shortly after a bigger loss for the Bulldogs, when coach Scott Stricklin was ruled out for the series due to COVID-19. Associate coach Scott Daeley took the temporary helm and the win, but …
8. UT wins the series
Despite the walk-off on Saturday, Tennessee did a good job sandwiching that game around a pair of victories. UT third baseman Jake Rucker had 7 RBI during the series, including 5 in Friday’s 11-6 win. Sunday’s 4-1 win centered on righty pitcher Blade Tidwell, who held UGA to a run and 4 hits in 7 1/3 innings. Solid work for Tennessee.
9. Kentucky runs it off
Kentucky was slated for a spot at the bottom of the SEC, but the Wildcats have done pretty well in the early season with a 13-4 mark, now including winning their SEC opening series over Missouri. Of special note was how the Wildcats won Saturday’s game over the Tigers. Defensive replacement Cam Hill was hit by a pitch in the bottom of the 9th. He took second on a passed ball, stole third, and then scored the winning run on another passed ball. We can’t call it a walk-off, because Hill ran all the way around the bases for the win.
— Kentucky Baseball (@UKBaseball) March 20, 2021