9 Innings: Look out, Omaha. Here comes the SEC
And then there were 3. Well, yes, “only” 3/8ths of the College World Series field came from the SEC. It could easily have been 5/8ths. But here at “9 Innings,’ we look back on the week that was, and start thinking about the games to come.
1. Vandy can stick with Kumar and Jack and pray for rain
The conventional wisdom in Nashville was that Vandy could be in trouble if East Carolina could force them to Game 3. It didn’t happen. Twin aces Kumar Rocker and Jack Leiter combined for 14 2/3 innings pitched and allowed 5 hits and a single run. That yielded 2 victories in quick succession. Vandy’s hitting was fairly lackluster, amounting to just 6 runs over the Super Regional sweep. But if the Vandy Boys can keep it riding on Rocker and Leiter, their path to another World Series title is clear.
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2. UT taking care of business
All credit to the Tennessee Vols, headed back to Omaha for the first time since 2005. UT is 5-0 in the NCAA Tournament and has won with offense (9-8, 9-3, 15-6) and hanging in on pitching duels (3-1, 4-2). UT might be the most versatile team left, and much of postseason baseball success is winning games in different ways. Note that the Vols get Virginia first in Omaha — the lowest-ranked squad left in the bracket. A potential Mississippi State semifinal and Vandy final would be something.
— Tennessee Baseball (@Vol_Baseball) June 13, 2021
3. Oh, no, Arkansas
The Razorbacks hadn’t lost a series all year. And after beating NC State 21-2 to open the Super Regional, that looked certain to continue. After all, as ESPN’s Ben McDonald seemed to remind us all every third pitch or so, the team that wins the first game in a Super Regional goes on to win 80% of the best-of-3 series matchups. That didn’t happen. NC State rallied for 6-5 and 3-2 wins, and Arkansas was gone.
4. Not partying like it’s 1999
It’s an absurd thing, but there has been a fair amount of social media venom out there for Arkansas coach Dave Van Horn. The last time the No. 1 overall seed won the College World Series? That would be 1999. Think of the NCAA Baseball Tournament as March Madness on steroids. One more timely hit and Arkansas would be in Omaha as a favorite to win. A bad break or two does not cancel a great season.
5. Kopps business
The most controversial part of Arkansas’s final 3-2 loss will be Van Horn’s handling of Arkansas reliever Kevin Kopps. Kopps was a relief ace all season. He had started 6 games previously in his Arkansas career, with 5 of those in his freshman season. But Van Horn not only started him, but left him in the game for 118 pitches in the finale. Kopps wasn’t bad. He allowed 3 runs in 8 innings, and certainly gave Arkansas a chance to win the game. But fatigue had to be a factor on the grooved breaking ball that NC State’s Jose Torres turned around for the 9th inning home run that was the difference in the game. For the record, not only wasn’t Kopps a starter, but he hadn’t topped 72 pitches until he threw 90 in the elimination game win over Nebraska in the previous round of the Tournament. He threw 21 pitches on Saturday, and then was left on the mound for eternity on Sunday. Nobody will mistake Van Horn for Tampa Bay Rays manager Kevin Cash (he of the quick World Series hook to Blake Snell), but it was a rough ending for a pitcher who deserved better.
T9 | OH MY DEAR GOD JOSE TORRES HITS THE GO-AHEAD BOMB!!!
NCSU 3, ARK 2 pic.twitter.com/J7j2QqXAmf
— #Pack9 ⚾️ (@NCStateBaseball) June 14, 2021
6. Ole Miss a game short
The Rebels had long odds, going on the road to face Arizona and promptly dropping Game 1. Ole Miss rebounded with an impressive 12-3 win to face a decisive third game on Sunday. But after Doug Nikhazy was tough (10 strikeouts in 5 1/3 innings) on Saturday, the pitching came up lacking on Sunday. The Rebels trailed 3-1 in the 4th inning, but then Arizona dropped a 7-spot on them, effectively ending the season. Taylor Broadway made his first start of the season and couldn’t get out of that dreadful 4th inning. Tough time to have an off pitching performance, to say the least.
7. Mainieri out in style
LSU didn’t pull off a miracle over UT, but retiring Tigers coach Paul Mainieri still was well-represented by his overachieving squad. Earlier this season, Mainieri became the 11th coach to reach 1,500 NCAA wins. Nobody who coached in the SEC ever won more. Of course, Mainieri’s legacy goes beyond wins and losses, and his postgame reaction spoke volumes about just how much he’ll miss the game (and inversely, how much he’ll be missed).
Asked about his thoughts in the 9th, Mainieri broke down. Said he was thinking about his late dad, his family.
“I don’t want people to be sad for me. I’ve been the luckiest guy in the world. 39 years of being able to live out a childhood dream. Who could ask for more?”#LSU
— Scott Rabalais (@RabalaisAdv) June 13, 2021
8. State finds its way in
Mississippi State had literally the last spot in the CWS field in its sights, with an 11-7 Monday win over a tough Notre Dame team. Pitching did not come through for the Bulldogs as they allowed 8, 9, and 7 runs in their Super Regional showdown. The good news is that the bats came to life. Trailing Notre Dame 7-3 on Saturday, State rode some small ball and a 7th inning Logan Tanner home run for a 9-8 win. After getting smacked 9-1 on Sunday, State had the opposite experience on Monday, jumping out 7-1 after the 2nd inning, but then hanging on for an 11-7 victory. Closer Landon Sims nailed it down with 4 innings, and now State gets Texas, the top-ranked team left. State beat the Horns 8-3 to open the season back on February 20.
9. SEC showdowns?
So the bracket allows for a couple of wild ideas. State and Tennessee could face off in one semifinal and the winner could then get Vandy from the other side of the bracket. Either is intriguing — a Tennessee state battle … or a showdown between 2 SEC teams that didn’t win their regular-season division races for the national title. What could be more representative of the SEC than that?