9 Innings: Razorbacks flex on Miss State in No. 1 vs. 2 showdown, Jack Leiter stays unhittable and so much more ...
It was a busy sports week, aside from those odds and ends of basketball games in Indiana. The race for the top of the SEC started to gain some definition and Vanderbilt pitcher Jack Leiter makes us all question our sanity. There are plenty of surprises, more than a few rallies and plenty to sift through on this week’s jaunt around SEC baseball.
1. Woo, Pig, Sooie
Vandy may have claimed the top spot in every national ranking but Baseball America’s, but Arkansas had a better week. The Razorbacks (ranked No. 1 by BA) went to Starkville to face then-No. 2 Mississippi State … and absolutely dropped the hammer on the Bulldogs.
It wasn’t that Arkansas swept the series (they did), it’s that they did it by a 25-11 margin. Sunday’s 6-4 matchup was the only close game. Arkansas did it with a balanced attack.
On Sunday, nobody had more than a single RBI, and nobody in the lineup ended the game with a higher average than catcher Casey Opitz’s .338 mark. But a 5-run 4th inning was the difference Sunday. On Saturday, a 3-0 first-inning deficit became an 11-5 win, with outfielder Christian Franklin’s 3-run homer providing a lead the Razorbacks never relinquished. And on Friday, 3 of the first 5 batters of the series homered en route to an 8-2 triumph. Before the series, Arkansas dispatched Memphis in 2 mid-week thumpings. Arkansas is likely to be back on top of all the rankings this coming week.
2. And a milestone for Dave Van Horn
Arkansas coach Van Horn reached a coaching pinnacle on Sunday with his 1,300th win in college baseball. Van Horn’s first head coaching job was at Division II Northwestern State before he moved on to Nebraska and then for almost two decades, Arkansas. He’s the 28th coach in NCAA history to reach 1,300 wins, and he could approach the top 20 in baseball wins this season … although Mike Martin’s 2,029 victories is still more than a few good seasons away.
3. Tennessee stepping up
Outside the clump of top teams, in the SEC, Tennessee kind of slides under the radar. Or it did before it swept its series with LSU — only the second time that’s happened in UT baseball history.
The Vols surged to No. 10 in this week’s Baseball America poll. (SEC teams were No. 1 Arkansas, No. 2 Vanderbilt, No. 3 Ole Miss, No. 5 Mississippi State, No. 10 Tennessee, No. 11 South Carolina, No. 14 Florida.)
The Vols went the nail-biter route, winning 3-1, 9-8 and 3-2. It’s a big development for UT to move toward the head of the second tier of SEC teams, because honestly, as the season winds along, the top of the second tier will blend into the bottom of the first tier and likely yield some pretty good NCAA Tournament matchups. But extra credit to UT for …
4. Back-to-back walk-offs
The Saturday win (which actually finished early on Sunday afternoon, after the game was suspended in the 9th inning) ended with a walk-off blast from sophomore outfielder Drew Gilbert. He crushed a fastball to deep right field, over the wall and out of the park … until it bounced back in. A confused Gilbert initially stopped at second base, but he completed his circuit of the bases and video confirmed that yes, his blast was indeed a blast.
The Sunday game’s ending was a little more pedestrian, as Luc Lipcius’ liner to center skidded just in front of LSU outfielder Will Safford’s glove, providing the walk-off margin. But to not only sweep the Tigers but have a Sunday to remember with dueling walk-offs … well, that was one for the UT record books.
5. Carolina turns it around
Meanwhile, it was also a salvaging weekend for a South Carolina team that had eeked out a 1-2 mark against Vandy the previous weekend. This time, the Gamecocks pulled out the brooms and swept slumping Florida.
If the USC season has a turning point, it could well be Friday night, when Carolina out-hit Florida 20-9 but needed 14 innings to deliver the big blow, a walk-off gapper from catcher Colin Burgess. With that particular Gator off their backs, Carolina swept Saturday and Sunday in 4-1 and 8-5 victories. Much of the wind is back in Carolina’s sails after a weekend to remember.
6. Jack Leiter hasn’t found his good stuff?
Vandy standout Jack Leiter followed a no-hitter in his first SEC start by going 7 more hitless innings against Missouri in Friday’s 11-3 win over the Tigers.
Vandy took a combined no-hitter down to the final out of the game before Mizzou broke through for a pair of hits and a trio of runs. But the best part of Leiter opening his SEC career with 16 hitless innings (26 strikeouts during those innings, FYI)? He insists that he hasn’t had his good stuff yet.
What? Leiter’s ERA is a robust 0.25. Heaven help everybody swinging a bit if he finds his good stuff.
Incidentally, the Commodores swept Mizzou. Kumar Rocker’s ERA is 0.97 as the duo continues its quest to become the first set of college teammates drafted No. 1 and No. 2 in baseball history. And also …
7. Kumar’s web gem
If Leiter is going to steal all the attention for pitching, maybe his older teammate becomes the fielding specialist?
8. Kentucky delivering a surprise
Kentucky’s contract extension for head coach Nick Mingione was somewhat surprising … but the Wildcats might just have had an ace up their sleeve. After winning 2 of 3 from Missouri last weekend, the Wildcats went to Auburn and pulled off a sweep — their first series win at Auburn since 2004, and first sweep at the Tigers since 1992. Not unlike Tennessee’s sweep over LSU, Kentucky took care of business in close games, winning 8-6, 7-6 and 6-4. The Wildcats are 5-1 in SEC play (while Auburn is 0-6).
9. The Rebels keep rolling
Ole Miss stayed near the top of the conference, picking up its own sweep at Alabama. The bats did much of the work, with first baseman Tim Elko finishing the series on a roll, going 4-for-5 with a double and a homer and increasing his RBI total to a league-leading 34. Meanwhile, two-sport standout John Rhys Plumlee got the start on Saturday and contributed a double and a pair of RBIs. Plumlee is hitting a workmanlike .263 on the season, and the Rebels are showing no signs of falling off the pace for the SEC’s best.