9 Innings: Reviewing the SEC's performance in the NCAA Tournament regionals
With 9 SEC teams gaining NCAA Tournament berths, expectations were high for the conference. And while regional play did yield at least one massive disappointment (Florida), it mostly yielded great SEC squads taking care of business … along with one positive surprise. Here’s what you might have missed from the week that was in the SEC.
1. Arkansas digging deep
It wasn’t easy, but No. 1 seed Arkansas took care of business. After Friday’s 13-8 slugfest win over NJIT (which was probably the most fun team in the entire NCAA field), the Hogs handled Nebraska 5-1 on Saturday. Then on Sunday, Nebraska staved off elimination by returning the favor in a 5-3 decision that was Arkansas’s first loss since May 15 in Knoxville.
Monday’s elimination game tested the Hogs. They fell behind 2-0 in the 3rd inning and then did what they will do again, if faced with a back-against-the-wall situation. They gave the ball to Kevin Kopps and scratched away on offense. A run in the 5th, another in the 6th, and it was 2-2 in the 8th inning.
Arkansas’ 8th-inning rally may stand as the point where they took control of the NCAA field.
.@charliewelch_4 is the greatest pinch hitter of all-time.
? ESPN2 pic.twitter.com/ohZ4toXixu
— Arkansas Baseball (@RazorbackBSB) June 8, 2021
But one thing to remember– while the rally ended with a 3-run blast from pinch-hitter Charlie Welch that put the 6-2 game away, it started with a 2-out, nobody-on walk that Christian Franklin worked. It was 10-pitch at-bat, and Franklin was 0-for-3 with 3 strikeouts coming into that at-bat.
It took Franklin digging deep and working a professional at-bat to eventually worth things around to Welch for his dramatic blast. But Arkansas is like that — they’ll sneak up on teams with the small things before the big things seal the deal.
That, and 7 shutout innings from Kopps — the nation’s most dominant reliever.
The Super Regional with NC State awaits on Friday.
2. UT has a moment
The Vols swept through its regional with a 3-0 record, but their defining moment came in the opener. Yes, it’s easy to have some disbelief about a UT team that hasn’t reached these heights in decades. The Vols jumped out 5-2 on hard-hitting Wright State in their opener before falling behind 8-5. But with the bases loaded and 1 out in the 9th inning, Drew Gilbert walked it off.
Ice in his veins.
Drew Gilbert. pic.twitter.com/XOy6S3J1YW
— Tennessee Baseball (@Vol_Baseball) June 5, 2021
Lest anybody not believe in the Vols, they finished the deal from there, beating Liberty twice, with Gilbert homering again in each game.
Next up is a visit from LSU in the Super Regional, but that’s another story. …
3. LSU not going anywhere
LSU limped into the NCAA field. Frankly, the loss of what could have been an NCAA play-in game in Hoover to Georgia made LSU’s NCAA spot somewhat questionable. But the selection committee apparently knew what they were doing, because the Tigers went out to Eugene and delivered a not-going-away present to retiring coach Paul Mainieri.
LSU managed just 4 hits in a 3-0 loss to Gonzaga on Friday. LSU trailed 5-2 on Saturday before the bats awakened in a 6-5 win over Central Connecticut State that finished in extra innings. Sunday brought a 9-4 revenge win to knock out Gonzaga and then a 4-1 victory over Oregon.
Monday night’s rematch with Oregon was one for the ages. LSU led 2-0 in the 1st. Oregon led 4-2 in the 3rd. LSU led 6-5 in the 6th. Oregon led 7-6 in the 7th.
The Ducks still had a 1-run advantage in the 8th when LSU put together a huge inning. They just chipped away at the Ducks, scoring a run on a brilliant slide into the plate by Gavin Dugas on an infield grounder. They scored another when will-he-or-won’t-he-bunt strategy melted Oregon pitcher Kolby Somers’s mind and caused a balk. LSU followed with another run scoring single and held a 9-7 advantage.
In the 9th, would Maineri stick with tiring reliever Landon Marceaux or turn to closer Devin Fontenot? Fontenot warmed up, but Maineri stayed with Marceaux, and watch Oregon score a run, and put runners at 1st and 3rd … before flying out to end the game. LSU advanced, 9-8. Had ’em all the way.
— LSU Baseball (@LSUbaseball) June 8, 2021
Next up will be Tennessee.
4. Vandy getting the bats going
We all know Vandy can pitch. But when the Vandy Boys hit, as they did to the tune of 28 runs in their 3-0 run in Nashville, it’s just not fair. Oh yeah, Kumar Rocker and Jack Leiter combined to fan 20 and allow 1 run in 13 innings. Next up is a visit from East Carolina in the Super Regional.
5., Rebels hanging in there
Ole Miss wasn’t blowing anybody out, but they got the Ws in their region. The Rebels beat SEMO by 3 runs on Friday (in large part due to a Tim Elko grand slam), Florida State by a single run on Saturday, lost to Southern Miss on Sunday, but then picked up a 12-9 win over the Golden Eagles on Monday to advance. It really wasn’t as close as the score.
Tim Elko’s 2nd-inning grand slam staked the Rebels to a 9-0 edge.
GRAND SLAM. TIM ELKO.
— Ole Miss Baseball (@OleMissBSB) June 7, 2021
Elko hit another blast, and then Taylor Broadway shut down Southern Miss in the last two innings. But Elko. Yes, the most notable final score was this: Elko Homers on Monday 2, Elko healthy ACLs 1. Or this: Elko Grand Slams in Oxford Regional 2, Elko healthy ACLs 1.
The Rebels will travel to Tucson to face Arizona in a super-regional.
6. Bulldogs get back to normal
In its quick exit from the SEC Tournament, Mississippi State was eliminated after allowing 13 and 12 runs in its 2 games. In the regional in Starkville, the Bulldogs gave up 13 runs … in 3 games. A clean sweep of Samford, VCU and Campbell leads the Bulldogs onward. The only close game of the group was Campbell, but reliever Lucas Sims was lights out as State closed out a 6-5 win.
Can State’s pitching continue? They better, as Super Regional foe Notre Dame put up 50 (yes, 50) runs in its 3-0 run to a regional title. The guess here is that MSU won’t allow anything approaching that.
The Gators started the 2021 season as the No. 1 team in the nation. They finished it going 0-2 in their own regional bracket. The 5-3 loss to South Florida on Friday had to be humbling, but nowhere near as bad as the 19-1 drubbing by South Alabama on Saturday that ended UF’s season. Sure, other regional hosts lost — Oregon, TCU, Louisiana Tech. But they didn’t go 0-2. Or finish their season with an 18-run loss.
Cue the Internet trash-talk …
I wanted a cookie cake and they asked what was the special occasion, so.. pic.twitter.com/PXKpsdsSsk
— Rach (@Rach_Charles) June 5, 2021
8. Bama and Carolina
The SEC’s other 2 departing squads were Alabama, which did win a 3-1 decision over Rider in between losses to NC State and Louisiana Tech, and South Carolina, which backed into a hosting spot even as a No. 2 seed. The Gamecocks beat Virginia 4-3 but then lost to Old Dominion 2-1 and then Virginia 3-2. It’s telling that the Gamecocks put up just 7 runs in 3 regional games. The lack of hitting ultimately doomed them.
9. Super Regional first thoughts
Six SEC squads advanced to the NCAA’s round of 16. How many will make Omaha? Well, 1 definitely will and 1 definitely won’t, thanks to the UT/LSU matchup in Knoxville.
How many of the other 4 look good?
Ole Miss has to travel to Tucson, but if Elko keeps playing Roy Hobbs/Jake Taylor/Babe Ruth, the Rebels have to feel pretty good. The others? Arkansas, Vandy, and MSU all are playing well and have earned their regional-hosting status.
Like Arkansas in its regional matchups, there will probably be a few nervous moments. But all 3 of those look virtually certain for Omaha.