9 Innings: Rivalry shade, a showdown that wasn't, and much more
It’s April, SEC baseball is moving in full force, and the league continues to be must-see baseball. Don’t believe it? Start with all the major polls, which are playing swap-the-top-SEC-teams every week.
(This week, Baseball America ranked 7 SEC teams in the top 10: No. 1 Arkansas, No. 2 Vanderbilt, No. 3 Ole Miss, No. 4 Mississippi State, No. 7 Tennessee, No. 9 South Carolina and No. 10 Florida.)
Then move on to competitive weeks, where the victors might not necessarily even be those top teams. Add in some outstanding nonconference rivalry shade, an anticipated matchup that didn’t quite live up to its billing and plenty more. Here’s the week that was in SEC baseball.
1. Elite matchup? Halfway …
This weekend’s LSU/Vandy series confirmed that Vandy (winners by sweep) will be a tough, tough out down the SEC stretch and that the Tigers are the most disappointing team in the SEC.
A case in point? Friday’s matchup of SEC aces Jack Leiter and Jaden Hill. Hill is the more veteran of the two, an LSU standout who has a 98 mile per hour fastball. Leiter doesn’t throw quite as hard, but the second-year phenom has been literally unhittable, with 16 hitless innings to open his SEC pitching career. But the much-hyped matchup? Flatter than week old soda. Leiter was Leiter, working 6 innings of 3-hit ball while striking out a dozen Tigers. Hill … well, he pitched 1 1/3 innings in Vandy’s 11-2 win. Leiter’s season ERA ROSE to 0.43. Hill’s is sitting at 6.67. Ugh.
2. Vandy’s hitting
But the big development for the Commodores is at the plate. Everybody knew that Kumar Rocker and Leiter would be borderline unhittable/unbeatable. (They combined for 12 IP, 7 hits, 2 ER and 20 strikeouts in winning both of their starts against LSU.) The hope for the rest of college baseball was that Vandy’s bats would be mediocre, and the Commodores could be knocked off in close games. Or not. Right now, Vandy leads the SEC in batting average (.319, a full 20 points better than 2nd place Auburn), slugging percentage (.552, a full 50 points higher than 2nd place Arkansas) and runs scored (219). Of course, the pitching staff leads the league in ERA (2.24) and opposing batting average (.167). But if Vandy hits like it is … good luck, everybody else.
3. Florida responds in big way
After being swept by South Carolina last weekend, Florida needed to respond … and it did. Hosting a top-flight Ole Miss squad, Florida won the series, sandwiching a 4-1 win on Thursday and a 6-5 win on Saturday around an 8-2 loss Friday. Catcher Nathan Hickey had a big series, raising his average to. 359 on Saturday with a 2-hit game, including his 7th homer and 33rd RBI of the season.
A cool side story? Florida shortstop Jordan Carrion is also a reliever. He also happens to be quite the hitter. In the game Saturday, when Carrion moved to the mound, he was allowed to hit by Florida coach Kevin O’Sullivan (rather than utilizing the DH) and Carrion promptly launched a homer.
— Florida Gators Baseball (@GatorsBB) April 4, 2021
4. South Carolina continues to roll
Meanwhile, the Gamecocks followed their sweep of Florida by winning a series at Georgia, the first such win the squad has picked up in 11 years. Carolina lost the series opener Friday, 5-3. They then rallied to win the last 2 games, 13-7 and 5-1. Part of the show was Ruthian Carolina catcher Wes Clarke, who blasted his 15th home run of the season on Saturday. Carolina’s single-season home run record of 29 (Yaron Peters, 2002) could be within reach. The SEC record of 40 by LSU’s Brandon Larson might be unreachable, but the 2nd-best single-season mark is 30, and Clarke could go that high. Freshman pitcher Will Sanders was key on Sunday, working 8 innings of 1-run baseball for his 3rd consecutive win. Carolina continues to quietly make noise in the SEC.
5. A cycle for the Razorbacks … in 6 innings
Tuesday’s Arkansas game included a bit of history, as Hog second baseman Robert Moore hit for the cycle in a 21-8 win over Central Arkansas. He was the first Arkansas player to accomplish the feat since 1994. Moore tripled in the second inning, singled in the fourth, homered to right field in the fifth, and then finished the cycle with a sixth-inning bases-clearing double.
— College Baseball Hub (@CollegeBSBHub) March 31, 2021
6. And then a Saturday walk-off
The Razorbacks then won their weekend series with Auburn, but it was nip-and-tuck throughout. A 2-1 loss on Thursday was followed by 6-5 wins on Friday and Saturday. Saturday’s victory included an impressive walk-off double from outfielder Christian Franklin. It was a particularly impressive win, as Arkansas trailed 5-2 in the 8th inning, then rallied for 2 runs in the 8th, tied the game in the 9th, and won it in the 10th.
— Arkansas Baseball (@RazorbackBSB) April 3, 2021
Arkansas, which remained No. 1 in Baseball America’s weekly Top 25 poll, has a huge 3-game showdown at No. 3 Ole Miss this weekend. According to BA, Arkansas is 8-1 vs. Top 25 teams this season and 6-0 against teams in the top 15. That’s why the Hogs have remained No. 1 for 6 consecutive weeks, despite Vandy’s dominant duo at the top of the rotation.
7. State rebounds
Mississippi State was swept by Arkansas last weekend but bounced back by paying that favor back to Kentucky. The turning point in that series came Friday night, when Kentucky held a 2-0 lead. State’s Tyler Allen singled, and Kentucky looked to have State outfielder Brayland Skinner dead to rights at home plate. But Skinner’s impressive dive/slide worked out, trimmed to UK lead to 2-1, and left State with enough momentum to rally for a 3-2 win and then hold off Kentucky for the series sweep on Saturday by a 4-3 count.
8. UT wins again
Tennessee continues to impress by winning the back 2 games of a 3-game set to take a series in Tuscaloosa. Liam Spence’s .404 batting average at the top of the order has keyed the UT attack, and the Vols lead the SEC in stolen bases. UT also remains well in the top half of the SEC in most pitching stats, and could well be the league’s best team outside of the top five who dominate the national polls.
9. Texas A&M throws rivalry shade at Texas
It’s been a tough season for Texas A&M. The Aggies spent the weekend losing a series to Missouri. But one highlight came Tuesday, when they replaced the usual nonconference creampuff with a rivalry game with Texas– and then beat the then-No. 5 Longhorns 2-0. Not only did they beat their rivals, they also threw some impressive postgame shade with a “horns down” display. We’re here for all of this.