9 Innings: Top-10 showdowns, big hits, a rare Jack Leiter flop and more in SEC baseball
A banner week of SEC matchups on the diamond lived up to its hype. At the SEC schedule’s mid-point, both division races are still up for grabs, and the standings are rearranging almost daily. But the week included a pair of massive top-10 division series, and plenty more to consider.
Here are 9 takeaways from the SEC baseball week that was:
1. State rallies to hold off Ole Miss
If Mississippi State ends up winning the SEC West (and they’re in second still, we understand), the 6th inning of Sunday’s game against Ole Miss stands as a turning point. Both teams entered the series ranked in the top 10. After the Bulldogs won the Friday game 5-2, they were 1-hit on Saturday in a 9-0 loss, and trailed 4-2 entering the bottom of the 6th inning on Sunday. But State had a 5-run inning, to gain a lead it never lost in a 7-5 win to decide the series. The big hit was a 3-run triple from outfielder Tanner Allen that broke a 4-4 tie.
2. But Doug Nikhazy was insane for Ole Miss
Nikhazy tossed the aforementioned Saturday 1-hitter. The junior lefty was just filthy. He held MSU to a solitary single while striking out 12 Bulldogs en route to the shutout. It was just his 6th start of the season, but Nikhazy has been borderline untouchable, fanning 47 batters in 29 2/3 innings pitched. His 2.43 ERA might not be Vanderbilt-ish, but he made his case for future stardom on Saturday.
Doug Nikhazy, 72mph Curveball and 92mph Fastball, Individual Pitches + Overlay pic.twitter.com/O3bpJIwT9i
— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) April 18, 2021
3. Kumar Rocker refuted proof of his own mortality
Friday’s UT/Vandy showdown was probably the most anticipated Tennessee baseball game in at least a decade and a half. Unfortunately for the Vols, hoping to nab first in the SEC East, they ran into the buzzsaw that is Kumar Rocker.
Some (current columnist included) mentioned a poor last start from Rocker and a dip in velocity as proof that he might (gasp) be struggling. Not so much. Rocker gave up just a single and a double in 7 shutout innings, fanning 8 Vols en route to a 5-0 win to open the series. The radar gun was back into the higher 90s as well.
Stop us if you've heard this one before, but Kumar Rocker turned in another dominant start for @VandyBoys.
— MLB Draft (@MLBDraft) April 17, 2021
4. But astonishingly, Jack Leiter is human
He still has a sub-one ERA (0.98), but Vandy’s Jack Leiter showed the first signs Saturday that he might be an actual human pitcher and not a cyborg. UT managed to get 3 runs (all earned) off Leiter via a trio of home runs. UT added some damage off Vandy’s relief corps to pick up an impressive 8-4 win. Much of the UT offense came courtesy of …
5. UT outfielder Evan Russell has a historic day
Saturday, against the vaunted Vandy staff, Russell blasted three homers. The first 2 were against Leiter. The last was a grand slam in the 8th that erased Vandy’s 4-3 lead. Pretty good day’s work for a No. 8 hitter in the batting order who entered the game with a sub-.200 batting average. Guess he was saving it up for this.
Unfortunately, despite all the Saturday momentum, UT couldn’t get it going on Sunday, losing that one 10-4 and thus dropping the series and first place in the East.
6. Arkansas puts up 26 runs on Wednesday, stays No. 1
Top-ranked Arkansas put up a football game worth of points on Wednesday against poor Arkansas-Pine Bluff in a 26-1 beatdown. But their weekend series against Texas A&M was kind of uneven. They thumped the Aggies 13-0 on Friday, but needed 10 innings to pull out a 2-1 win on Saturday, and then lost 11-10 on Sunday. Had they held off the Aggies on Sunday, Arkansas would have left the weekend 2 games ahead of 2nd-place Mississippi State. If they fall short, they’ll kick themselves for Sunday’s game, which they trailed 10-4 before rallying to a nail-biter of a loss.
Arkansas remained at No. 1 in Baseball America’s Top 25 poll for the 8th consecutive week. Mississippi State moved up to No. 2, Vanderbilt jumped to No. 3, Tennessee slid back 2 spots to No. 7 and South Carolina moved up to No. 9. Ole Miss fell 3 spots to No. 12, and Florida moved up to No. 18.
7. Favorites rallying
South Carolina lost the opener in its series to LSU but then won twice in Baton Rouge on Saturday 4-2 and 9-0 to grab the series. The Gamecocks stayed within a game of 1st place in the East. Similarly, Georgia dropped a 6-1 opener in its series with Kentucky but stormed back to win the last 2 games by 8-7 and 17-6 margins. Lastly, Alabama won its series with Auburn in a trio of 1-run games. The Tide needed extra innings to win 8-7 on Thursday, then lost 5-4 on Friday, only to walk off with a 10-9 win Saturday. After Bama scored the tying run in the 8th, infielder Jim Jarvis brought home the winner in the 9th.
8. Poor Auburn
In losing a pair of 1-run games to Bama, Auburn was following what has become an unfortunate pattern. That marks the 9th 1-run loss for the Tigers (of 18 total losses). Auburn’s 14-18 mark could easily be 18-14, if not even better. If the Tigers can turn around some of the bad luck, they could be a dangerous team.
9. Florida quietly making noise
Florida swept Missouri, which felt a lot like taking care of business. The 8-5, 8-6, and 6-4 wins won’t shock anybody, but it was proof that the Gators have become something of a late-season sleeper after early stumbles. Florida is only 2 games back in the SEC East, with late series matchups left with Vandy and Arkansas. If the bullpen can tighten up and the hitting can become more consistent, the Gators could end up back where they started — on top.