9 Innings: Tennessee, Arkansas stay on top in SEC baseball
The stretch run is here in SEC baseball. With only t2wo weeks left in the regular season, the race is on for NCAA Tournament spots, region-hosting rights and SEC championship honors. In the face of all of that, here’s our look back at the week that was in SEC baseball.
1. Kopps comes up big for No. 1 Arkansas
In a stacked SEC, the top spot in the league’s ERA race isn’t held by Vandy aces Kumar Rocker or Jack Leiter or Ole Miss standout Gunnar Hoglund. Nope, it’s Arkansas reliever Kevin Kopps. Kopps has 7 saves, but he’s a multi-inning guy who can do whatever the Razorbacks need out of the bullpen.
Case in point– with their series with Georgia on the line, the Hogs turned to Kopps in the 5th inning, trailing 3-0. Arkansas had already lost a game to UGA, and another loss would be their first series loss of the season. Kopps put out the fire — 4 1/3 innings, 3 hits, no runs, 5 strikeouts. For the season, Kopps’s 0.72 ERA is almost outshone by 83 strikeouts in 49 2/3 innings of work. Arkansas won the game and the series, and held on to their 1 game lead in the SEC West.
They remained No. 1 in Baseball America’s Top 25 poll for the 12th consecutive week.
Vanderbilt is No. 2, followed by No. 3 Mississippi State, No. 5 Tennessee, No. 9 Florida, No. 17 Ole Miss and No. 24 South Carolina.
2. Vols on top of East
With Vandy’s series finale canceled Sunday, Tennessee had a chance to move into sole possession of first place in the East, and the Vols did so by closing out an easy sweep of Missouri, 10-2. After a Max Ferguson homer in the 8th inning delivered a 5-4 win on Friday, Saturday’s game was an easy 11-4 win in the same mold as Sunday’s. Granted, UT’s final two SEC series matchups are Arkansas and South Carolina. But the Vols are a half-game ahead of Vandy heading down the stretch.
3. A&M stuns ailing Ole Miss
The West race looks like a 2-team battle now, with Ole Miss dropping a series at Texas A&M and having ace Gunnar Hoglund leave his start early on Friday due to forearm stiffness. After Hoglund left early, A&M put up a walk-off homer from first baseman Will Frizzell. Frizzell had quite a weekend, adding 4 more homers …
The weekend of @Will_Frizzell:
— SEC Network (@SECNetwork) May 9, 2021
After Ole Miss drew even with a 12-7 win Saturday (including a blast from Rebel Tim Elko barely a month after tearing his ACL), A&M again victimized the Ole Miss bullpen with 4 runs in the 7th inning en route to a 6-5 victory. A&M climbed out of the West cellar (and is only 2 games back of LSU), but meanwhile the Rebels fell 3 games behind the Razorbacks and they’ll host Vandy next weekend.
4. State wins another series …
Meanwhile, Mississippi State picked up an easy 9-0 win on Friday over South Carolina via 7 innings of 1-hit ball from lefty Christian MacLeod. Saturday, MSU jumped out 9-1 and held on for a 9-6 win. State continues to pitch well, being 2nd in the SEC in ERA (3.49) and opposing batting average (.208). But meanwhile …
5. Carolina keeps MSU from moving into a first-place tie
Given that Arkansas lost on Saturday to Georgia, State could have moved into a first-place tie with the Hogs, but Carolina knocked them off 4-3 in 11 innings on Sunday. Jeff Heinrich came up big in the win, doubling in the tying run in the 9th inning, and then scoring the winning run on David Mendham’s double 2 innings later.
— SEC Network (@SECNetwork) May 9, 2021
It was a big win for Carolina as well as a tough loss for MSU, because it kept the Gamecocks a game ahead of Georgia and Kentucky in the East standings.
6. Florida flips its series with Kentucky
On Thursday, Kentucky won its opener with Florida 7-5 on a 2-run single in the 8th from John Rhodes. The ‘Cats then had the Gators down to their last strike on Friday, before UF put together a 4-run rally to win 8-5. Pinch-hitter Cory Acton singled in the tying run and then sub Kendrick Calilao ripped a 3-run bomb. From there, Florida thumped UK 9-2 on Saturday to win the series. Quite a comeback.
7. LSU wins a series
Badly needing a series win, LSU came to Auburn and took care of business with an 8-3 win on Thursday and a 9-6 victory on Friday. Highlights included 11 strikeouts from Landon Marceaux in the Thursday victory. At 29-18 overall, the Tigers continue to hang on the periphery of the NCAA Tournament bracket, with a potentially big week in Hoover being a likely key factor
8. Auburn wins a close game
But Auburn, despite losing the series, finally won a rare close game, picking up a 2-1 win in the finale on Saturday. What was so big about that? Well, the win improves Auburn’s record this season in 1-run games to 6-9. With a little more luck in close games, the Tigers might well be in 5th in the West. They still finish with Mizzou and A&M.
9. Postseason thoughts
First, in SEC Tournament terms — everybody wants to be in the top 4. Those top 4 teams get a bye into the double-elimination games. Arkansas and Tennessee are 17-7 and Vandy is 16-7. Mississippi State would get the 4th spot as things stand, with its 16-8 a game ahead of Florida and 2 games ahead of Ole Miss. Of course, nobody wants to finish in the last 2 spots, because they don’t qualify for the Tournament. Right now, that’s Missouri and Auburn, although A&M is just a game ahead of AU.
In NCAA Tournament terms, pencil in those first 6 teams above (Arkansas, Tennessee, Vandy, State, Florida and Ole Miss) as likely regional hosts. South Carolina will be in and at least 1 of Alabama, Georgia, and Kentucky with LSU still have a chance.