9 Innings: Who's on top of the SEC baseball pileup?
With 3 weeks left in the SEC regular season, the top of the SEC baseball race looks like that hand-piling game almost everybody played as kids. You know the game — the one where the kid whose hand is on the bottom moves the hand to the top and everybody else falls a step below them. That pretty well sums up the week that was in the SEC. Here are a few more thoughts:
1. Return of the Gators
Just as the East appeared to be settling into a 2-team Vandy/UT showdown, somebody forgot to tell the Florida Gators. Since starting the season as No. 1, it’s been up and down for UF. The Gators were swept by South Carolina, lost a series to UT and were kind of underwhelming even in series wins against Missouri and Auburn.
And after losing Friday’s series opener to Vandy 11-7, it looked like Florida might just dig itself an even bigger hole. Until Saturday, when they put up 7 runs on Jack Leiter en route to an 11-8 win.
Vanderbilt has lost the past 3 games that Leiter has pitched. As strange as it sounds for a guy still in the running to be the No. 1 overall pick in the June draft, he isn’t giving the ‘Dores a chance. He has allowed 12 earned runs in 15 1/3 innings in those starts, a 7.05 ERA.
But this shows you how dominant Leiter was before his mini-slump:
Numbers for the top two pitchers in the class after 11 starts:
Kumar Rocker — 1.70 ERA, 69 IP, 4 HR, 97 K, 19 BB
Jack Leiter — 1.96 ERA, 64.2 IP, 9 HR, 106 K, 29 BB#MLBDraft
— Carlos Collazo (@CarlosACollazo) May 2, 2021
Sunday’s rubber game was another impressive performance, as UF scored a pair of first-inning runs and then never trailed in a 5-3 win. The key might have been Jack Leftwich, Florida’s talented but inconsistent righty pitcher who moved to the bullpen a month ago. When he’s right, Leftwich is a difference-maker, as he was Sunday, getting the last 8 outs, while allowing just a single hit and fanning 3 ‘Dores.
The save was Leftwich’s 2nd of the season and the 4th of his UF career. If he can continue getting big outs, Florida can continue rallying in the East, with a pair of very winnable weekends ahead of a season-ending showdown with Arkansas.
Jud Fabian could also be the SEC Player of the Year. He definitely deserves credit for a pair of blasts off Leiter.
Make it ✌️ for Jud! Fabian ties it up with his second long ball of the night.
— Florida Gators Baseball (@GatorsBB) May 1, 2021
2. Top-ranked Arkansas carries on, but with a clunker
Meanwhile, the top-ranked Razorbacks were cruising, thumping LSU 7-0 on Friday and 17-10 in Saturday’s first game of a doubleheader. But a funny thing happened on the way to an easy sweep. LSU clawed out a 5-4 win in a game that really wasn’t as close as the score. The Tigers led 5-1 into the ninth, and while Arkansas made it interesting, they didn’t nail down the sweep. Senior pitcher Lael Lockhart has struggled for Arkansas, giving up 10 runs in 5 2/3 innings over his last 3 starts. Obviously, the Hogs can hit, but they need to shore up their 3rd starter situation.
Vanderbilt is No. 3 in the new poll, followed by No. 4 Mississippi State, No. 6 Tennessee, No. 10 Florida, No. 11 Ole Miss and No. 15 South Carolina.
3. As for LSU …
Credit to the Tigers for the win, though, which is the kind of effort that again shows that you can’t entirely write off LSU, even during a down season. A cool side of the story? How was this for some Saturday positive mojo?
— SEC Network (@SECNetwork) May 2, 2021
4. State taking advantage
LSU’s win gave State a chance to shave some distance off the Arkansas lead in the West, and the Bulldogs took advantage with a sweep of Texas A&M that moves them to within a game of first place in the division. Nobody said it was easy, particularly on Friday night where it took a dozen innings for Tanner Allen to become the hero of an 8-7 walk-off win.
— SEC Network (@SECNetwork) May 1, 2021
Saturday’s doubleheader including a strong start from Will Bednar in a 3-2 win and then a 10-5 slugfest. State finishes with Missouri and Alabama, so hanging close to Arkansas will be pivotal, as the Razorbacks face Florida in the last week.
5. Ole Miss also moving
Meanwhile, Ole Miss, fresh off losing a series to LSU, also picked up a big weekend, sweeping South Carolina in Oxford to climb within a game off MSU’s pace. The Rebels thrived with pitching, holding Carolina to just 8 runs in 3 games. Yes, Gamecocks slugger Wes Clarke ripped his 16th home run of the season in the second game of Saturday’s doubleheader, but that just tied him with Florida’s Jud Fabian for the league lead. Among SEC schools, only Missouri has scored fewer runs than Carolina this season, and only Arkansas has scored more than Ole Miss.
6. Tennessee tied for lead in East
Meanwhile, with Vandy losing its series, UT was able to win 2 of 3 over Kentucky to climb into a first-place tie in the East. Tennessee’s bats told the tale, thumping out 15 hits in both Thursday’s 14-4 win and Saturday’s 11-2 victory. Kentucky did pick up a nice 8-2 win on Friday and remains tied with Georgia for 5th in the East.
7. Bama with a sweep
The Crimson Tide, coming off a series loss to Kentucky, couldn’t afford to repeat that failure against Missouri. After winning the first 2 games, the Tide trailed 2-0 Sunday in the bottom of the 7th. But the Tide took care of business, tacking on a run in the 7th and a pair in the 8th inning, in part due to a key mishandled bunt. The 3-2 win kept Alabama within reach of Ole Miss, but a brutal schedule stretch is approaching. The Tide are at No. 3 Vanderbilt this weekend, have a must-win series at home against LSU and close the regular season against No. 4 Mississippi State.
8. Auburn finds a way
It’s been a tough season for Auburn, with every other game seemingly a 1-run loss, but the Tigers picked up a series win in Athens over a struggling Georgia team. True to form for Auburn, it wasn’t easy. It took 14 innings for a 10-6 win on Friday, and Saturday saw Georgia close a 9-4 deficit to within 9-7 before Auburn finished it off.
9. NCAA Tournament thoughts
Again, 3 weekends left? Who’s hosting? Arkansas, Vandy, State, Tennessee, Florida, maybe Ole Miss. Who else gets in? South Carolina definitely, Alabama, and one of Kentucky, Georgia, or LSU. And hey, if you don’t like the answer, it’ll probably all look different next week.