Extra Innings: 10 takeaways from the first full week of SEC baseball
Editor’s note: Every Monday, SEC baseball columnist Joe Cox will recap the biggest happenings from the previous week.
The first full week of SEC baseball was full of intrigue. While the league has had a few surprising stumbles (LSU, Auburn, Vandy’s 1-2 start out West), there’s no reason to doubt that the SEC is poised to remain the power league of NCAA baseball. As will be the custom here on Extra Innings, we have 10 takeaways from the first full week.
1. Florida is in World Series form
We didn’t give much notice to the Gators beating Marshall during the opening weekend. A pair of midweek games with Jacksonville were pretty dull, too, but a 3-game showdown with Miami at Alex Rodriguez Park in Coral Gables became the story of the SEC’s week.
The series pitted the top 2 teams in the D1Baseball rankings, but even using the AP coaches’ poll (as we generically do in most rankings herein), No. 10 vs. No. 7 was no small thing. Not only did the Gators sweep the No. 7 ranked Hurricanes, but they did it in late-game fashion, winning the first game in 11 innings and the second in 10 innings. Sunday’s game was a comparatively ho-hum 5-3 win. By holding The U to 8 runs in three games, Florida served notice that Vandy and Georgia aren’t the only big-time pitching staffs in the SEC East.
The Gators jumped to No. 1 in the Baseball America Top 25. Seven other SEC teams joined the Gators in that poll, including 4 more in the top 10.
2. Tennessee looks legitimate
Similarly, when UT crushed Western Illinois, we shrugged it off. But the Vols finished this weekend with a 7-0 mark, with a trio of wins in Texas at the Round Rock Classic over No. 3 Texas Tech, Houston and No. 15 Stanford. Not only did the Vols win the games — they won by 4, 4, and 5 runs, so they weren’t exactly white-knuckling these out. The Vols is tied for 3rd in the SEC with 11 home runs and also boasts a stingy 1.71 ERA. Impressive.
3. Zach DeLoach and A&M are an offensive machine
After a full week, A&M is 8-0, and junior outfielder Zach DeLoach has a big role in the Aggies’ offensive bombardment. The Aggies’ 107 runs scored leads the conference, and DeLoach’s .609 batting average (yes, you read that right) has been at the center of that effort. He is tied for the league lead in home runs (4), tied for 4th in RBI (11), and leading the league in runs scored (16). To put that into perspective, DeLoach had scored or knocked in 27 runs on his own. During the same period, Missouri — as a TEAM — scored 36 runs. Mississippi State scored 35. All this from a guy who hit .200 as a sophomore.
4. Auburn and LSU having some problems
Yes, it’s early and the February games often still represent teams trying to work out the kinks after the winter. But 8 games into their season, LSU has losses to Indiana, Nicholls and Eastern Kentucky. Those last two came back-to-back, and LSU’s total of 2 runs and 8 hits in the games combined should demonstrate the offensive gremlins they’re battling.
The Tigers bounced back a bit over the weekend, beating Eastern Kentucky twice by a combined 16-5 to improve to 5-3. The Tigers scored 10 runs Sunday, the first time this seson they’ve reached double digits.
Meanwhile, Auburn dropped much of the momentum of its 5-0 start after being swept at home by UCF. The Tigers lost all 3 games by a combind 22-6 margin. Sunday’s 12-2 loss was particularly listless, as it took until the 6th pitcher they used for an Auburn hurler to avoid giving up a run. It’ll be a long season in the SEC West with efforts like that.
5. Connor Noland showing out at Arkansas
The Razorbacks are 7-0, and one-time football QB hopeful Connor Noland has been near-dominant on the mound. His solid work in Friday’s win over Gonzaga moved Noland to 2-0 on the mound with a 1.42 ERA. After giving up football, Noland was chosen for the All-SEC freshman baseball team in 2019, and he’s nearly eclipsed his 3 wins from 2019 already. As for the Hogs, their schedule toughens this weekend, with games against Oklahoma, Texas, and Baylor in the Shriners Hospital Classic in Houston.
6. Tough Sunday for Mississippi State, South Carolina
Mississippi State had a great week, until the finale of its series with Oregon State on Sunday. After a 5-0 start to the season, State went to the 8th inning in a 2-2 game with a decent shot at another win. But a 4-run 8th from Oregon State ended that shot, as MSU had as many runs (2) and nearly as many hits (3) as errors (2) in the loss.
State is hitting just .250, and its 4 homers are tied for 12th in the SEC. When the bats wake up, the Bulldogs should be fine.
The weekend was a little rougher for South Carolina. The Gamecocks lost the rubber match in a series with Northwestern. This ruined a great moment in the series’s second game, when Gamecock slugger Wes Clarke knocked in 7 runs with a pair of homers, including a grand slam. Clarke came up 2 short of the school RBI mark, most recently reached by Toronto Blue Jay star Justin Smoak in 2008. Clarke moved to 2nd in the SEC with 13 RBIs. Carolina could use some help from the rest of the lineup.
7. Jack Leiter was all we expected — and so is the rest of Vandy’s staff
We called for Jack Leiter’s debut last week, and Monday, we got it: 5 innings, 12 Ks, no hits allowed, and a great Twitter shoutout from his Dad, Al, he of 162 MLB wins.
I couldn’t be more proud of my son today. @jackleiter22 debut as a @VanderbiltU baseball player. What a way to start his @VandyBoys journey. Very cool for me to watch his first outing in person …his performance was way better than anything I’ve ever done. #proudpapa pic.twitter.com/RlTxMxm02X
— Al Leiter (@AlLeiter22) February 19, 2020
The good pitching was contagious — after losing 2 of 3 games in the opening weekend, Vandy’s second week opened with 3 consecutive shutouts and ended with 5 runs allowed in 5 games. And thus, 5 wins for the Commodores. Mason Hickman hasn’t allowed an earned run, Kumar Rocker has an 0.75 ERA and 21 strikeouts. Rocker struck out 12 in his 2nd start. Vandy’s fine, however Leiter fits in (and he definitely does). The defending champs are up to No. 3 in the Baseball America poll.
8. Georgia might swipe the East
The Bulldogs started 7-0, but after living dangerously (2 walk-off wins needed), they dropped Sunday’s game, an 8-4 loss to Santa Clara. Georgia’s fine, in part due to an amazingly efficient running game. UGA’s pitching has been middle of the pack, but given guys like Emerson Hancock and Cole Wilcox, that can’t last.
What can last is going 17-for-18 on stolen bases, putting the Bulldogs near the top of the league in steals and on their own in terms of stolen base efficiency. Even better — no player has more than 5, so the team is equipped to play small ball and squeak out runs against the Vandy and Florida pitching staffs.
9. Kentucky got off the schneid — in part thanks to a marathon
Yes, Kentucky was 0-3 during the opening weekend, but the Wildcats managed to get it going with a 4-0 week after putting up 21 runs against Appalachian State on Saturday and gaining a 15-inning win over the Mountaineers on Sunday. After giving up the tying run in the 9th, UK and App State went scoreless until the bottom of the 15th, when UK finally put together a run to mercifully send home some Wildcat backers who might have been turning school colors in the cold afternoon in Lexington.
10. We didn’t forget Alabama
Yes, the SEC has a 5th undefeated team left. All the Tide have done is lead the SEC in ERA so far at 1.29. The Tide have also committed just 2 errors, fewest in the league. Admittedly, the Tide haven’t played the toughest of schedules (and that’s likely why they aren’t ranked in the Baseball America poll), but pitching and defense never go out of style. And maybe Alabama can surprise in the West on that basis. Despite being picked last in the West in the preseason, they’ve had a surprising start.