Extra Innings: Florida stays undefeated, but LSU, Ole Miss lurking
Conference play is coming this week for SEC baseball. And this is certainly welcome news, although it’s not like the league has taken a siesta. Last week’s Baseball America poll had the SEC with 3 of the top 4 teams, and 9 of the Top 25.
After a tough week, however, just 3 SEC teams remained in the top 10, and 8 in the new Top 25 released Monday morning.
Conference play will have some surprising teams (like 15-1 Alabama and 14-2 Tennessee) looking to prove that they belong among the league’s best, with some other early favorites (Arkansas, LSU) look to bounce back to form. But first, here are our 10 takeaways from the week that was — the last week before the conference schedule rolls.
1. Florida keeps winning … in Florida ways
Florida stayed No. 1, but it wasn’t necessarily easy. The top-ranked Gators are the college baseball’s last remaining unbeaten squad at 16-0. Other than winning, the best thing about Florida’s run is that the Gators win close games. Five wins included a total of 10 runs allowed, which means that even when UF’s bats are quiet — like Sunday’s series finale with South Florida, which saw just 2 Gators runs on 4 hits — they still have a fighting chance.
Nathan Hickey provided the big blow, belting a go-ahead home run in the bottom of the 8th to account for the final run in a 2-1 victory. It was Hickey’s 4th home run in 4 games.
Here's another look at the game-winning 💣 Hickey waved goodbye to.
— Florida Gators Baseball (@GatorsBB) March 8, 2020
Freshman starter Hunter Barco allowed 1 run in 6 innings. His 1.40 ERA suggests that he’ll be a worthy foe for Vandy freshman ace Jack Leiter. Florida sophomore outfielder Jacob Young is near the top of the league’s hitting ranks, with his .448 batting average.
2. Vandy continues to impress on the mound … and struggle at the plate
It wasn’t a great week for Vandy, which tumbled from No. 3 to No. 11 in the poll after a Friday loss to No. 4 UCLA (3-2) and a Saturday loss to USC (2-1). The common thread is hitting — or the lack of it.
Holding UCLA and USC to 5 combined runs on 10 hits should have yielded more than 2 losses.
Even on the mound, ace Kumar Rocker looked mortal against UCLA, walking 4 batters and only working 3 innings for the loss. Lefty Jake Eder was impressive on Saturday, but after leadoff man Tate Kolwyck homered for Vandy, the Commodores had just one single the rest of the way.
Leiter pitched Sunday as Vandy finished the weekend with a 4-3 win over a ranked TCU club. Thomas Schultz was spectacular in relief, earning Tim Corbin’s praise, and the Vandy Boys won it with a bases-loaded walk in the bottom of the 9th.
High praise for the freshman.
— Vanderbilt Baseball (@VandyBoys) March 8, 2020
At 12-5 nobody is hitting panic … but the hitting has to come.
3. Georgia and Ole Miss roll
Meanwhile, Georgia continues to look sharp. They did have a 6-3 loss to Georgia Southern on Tuesday but bounced back with a sweep of UMass that included allowing just 2 runs in 3 games. Cole Wilcox continues to be daunting, moving to 3-0 with a 1.57 ERA and 32 whiffs in 23 innings on the strength of his Saturday win.
The Dawgs (14-2) moved up 1 spot to No. 3 in the country.
Ole Miss might be the surprise of the season to date. After losing their opening game at Louisville, the Rebels have won 14 in a row, the school’s longest winning streak since 1964. The Rebels have made good use of the long ball, blasting a league-leading 31 homers, including 5 from .415 hitting shortstop Anthony Servideo.
Ace Gunnar Hoglund has also stood out, with a 3-0 mark and a 1.16 ERA. Ole Miss rose 1 spot to No. 8.
4. Tennessee and Alabama were human — but still better than expected
Despite little respect in the preseason polls and rankings, Alabama started 14-0 before a 3-2 loss to Lipscomb on Saturday. The Tide bounced back with a 14-2 win Sunday. They’ve been near the top of the SEC in hitting and pitching (led by freshman phenom Connor Prielipp), and if a 15-1 start might not be matched in league play, they are nevertheless solid.
Similar issues for Tennessee, which dropped 2 games after riding its own unbeaten streak into the BA top 20. The losses, a 5-4 Friday defeat to Wright State and a 6-3 loss Sunday to the same team, were disappointing. UT was held to just 1 homer over the 2 losses, with the long ball being a key aspect in the Vols’ 13-0 start (how about a 28-2 win on Tuesday over Longwood?). Tennessee fell 5 spots to No. 23, but expect the Vols and Crimson Tide to impact their respective division races.
5. Bad news for Mississippi State
It was a tough week for the Bulldogs, who fell 1 spot to No. 13 after winning 3 games over Quinnipiac. The series was closer than expected, but the real damage came from the training room. J.T. Ginn, the SEC Freshman of the Year last season, was ruled out for the year for the Bulldogs. Ginn had pitched just 3 innings before elbow pain led to season-ending surgery. Outfielder Tanner Allen has similarly missed substantial time, and he’s out indefinitely after hand surgery. Ginn’s loss could hurt MSU’s pitching staff substantially, and meanwhile State is hitting around .250 as a team, in the cellar of the SEC.
6. Wes Clarke keeps the Gamecocks interesting
South Carolina has sort of flown below our radar with a good, but not great 11-4 start. One thing that hasn’t flow beneath our radar is Gamecock first baseman Wes Clarke. Clarke homered in each of Carolina’s first 3 wins of the week. His 8 blasts lead the SEC homer race, and his 22 RBI just trail Georgia’s Tucker Bradley for the league lead. If Clarke keeps slugging pivotal homers, Carolina could sneak into the East race.
7. A&M’s Lacy dodging bats
Meanwhile, similarly, Texas A&M has been somewhat quiet, falling out of the Top 25 last week despite a 14-3 start. Perhaps the most entertaining Aggie is pitching standout Asa Lacy. In Friday’s outing against New Mexico State, junior lefty Lacy pitched 7 no-hit innings, striking out 13 hitters.
For the season, Lacy is 3-0 with and 0.75 ERA and a league-leading 46 Ks in 24 innings. Between Lacy and A&M outfielder Zach DeLoach, who is hitting .462, there’s plenty to watch in College Station. Plenty of MLB scouts will be watching Lacy, who is expected to be a 1st-round pick in the MLB Draft (a December ranking from mlb.com ranked him 5th). He might just carve up the SEC for practice.
8. Arkansas’ losing streak continues — then ends
Arkansas’s fall from a top 10 ranking to a 5-game losing streak was fairly puzzling. Offense had been a problem, but not this past this week. An 8-7 loss to Illinois State and 13-6 drubbing from South Alabama showcased some pitching problems. The good news is the streak ended with a pair of wins over South Alabama on Saturday and Sunday. A 15-2 thumping Saturday was followed by a walk-off blast from Heston Kjerstad to claim a 5-3 win on Sunday. Kjerstad’s line-drive homer into a brisk win was his 6th of the year and is the kind of play Arkansas needs more of from its veteran outfielder. The Hogs dropped 1 spot to No. 14.
9. Auburn, LSU rounding back into form
Since getting swept by UCF on the last full weekend of February, Auburn has gone 8-0. This past week’s slate was a 3-game set with Chicago State, which Auburn swept by a 31-2 total margin. Tiger pitchers had 37 strikeouts in the series, including a 7-inning, 1-hit, 10-K night for junior Tanner Burns on Friday.
Meanwhile, LSU reeled off 4 consecutive wins to follow its own disappointing 7-5 start. The Tigers stayed at No. 20. Sunday’s 6-4 win over UMass-Lowell featured a crucial 8th-inning homer from sophomore DH Gavin Dugas (his 2nd homer of the game). As daunting as the West looks, both teams should benefit from a last tune-up before conference play.
10. Tragedy changes Kentucky’s weekend
UK, which has struggled out of the gate, was scheduled to play Bradley, but Mitch Janssen, who pitched for BU as a senior in 2019, was killed when the single-engine Cessna he piloted crashed Tuesday.
The Bradley team wanted to attend Janssen’s funeral service Thursday, and Kentucky allowed them to cancel their Friday-Sunday series in Lexington to be able to do so. UK added games with Norfolk State and Oakland University on Saturday and Sunday and picked up 3 needed wins. But wins and losses on the diamond paled in comparison to a more significant loss to Bradley’s program.