|Texas A&M Aggies
|South Carolina Gamecocks
|Alabama Crimson Tide
|Ole Miss Rebels
|Mississippi State Bulldogs
Ah, just as we all would have predicted five years ago, Missouri and Texas A&M are leading the SEC divisions in baseball. Missouri, this sneaking up and winning the division thing isn't exactly endearing you to the rest of the SEC East right now. In any case, the Tigers are in a three-way tie with South Carolina and Vanderbilt, teams that we've grown accustomed to seeing near the top of the division, with another perennial front-runner, Florida, just one game out for the moment.
Over in the West, it's going to take someone actually beating Texas A&M before the Aggies have to share the spotlight with anyone. But Alabama is doing what it normally does early in the season -- bolt out to an early place among the best of the division. We'll let you know if this season turns out any differently than things usually go under Mitch Gaspard, but I wouldn't put money on it. Arkansas and Auburn have already dug deep holes for themselves early on. With four teams getting swept this weekend, there's already a fierce competition underway to find out which two teams don't
have to go get the honor of traveling to Hoover for the SEC tournament.
Brandon will admit it: I was skeptical about Texas A&M coming into this season. They seemed to me a few pieces short of being a really good team. Twenty-one straight wins later, that skepticism seemed rather foolish. (In fairness, I believe I allowed for the possibility that A&M could go either way, but since I never put those thoughts into a post, all you have to go on there is my word.)
With a sweep this weekend of Auburn, a three-game set in which the Tigers never came closer than four runs (6-2, 10-4, 6-1), the Aggies are now just two wins away from tying the record for the longest overall winning streak in SEC history: LSU's 23-game perfect stretch in 2008. Barring catastrophe in the Tuesday game against Prairie View A&M -- assuming that such a school actually exists -- Texas A&M will go into the weekend series against Alabama just one game short of tying the record and two away from breaking it. The Aggies are still a ways away from the NCAA record of 34 straight wins, set by 1977 Texas and tied by 1999 FAU, with the Texas streak also being the high-water mark for wins to start a season.
Hunter Melton was responsible for all the run production for the Aggies on Friday, with a grand slam in the second inning and a two-run double in the eighth; he ended up going 5-for-11 on the weekend, one of four players to get five hits during the series for the Aggies. (One of them, Ronnie Gideon, did it in just seven at-bats in the final two games of the series.) The TAMU pitching continues to do what it's done so far: Hold the other guys down. Only four times this year have Aggie pitchers allowed more than three runs in a game.
Auburn, meanwhile, has allowed more than three runs in a game five times -- in the last five games. The Tigers now rank 11th in the SEC in ERA and 13th in opponents' batting average. When your own offense is at best average, that's not going to lead to a lot of wins. The Tigers have a midweek game against UAB in Birmingham in one of the sports that the Blazers still play, before welcoming Vanderbilt to town over the weekend. No rest for the weary.
Momentum, Good and Bad
These two teams came into the weekend series in Baton Rouge on different trajectories. LSU entered with 13 straight wins, including sweeping the Minute Maid Classic in Houston last weekend with wins over Houston, Baylor and Nebraska. Ole Miss came in skidding, 4-5 over the last nine games with a series loss to UCF, a 16-4 Sunday loss to Stetson and a two-game midweek split at Louisville; the Rebels have been struggling all season on Sundays and look like a team that lost several key field contributors from their 2014 College World Series squad. For a team that had not won a series in Baton Rouge since 1982, this looked to be an uphill battle for the Rebels.
LSU never trailed in the series opener and took a 6-4 win to open the series. Former LSU pitcher Christian Trent took the loss for Ole Miss, his first in 22 starts for the Rebels, after giving up all six runs (four earner) in seven innings of work. Remarkably, this was the first loss for an Ole Miss Friday night starter in 32 regular-season starts. Jared Poche won the game for LSU with his fifth win in his last five decisions. Third baseman Conner Hale led the Tigers with a 3-for-3 night with a double, two runs scored and two RBIs.
Saturday's outing was one of three extra-innings games on Saturday in the SEC, as the Rebels came from behind to win 5-3 in 14 innings. Sikes Orvis made his two RBIs count, as they delivered the game-tying run in the top of the ninth and a game-winning double in the 14th inning as a part of a 3-for-6 night. Freshman Alex Lange went eight innings yielding only three hits and one run, but ended up with a no decision. Lange struck out 13 Rebels as a part of a 22-strikeout performance for LSU as a whole. LSU's failure to plate runners was its downfall; the Tigers stranded 10 baserunners, including leaving the bases loaded in the 14th to end the game.
Ole Miss' Sunday struggles continued ,as the Rebels took their second straight 12-run loss on a Sunday with an 18-6 LSU win. Ole Miss took a 1-0 lead on a pair of walks and a wild pitch in the first inning, but LSU responded with five runs in the bottom of the first to chase Sam Smith after 0.1 IP. LSU would go on to score in six of its eight innings and was up 10-1 before Ole Miss would score again in the sixth. Hale continued his strong weekend with a 3-for-4 performance, three runs and two RBIs.
After a home game against Arkansas-Pine Bluff on Wednesday, Ole Miss hosts Florida next weekend as a part of a six-game home stand. LSU face Southern midweek, then travels to Fayetteville for a weekend set with Arkansas.
South Carolina Narrowly Sweeps Kentucky
It took some late-game heroics in the third game of the series, but South Carolina officially opened the SEC schedule with a three-game winning streak and kept another oddity of the early season alive: the Gamecocks have yet to lose a game to a team from outside the state of South Carolina. (We'll set aside the nagging little detail that South Carolina lost two games to a particular team from the Upstate.)
For much of the weekend, the story for the Gamecocks was great starting pitching. Wil Crowe allowed one run on one hit while striking out 10 and walking three during his seven-inning start on Friday. It took the South Carolina bats until the fifth inning to get started, but once they did, the Gamecocks cranked out 10 runs in four frames to turn the game into a laugher. Jack Wynkoop also pitched well Saturday, allowing two runs on seven hits in 7.1 innings while fanning five and walking one, even if the 4-3 final score might have felt a bit tight for the home fans.
On Sunday, things got more interesting. South Carolina held a 2-0 lead when Storm Wilson, who has a .222 batting average but is a shoo-in for the All-SEC Name Team, smacked a two-run double in the sixth inning to tie things up. South Carolina took the lead back in the bottom of the inning, but Kentucky scored twice more in the ninth and held a 4-3 lead with the Gamecocks down to their last three outs. That's when Elliott Caldwell -- who ended up going 7-for-11 in the series -- hit his second home run of the weekend, and for that matter the season, to tie things up. Kyle Martin added a two-run shot, his fourth homer of the year, in the tenth for the walk-off win.
Trying to get back to winning games, Kentucky faces Ohio on Tuesday before the weekend series against Mississippi State. The Gamecocks face Winthrop midweek before heading to the other Columbia to try to keep their winning streak against non-South Carolina teams alive with a weekend series against Missouri.
Missouri Gets a Sweep
Ever since former coach David Perno guided the Bulldogs to a runner-up showing in the 2008 College World Series, Georgia has been more or less trending downward. The Dawgs have made the tournament only twice since then. Last year, Scott Stricklin was brought in to try to right the ship, and still finished below .500. But this weekend, Georgia might have finally hit bottom.
Yes, the Bulldogs were the victims as Missouri claimed its first sweep of a conference-mate since joining the SEC before the 2013 season. And it's the first time the Tigers have swept an opponent on the road in six years. They broke out a Seinfeld GIF to celebrate. Georgia, go sit in the corner and we'll decide what to do with you when you fail to make the SEC tournament.
For the most part, it wasn't even really all that close. Mizzou outscored the Bulldogs by a combined total of 19-5; the closest game of the lot was an 8-4 extra-innings loss in which Georgia managed to allow four runs in the top of the 10th. That was bookended by 5-1 and 6-0 Missouri wins. Aside from the two-run eighth inning in the middle game that allowed Georgia to tie things up, the Missouri pitchers were outstanding this weekend -- and when a two-run inning is the worst you can complain about in a conference sweep, you'll take it. The Tigers fanned 29 men in 28 innings, which is a pretty good clip. Meanwhile, catcher Brett Bond was 6-for-11 with a home run on the weekend.
After a midweek series against Air Force, the Tigers will face SEC East co-leader (there is nothing in those last seven words that makes any sense) South Carolina this weekend. (Vanderbilt is also perfect in conference play right now.) Georgia will attempt to win at Mercer, which suddenly looks like not so much a sure thing, before going to Tennessee for its next conference series.
The Inside Track?
Vanderbilt swept Arkansas in Nashville to setup the possibility of an extremely strong start to the SEC season for the Commodores. With series coming up against Auburn, Tennessee, Georgia and Ole Miss before a series at South Carolina, Vanderbilt might be set up to make an early run through SEC competition. And the Commodores miss out on Texas A&M, Mississippi State and LSU in the SEC's scheduling rotation. With a 16-4 start, the Commodores look like they might have the most direct path to a national seed of any SEC team.
The Razorbacks came into the series off being swept by Gonzaga at home in midweek competition, but almost took the series opener as a part of a Saturday doubleheader. Arkansas took a 7-3 lead into the bottom of the ninth before surrendering four runs in the bottom half of the inning to force extra innings. Vanderbilt took the game, 8-7, in 12 innings. Keaton McKinney only lasted 2-plus innings starting for the Razorbacks, but gave up three earned runs. The Commodores were held scoreless for the next five innings before the ninth-inning outburst. Vanderbilt stranded 14 runners for the game, but cleared the bases in the ninth after Arkansas walked the bases full. An error and a wild pitch along with a two out double tied the game up before Rhett Wiseman tripled in Ro Coleman to win the game for Vanderbilt.
Saturday's second game was dominated by Vanderbilt throughout. Andrew Benintendi hit a solo home run to give Arkansas their only run in a 9-1 Vanderbilt win. Walker Buehler scattered four hits in six innings for Vanderbilt, and John Kilichowski earned a three-inning save. Wiseman continued his hot day with a 3-for-4 nightcap with 2 RBI.
Vanderbilt got their second walk-off win of the weekend in the series finale on Sunday. The pitchers' duel was scoreless entering the bottom of the ninth, when Arkansas loaded the bases intentionally to try to force a double play before giving up a single to plate Jason Delay to allow Vanderbilt to secure the sweep. Trey Killian pitched seven perfect innings for Arkansas, and Jordan Sheffield pitched seven scoreless innings of two-hit ball for Vanderbilt. Eight stranded Razorback base runners offered Arkansas a lifeline to break through in the tight game, but that breakthrough never came. Philip Pfeifer picked up the win for Vanderbilt after pitching the last two innings with only one hit and one walk conceded.
After a two-game midweek set with Southeast Missouri State, Arkansas hosts LSU in an attempt to bounce back and get on the board with an SEC win. Vanderbilt takes on Tennessee Tech on Tuesday before the weekend trip to Auburn.
The Importance of a Bullpen
After dropping a series to San Diego last weekend and four of their last six games overall, Mississippi State was looking to bounce back with a home series win over Alabama at Dudy Noble. The series got delayed due to weather, and the teams split a doubleheader on Saturday.
In the opening game on Saturday, Mississippi State was leading 5-2 and looked to be cruising to a win before the Mississippi State bullpen blew the game by giving up eight runs in the eighth inning. Mikey White scored the crushing blow in the inning with a three-run home run, part of White’s 3-for-4 game with three runs scored. All of Alabama’s 10 runs in the game were plated with two outs.
The Bulldogs evened the series in Saturday’s second game with a 4-1 victory. Mississippi State took a 3-0 lead into the sixth inning before Alabama got on the board with a solo home run by Casey Hughston. Mississippi State got a complete game from Austin Sexton. The Alabama native threw 123 pitches and only gave up the solo home run while scattering eight hits.
Alabama took the series with an 8-4 win on Sunday in which the bullpen once again cost Mississippi State in the eighth inning. With the game tied 4-4 entering the eighth, three Mississippi State pitchers combined to give up four runs on three singles, three walks and a wild pitch. Riley Colburn led the Tide with a 1-for-3 day hitting from the nine spot in the batting order, including a double and 3 RBIs.
For the weekend, Mississippi State's starters went 22 innings and yielded seven runs, but the bullpen gave up 12 earned runs in five innings. With the loss of Jonathan Holder and Jacob Lindgren from the bullpen that chewed up 108 innings in 2014, the Bulldogs will need to find some reliable arms that can hold onto leads or, at least, not implode like this weekend.
Mississippi State hosts Eastern Illinois on Tuesday before heading to Lexington to meet Kentucky, while Alabama hosts Samford on Tuesday, then still-undefeated Texas A&M over the weekend.
Home Runs Upon Home Runs
We can pretty confidently say at this point that any preseason optimism about the Vols was misplaced, given that Tennessee now sports losses to FIU (two), Morehead State and Grand Canyon. But there might have been a flicker of hope in the 6-3 win at Florida in the SEC opener -- until things went downhill from there. After the Friday loss, Florida's offense teed off for an 8-3 win on Saturday and a 9-4 win on Sunday to win the series and drop the Volunteers to 8-8 on the year.
In fact, there's reason beyond the other two games to believe that Friday was more of a crazy aberration than anything Tennessee can sustain. The Vols launched four home runs in that game, which matched their total for the other 13 games of the season to that point. Tennessee tacked on two more long balls in the series finale. And while Christin Stewart's two homers over the weekend isn't that out of character for a guy who's tied for third in the SEC with five, the Volunteers will have to actually do more of the same before we can trust that they will do more of the same.
Speaking of league leaders in home runs -- Harrison Bader hit his seventh of the season in the series finale and has sole possession of first place in that category. He also leads the SEC in slugging percentage -- by 112 points -- and is second in on-base percentage and fifth in batting average. Bader's always been a good player, but this has the potential to be a great season for him.
Florida faces a big midweek game against Florida State before traveling to Oxford for the weekend series. Meanwhile, Tennessee plays Austin Peay on Tuesday before a weekend set against Georgia to see which team actually has a chance of making the conference tournament.