Sports, Thrill of Victory

Five SEC baseball teams looking to reach College World Series

Texas A&M's pitching carried it to a win in the College Station Regional. PHOTO COURTESY TEXAS A&M

There are 16 teams still playing in the NCAA Baseball Tournament. Five of them are from the Southeastern Conference, which gives the SEC more representatives left in the field than any other conference. Here’s a look at what’s ahead for each.

Arkansas (39-22)

Arkansas

Despite being the lower seed, Arkansas is hosting its Super Regional matchup with Missouri State because of a scheduling conflict with the Bears home park. PHOTO COURTESY ARKANSAS ATHLETICS

The Razorbacks played three games—all close ones, all against different opponents—in the Stillwater Regional last week, and won all three. Then, the Razorbacks got a gift when national seed Missouri State won the Springfield Regional, which was paired with the Stillwater Regional, because MSU didn’t put in a bid to host due to a scheduling conflict with its ballpark.

That left Arkansas, which hadn’t hosted a super since 2004, in an unexpected position to host at Baum Stadium, one of the largest and most raucous environments in college baseball.

Students responded by camping out for tickets during the week. Razorback fans responded by selling out the place with 11,869 fans. The team responded by walloping the Bears, who had an NCAA-best 18-game winning streak coming in. Arkansas did it by tagging ace starter Jon Harris (1.85 ERA coming in) for eight runs, all earned, in 5 2/3 innings with a balanced, 18-hit attack.

We knew the Razorbacks, given that National Player of the Year Andrew Benintendi has hit all season, had the offense to make a run if he got a little help, which he has. What we didn’t know was whether Arkansas had enough help from its pitching staff outside of ace reliever Zach Jackson. On Friday, Trey Killian gave Arkansas six solid innings of three-run ball and the Razorbacks saved Jackson for the next two days due to that big lead.

So, the Razorbacks are in the driver’s seat here, needing just one more win to get to the College World Series, though hitting lefty Matt Hall (2.17), who led the country with 163 strikeouts, won’t be easy on Saturday.

Florida (47-16) 

Harrison Bader scores the Gators' first run Friday night in their 13-5 victory over Florida State. PHOTO COURTESY FLORIDA ATHLETICS

Harrison Bader scores the Gators’ first run Friday night in their 13-5 victory over Florida State. PHOTO COURTESY FLORIDA ATHLETICS

The Gators were perhaps playing the best ball of any team in the country heading into the NCAA Tournament. Last weekend, UF rolled through its first two games before edging Florida Atlantic, 2-1, to win the Gainesville Regional.

Florida stayed home on Friday, where it smacked Florida State early and often, the big hit being a home run by co-National Freshman of the Year J.J. Schwarz, his 16th. Thus, UF needs just won more win on its home field to get to Omaha for the first time since 2012, which was the last of three-straight Gator appearances.

The Gators had the bullpen, the defense and the hitting up and down the lineup to have top-level success all season, but now, they’ve got the super-talented A.J. Puk pitching like an ace in the No. 2 spot behind Logan Shore, who already was an ace. If that continues, Florida’s perhaps the team to beat from here on.

LSU (51-10)

LSU's Conner Hale. PHOTO COURTESY LSU ATHLETICS

LSU’s Conner Hale. PHOTO COURTESY LSU ATHLETICS

The Tigers won what might have been the tournament’s easiest regional in unexpected fashion. What many people think is the country’s best lineup didn’t hit much in a couple of games against a bad North Carolina-Wilmington squad, but its pitching gave up just three runs all weekend, and that wasn’t necessarily expected as LSU had some pitching difficulties down the season’s stretch.

Now, LSU gets what might be the easiest super regional as No. 3 Louisiana-Lafayette emerged opposite LSU out of the Houston Regional. The Rajin’ Cajuns aren’t overpowering on the mound and two of UL-Ls three starters are freshmen, and that’s a dangerous recipe to try to win at Alex Box Stadium.

Expect LSU to advance without too much of a problem, and perhaps use this as an opportunity to build even more pitching confidence heading into Omaha.

Texas A&M (49-12)

Texas A&M pitchingThe one thing you knew coming into the College Station Regional was that the Aggies had was a deep, scary lineup. Well, Cal shut that lineup down for three games, but A&M’s arms responded with four excellent outings from its starters and a pretty good bullpen effort, too: the Aggies gave up just seven runs in 42 innings in the entire regional.

The Aggies figure to hit just about anyone, though last weekend should give us all some pause with A&M heading to TCU’s park to face one of the country’s elite pitching staffs. However, the Horned Frogs didn’t exactly look like world-beaters and were handed a gift win in the regional final when North Carolina State had an epic melt-down, blowing a seven-run lead with four outs to go.

The truth is, A&M’s pitching has probably been underrated all along. Grayson Long is one of the league’s most talented starters, and Matt Kent, though not super-talented, flat-out knows how to pitch. Throw in a bullpen that was one of the deepest and most talented in America, and A&M looks more like a College World Series team than do the Horned Frogs right now, which is why I’m calling for the upset.

Vanderbilt (45-19)

Vanderbilt's Tim Corbin will have to lead his time past Illinois on the road if Vanderbilt is to reach the College World Series again. PHOTO COURTESY VANDERBILT ATHLETICS

Vanderbilt’s Tim Corbin will have to lead his time past Illinois on the road if Vanderbilt is to reach the College World Series again. PHOTO COURTESY VANDERBILT ATHLETICS

Perhaps Florida tugged on Superman’s cape in the SEC Tournament two weeks ago when it beat VU in the finals, because VU turned around and won the Nashville Regional by a combined score of 36-5, the largest of any team last weekend. The Commodores looked downright scary in all phases of the game, and right now, nobody in the country is playing better than shortstop Dansby Swanson, who may have played his way into the No. 1 pick in next week’s Major League Baseball Draft.

The ‘Dores got a tough draw in Illinois (49-8-1), which has the country’s top winning percentage. It’s on the road, no less, a place where nobody expected VU to be. The key for the Commodores will be avoiding  Illini relief ace Tyler Jay (60.1 IP, 0.60 ERA, 70 Ks) and to get good starts from Phil Pfeifer and (if needed) Walker Buehler, who as super-talented but also inconsistent.

Illinois has a veteran squad that experts say won’t back down from anyone, but nobody’s got the combination of talent and tested-ness that the Commodores had. Expect to see VU in Omaha for the second-straight year, and third time in five.