The Southeastern Conference baseball season has concluded, and when the NCAA Tournament starts Friday, the league will have seven teams represented in the field of 64. Chris Lee takes a look at what lies ahead for each of the seven.
Arkansas (35-22, No. 2 seed in the Stillwater Regional)
The Razorbacks have the SEC’s longest streak of consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances with 14; only four other schools can boast of a streak that long. UA also failed to lose any of its last eight conference series.
Arkansas was led by center fielder Andrew Benintendi, who had a monster season (18 homers) and could win National Player of the Year honors. There aren’t any other offensive standouts and not a lot of power, but what UA does have is a bunch of players who get on base up and down the lineup. Arkansas also fields well (.976) and has a standout defender in Bobby Wernes at third.
The question for Arkansas is whether it has the pitching to do much damage. It had a 4.11 ERA and no consistency within its rotation outside of Trey Killian (4.72), whose ERA got destroyed by an 11-run outing vs. Texas A&M. The best pitcher is reliever Zach Jackson, who has some of the nastiest stuff in college baseball but can’t command it consistently, and he’s really not suited for long stretches.
Between a tough first-day game with Oral Roberts and a potential matchup with host Oklahoma State, which was better than its 37-18 record indicates, this weekend should be the end of the line for Arkansas.
Auburn (35-24, No. 3 seed in the Tallahassee Regional)
After a five-year NCAA Tournament absence, Auburn is back in the NCAAs… barely. The Tigers were on the bubble with a 13-17 SEC record, however, the Tigers played a brutal schedule (series vs. Florida, Vandy, LSU and A&M) and so no one can say it wasn’t deserved.
Offensively, the Tigers are sort of an Arkansas-lite, without a real star (center fielder Anfernee Grier is the closest to one) and with almost no power (17 home runs). The best thing Auburn has going for it is that there aren’t a lot of automatic outs, and so the approach will be to string runners together and hope for a big inning.
Pitching is what kept Auburn in the thick of things this year. Starter Cole Lipscomb (2.38 was one of the league’s best, and the relief trio of Justin Camp (2.42), Dalton Rentz (2.62) and Robby Clements (3.18) was durable. In fact, you may see starts from that bunch because the Tigers head into the NCAAs without the use of their most talented starter, Keegan Thompson (arm injury).
Without Thompson or much of an offense, it would be a surprise to see AU advance to a second weekend.
Florida (42-16, No. 1 seed and host of Gainesville Regional, No. 4 national seed)
No team in the country played better than Florida at the end of the year, which was capped with an SEC Tournament title. Now, UF will try to erase the bad memories of last year, when they were ousted from their own regional despite being a No. 2 national seed.
The Gators have a lineup as full of tough outs as anyone, especially once coach Kevin O’Sullivan got first baseman Peter Alonso back after an early-season injury. All of them can get on base, and there’s power in the form of Harrison Bader (13 homers) and J.J. Schwarz (13). There’s also speed in the form of center fielder Richie Martin and center fielder Buddy Reed. UF also fielded an incredible .985 and may be the country’s best defensive team.
That may not even be UF’s biggest strength. Once sophomore A.J. Puk got things figured out, he dominated teams late in years. He and No. 1 starter Logan Shore both have the talent to be first-round picks next year. UF doesn’t really have a true No. 3 and that’s really the team’s only question mark, however, O’Sullivan literally has about 10 more arms that he can trust to piece things together.
UF has the combination of talent everywhere and plays with a confident swagger, and the Gators are my pick to win the national title.
LSU (48-10, No. 1 seed and host of Baton Rouge Regional, No. 2 national seed)
The nation’s No. 1 team for most of the last two months was consistent from start to finish.
LSU’s lineup may be as scary as there is in the country. Shortstop Alex Bregman had a little bit of a down year, but remains one of America’s top players. Seven regulars slugged at least .450, and all of them had on-base percentages of .350 or higher. In a regional, where pitching depth also runs scarce, you don’t want to face these guys.
On the hill, freshman Alex Lange (1.94) is a superstar, but Jared Poché has struggled recently and isn’t overpowering. The bullpen is also deep and talented, but also had its struggles down the stretch.
The Tigers may have gotten the easiest regional draw of anyone, especially with a two-seed in UNC-Wilmington that has horrible starting pitching. It also potentially draws a Houston team in a super regional that probably overachieved a bit after losing some of its most talented teams to injury.
I like LSU’s draw, and because of that, I think the Tigers get to Omaha, but the young, inconsistent pitching will likely prevent them from winning it all.
Ole Miss (30-26, No. 2 seed in the Los Angeles Regional)
The Rebels were a great story last year, dealing with a tough NCAA draw and still making it to be one of the last four standing in Omaha. This year, Ole Miss took a young, rebuilding club and strung together huge series wins over Vanderbilt and Florida, plus, one of two in an abbreviated series vs. A&M. That was enough to give the RPI a major boost and make it into the NCAAs.
Scoring was a huge issue for Ole Miss; the Rebels plated just 129 men in 29 league games, and only Auburn and Tennessee (120) were worse. The biggest name to fear is the pull-happy Sikes Orvis (16 home runs, .600 slugging), but teams were able to take hits away from him due to a massive shift where the third baseman plays about where the shortstop normally does. Colby Bortles and J.B. Woodman (seven homers each) are also quality SEC hitters, but the Rebels have zero pop after that and not a lot of tremendous on-base ability.
The good news: Brady Bramlett (3.84) and Christian Trent (3.70) have excellent control and the ability to work deep into games, plus, coach Mike Bianco has a trio of quality, durable relievers in Wyatt Short (1.42), Scott Weatherby (2.62) and Jacob Waguespack (3.53).
The bad news: Ole Miss was out-scored 170-129 in SEC games, and that’s more indicative of the team it is than its 15-14 SEC record.
The Rebels will have to get around the tournament’s No. 1 seed in UCLA and unfortunately, the talent’s not there to pull that off.
Texas A&M (45-11, No. 1 seed in the College Station Regional)
The Aggies looked like the best team in college baseball for two months, wining 24 straight to start the year. Then, reality bit hard when the Aggies won just one of their last five SEC series.
A&M’s lineup is much like LSU’s: deep, with plenty of power. The Aggies (31) were one of two teams to slug over 30 homers in league play and had seven guys hit at least five bombs, led by Logan Taylor (10). The top six hitters in the A&M order all slugged at least .490 with on-base percentages of at least .390; that’s rare offensive talent.
The biggest questions are in the starting rotation, where Grayson Long (2.62) was outstanding, Matt Kent (3.74) was okay, but prone to getting hit, and there was no identifiable No. 3 starter. But, coach Rob Childress has a deep, hard-throwing bullpen with about seven guys he can trust, and that mitigated that weakness a good bit.
There were about seven to 10 truly elite teams in college baseball this year, and the Aggies were one of them. However, the Aggies got a pair of tough two- and three-seeds in their regional and if they get out of that, they’ll travel to TCU, which got a cake-walk of a weekend in its home park. I’ll take the Aggies to get to Omaha, but I don’t say it with a lot of confidence because of that draw.
Vanderbilt (42-18, No. 1 seed in the Nashville Regional)
It was a somewhat-disappointing season for Vanderbilt. The defending national champions were the consensus No. 1 team in the country before the season, and to see them end the season without a national seed was unexpected.
Vanderbilt’s lineup was inconsistent, but VU still scored 194 runs in SEC regular-season games, plus, crushed the ball in Hoover. Shortstop Dansby Swanson (13 homers) is the country’s most talented player. There’s also plenty of power with Zander Wiel (12) and Rhett Wiseman (13). The scary thing is, it could get better. Freshman Jeren Kendall has as much raw power as anyone on the team, and preseason All-American Bryan Reynolds slumped much of the year until blistering the ball in Hoover.
The pitching was good, but also erratic outside of Carson Fulmer (1.97). Walker Buehler (3.18) left too many balls where they could be hit. Lefty starter Phil Pfeifer (4.06) was tremendous when he was on, but had too many starts where he walked hitters and couldn’t get out of the fifth inning. The bullpen was maddening at times, and the ‘Dores just don’t have a lot of right-handed strike-throwers there. But, some of the pieces started to come together late in lefty John Kilichowski (3.07) and Kyle Wright (1.12). The team, led by great years from Swanson at short, Reynolds in center and Karl Ellison behind the plate, is also tremendous defensively.
The ‘Dores caught some bad luck in close games, and struggled after losing All-American closer Hayden Stone. But VU may be America’s most talented team—Swanson, Fulmer and Buehler may all go in the top 10 of the upcoming MLB Draft—and in Fulmer, VU has an almost-automatic Game 1 win of any series. Between the talent and the experience of last year, I like VU to go all the way to the final in Omaha before running into its nemesis, the Florida Gators.