Thrill of Victory

Southeastern Conference keeps on rolling in NCAA Baseball Regionals

The Southeastern Conference looked to me like the nation’s best baseball league coming into this weekend, and this weekend made me look smart: the conference has gone 19-6 so far. (Of course, the PAC-12 has gone 14-2 and may have a valid counter-argument, but let’s forget that for the moment.)

Anyway, PAC-12 or no PAC-12, it’s been a great run for the league thus far. Here’s a closer look at what’s transpired.

Arkansas, Florida, LSU, South Carolina all advance…
The SEC, which makes up 4 percent of Division I baseball, yet will have no worse than 25 percent of its 16 remaining teams after the weekend. Florida, LSU and South Carolina all went 3-0 playing on their home field to advance to Super Regionals, while Arkansas traveled to Houston to beat Sam Houston State twice, and host Rice once, to move to next weekend.

Of the four teams, Florida was probably the most impressive. On Friday, Jonathan Crawford, with his electric 98 mile-per-hour fastball, threw the seventh no-hitter in the history of the NCAA Tournament as the Gators blanked Bethune-Cookman 4-0 in their Friday opener. Were it not for one walk, Crawford would have had a perfect game.

UF then crushed a red-hot Georgia Tech team by scores of 6-2 and 15-3 to claim its Regional. The Gators were the tourney’s No. 1 overall seed, and sure look the part.

Two-time defending national champion South Carolina got what some thought was the toughest Regional draw, but the Gamecocks got their usual clutch hitting, great pitching, and unbelievable defense to advance past the weekend. Beating chief rival Clemson twice made victory especially sweet for USC fans.

Now, the bigger question: Is Carolina invincible? It’s now won an incredible 18 straight games in the NCAA Tournament. We’ll find out more next weekend, as USC will stay home to face the winner of Appalachian State and Oklahoma.

Of course, the Gamecocks are still four-short of LSU’s six national titles. The Tigers could also be ready to add another to their trophy case. LSU gave up just seven runs on the weekend, and beat another former national champion, Oregon State, twice.

The Tigers will stay home and host either Central Florida or Stony Brook in Baton Rouge next weekend. That’s a bit of a break, as those teams were seeded second and fourth, respectively, in the Coral Gables Regional.

After a 20-2 start, Arkansas faltered down the stretch of the regular season and blew a chance to host. They may yet play in Fayetteville, though, if underdog Dallas Baptist beats Baylor tonight, because Arkansas gave up just five runs in three games, including a 1-0 victory to eliminate host Rice on Saturday.

Even if the Razorbacks travel to Waco, Baylor won’t look forward to facing UA’s pitching staff, which now has a 2.86 ERA this season after giving up just six runs in three games in Houston

.… and Ole Miss and Vanderbilt could join them…
Three weekends ago, there was talk that Ole Miss could host a Regional. One week ago, there was talk that the Rebels could be left out of the field of 64 entirely after they lost six of their last seven games. But two wins in College Station, including one to eliminate host Texas A&M, have things headed back in the right direction.
The bad news: the Rebels don’t have much pitching left, and coach Mike Bianco is toying with the idea of throwing Friday starter Bobby Wahl, who’s one of the nation’s best, at some point Monday.

The good news: TCU doesn’t have many arms left, either, from a staff that already has a 4.75 ERA.

To the east, one national expert said this weekend that Vanderbilt might be the story of the college baseball season. As I’ve chronicled here for the last month, the Commodores, 7-15 on the season at one point, have had an unbelievable last six weeks in which they’ve won 18 of 23 games – 12 coming against teams ranked in the Top 25 when VU played them.

Beating North Carolina State on Monday night would be the crowning accomplishment of the season so far, especially considering what VU had to do to get to this point. In Saturday’s game against the host Wolfpack, Vandy trailed 8-3 heading into the bottom of the eighth, but incredibly scratched out five runs to tie in the inning and came back with the winning tally in the ninth.

If the Commodores survive tonight, they’ll face nemesis Florida in Gainesville next weekend. The Gators have owned Vandy the last three years, but VU knocked off UF twice last week in the conference tourney.

… but not Kentucky or Mississippi State.
Nobody had a more disappointing final month than Kentucky, which was ranked No. 1 at the end of April. The Wildcats stumbled in the last month, but seemed to have a good-enough resume to host. Alas, the NCAA awarded a Regional to Miami (which was blown out of its Regional in two games) and the Wildcats had to travel to Purdue’s Regional instead.

UK’s luck continued to be sour. In the 18th inning of its opener vs. Kent State, the Wildcats’ Phil McConkey missed a game-winning homer by inches. The ‘Cats eventually lost to KSU in 21 innings.

Kentucky got a rematch on Sunday, but was eliminated 3-2 on a 3-run homer by Evan Campbell in the eighth inning. At least it was ruled a homer: replays later showed the ball never left the yard.

MSU’s season also ended in disappointment. The Bulldogs went to Tallahassee as one of America’s hottest teams, but never got a shot at Florida State: Samford, playing its first NCAA Tournament, beat State twice.