By: Eric SanInocencio
SEC Digital Network
Birmingham, Ala. -- Whew. Everyone do themselves a favor and take a deep breath.
Back with us? Ok. Let's try this again.
It was that kind of weekend.
After an intense and nail-biting start of the SEC baseball conference schedule, you might need a minute to wrap your head around what happened. There were close games, thrilling "upsets" and plenty to follow as the league's teams got together for the first time in 2012. As a fan, it was tremendously exciting to watch.
To show just how much the first round of conference games has me motivated to talk SEC baseball, the "Numbers Game" was moved up to Tuesday from its normal slot a day later.
After what we saw on league diamonds, I couldn't wait a full 72 hours to write my thoughts down. By the time the final outs were recorded on Sunday, I was already knee deep in the SEC's stats database, looking for every number that might help explain the results we witnessed.
Why wait until Wednesday to share that with you?
The time is now.
From this week forward, the "Numbers Game" will be a Tuesday read, as we take this space to analyze the weekends that will decide the conference champion. There are 30 games total in league play, which means this opening weekend only accounted for one-tenth of the SEC schedule.
While it was only three games, for one team and one program, it might have been the biggest weekend series win they've ever had.
That's where we begin.
1. Bluegrass History
The Number: 22 Straight Victories
When is the last time you did something that hasn't been done in 115 years?
The Wildcats are becoming a staple in our number one spot here at the "Numbers Game", as I featured them a week ago in this very section
. Last week, I championed Kentucky's then undefeated start (19-0). Any mark this impressive in a sport where winning two out of three is deemed a success should be recognized. I admitted that there was some caution to the 19-game winning streak the Wildcats had compiled, since only one member on their 2012 schedule to that point (Wright State) was an NCAA Tournament team a year ago.
I wrote then (and still feel now) that no matter what happened during Kentucky’s opening SEC series against two-time defending National Champion South Carolina, that what the Wildcats had accomplished shouldn't be forgotten. It was almost as if I was tempering expectations, so that if UK did lose or get swept by the Gamecocks, everyone in the SEC baseball community would keep a level head about it.
Well…what do we do now?
In a drama filled three-game set, the Wildcats claimed a sweep of South Carolina in the weekend's most exciting SEC series. Words like "game-winning" and "walk-off" were abundant in Lexington, as UK not only defeated Ray Tanner's talented group, but did it in cardiac fashion for the fans in attendance at Cliff Hagan Stadium. From Luke Maile's ninth-inning blast on Friday to A.J. Reed's clutch double on Saturday, Kentucky constantly beat back the odds.
The Wildcats are now 22-0 on the year, a win-streak that places them third in Southeastern Conference history. Let that soak in for a minute. With all the legendary teams and players that have taken the field in the 60-plus years of this league, Kentucky's 22-straight wins is the third best EVER.
When it comes to their own program history, this year's version of the Wildcats has no peer. Since UK started playing baseball in 1896, no team has ever won this many games in a row.
Henderson's group is fighting against a tough history. Kentucky has just one SEC Championship in their trophy case, having won hardware in 2006. Going into the year, the Wildcats had the lowest all-time winning percentage (.543) of any team in the conference. Despite that, Kentucky now sits as high as second in the nation according to polls
, and most importantly in a tie for first place in the Eastern Division.
More records could fall this week, as the Wildcats are squarely in the sights of the SEC all-time record for consecutive games won. Three more victories for UK will place them ahead of the current record holder, the 2010 LSU Tigers. A mid-week road trip to Cincinnati and a weekend visit to Knoxville are all that stand in the way of SEC history.
With the way they are playing...how can you pick against them?
2. Walk This Way
The Number: 28 Walks
The 2012 Arkansas Razorbacks are an elite college baseball team.
It often feels with the large shadow cast by a two-time defending champion (South Carolina) and the nation's current top ranked team (Florida), the Razorbacks fly under the radar a little more than they should. Although the Hog faithful constantly remind me (I'm listening folks, truly I am), the nation's attention hasn't yet focused on Arkansas. At 19-2, they currently sit as the country's quietest third ranked team.
Their situation almost reminds you of their past season's football squad, where a Bobby Petrino coached team sat just outside the national conversation, despite sitting in the top five most of the year.
Well, Razorback Nation, that stops today. The Hogs are National Championship contenders.
How can he say that, you ask? They've only played 21 games, and even though they swept Alabama this past weekend, they haven't faced the tough part of their schedule yet, you might say.
I can definitively make this statement because Arkansas possesses the single most importantly ability that you can have as an offensive team.
The Razorbacks get on base...better than anyone in the SEC.
I've talked about this "Moneyball" effect earlier this season, but Arkansas continues to prove that opportunity creates offense. They currently lead the league with 108 free passes, 14 more than any other team in the SEC. By simple division you can ascertain that Arkansas draws about five walks a game (108 walks, 21 games).
This weekend they were even better, using this weapon to sweep Alabama. In three contests against the Crimson Tide, Arkansas worked 28 walks, nearly double their normal average (9.3 a game). In Friday's 4-3 extra-inning win, it was actually free passes that won the game. After a two-out single, Razorback hitters drew three straight walks, including the ever popular "walk off walk" by catcher Jake Wise to capture the victory.
Walks are vital because they allow you to get on base without the benefit of a hit. When you have plate discipline (being able to know the strike zone) as well as Arkansas lineup does, its effects are two-fold. Not only do you force pitchers to throw you strikes, but it also makes them throw you better strikes. Not chasing balls out of the strike zone often leave pitchers less room to "nibble", meaning they have to attack parts of the strike zone that can lead to big hits. Either way, you are providing a positive outcome for your team. That's what makes walks and plate discipline so important.
Arkansas’ ability to reach first isn't the only reason they are national title worthy. Their pitching staff is second in the league in ERA, boasting a 2.26 mark. Dave Van Horn has quietly assembled one of the nation's top teams, and perhaps he has Run DMC and Aerosmith to thank. His team certainly knows how to "Walk This Way".
3. Why Wins Don't Mean Domination
The Number: 17 Strikeouts
On Sunday night, I got an email from SEC baseball contact Chuck Dunlap. What ensued was a conversation about a pitcher's ability to dominate an opponent so thoroughly, yet his team not win the game.
The question we tried to answer was this. Can a pitcher be the league's Player of the Week despite his team losing the game he started?
After responses back and forth, a conclusion appeared Monday on the SEC website
. The answer was yes, as Mississippi State pitcher Chris Stratton captured league honors for his amazing performance on Friday night.
As I've discussed before, the notion that wins are the best way to measure a pitcher's worth simply isn't true. Because a pitcher is at the mercy of the fielders behind him, and the hitters on his team, often he can do everything possible and his team still loses the game.
Case and point? Friday night in Baton Rouge.
Stratton's start in front of 11,000 raucous LSU fans didn't begin the way he would have liked. Two batters into the game, LSU had tagged the junior right hander for a walk and double, and the Tigers quickly grabbed a 1-0 lead. That, however, was LSU's lone offensive highlight, as he proceeded to mow down the next 29 batters in a way that would make former Bulldog alum and current Philadelphia Phillies closer Jonathan Papelbon proud.
Out of the next 29 hitters to dig in against Stratton, he struck out 17 of them. He was the definition of "lights out". Reading the play-by-play of the game only impressed you that much more, as the punch outs piled up as the game wore on. He struck out multiple batters in five different innings, including three frames where he mowed down the entire side (all three outs coming via strikeout).
Stratton got better as the game went along, as he K'ed four of the final seven batters he faced.
By the time he was lifted in the ninth inning, he stepped off the mound an owner of one of the most impressive stat lines seen in decades. Stratton struck out every starter in LSU's lineup at least once, giving two hitters "hat tricks" (three strikeouts apiece) in the box score. His 17 strikeout total was the most by a Bulldog hurler in almost 20 years.
Despite that performance, Mississippi State couldn't capture the win. After going into extra frames, LSU scored two runs in the bottom of the 10th to pick up the 3-2 victory. Stratton's outing ended up as a "no-decision", which seems like a cruel way to describe a dominant outing performance against one of the SEC’s best hitting teams.
When it comes to traditional statistics, Stratton didn't do much on Friday night. But, as we continue to show you here at the "Numbers Game", the numbers behind his achievements were historical, and rightfully made him the SEC's Pitcher of the Week. He also was named National Player of the Week to boot.
How's that for an SEC opening weekend?