By: Eric SanInocencio
SEC Digital Network
Birmingham, Ala. -- Six down, 24 to go.
Even with another round of SEC weekend series’ behind us, much is still undecided. Every win at this juncture can flip the standings, with a series victory capable of vaulting teams from the scrap heap to the conference penthouse. What we do know right now is that SEC baseball teams are as talented as they’ve ever been, and that constant competition puts a few unfamiliar names at the back of the pack.
So, this is no time to panic. Even though fans in Columbia, Nashville, Starkville and Tuscaloosa aren't necessarily happy with the starts of their favorite squads, it is nothing to get upset about. SEC baseball contact Chuck Dunlap told me the calendar reaches May before he even starts trying to figure out SEC Tournament seeding, and even in the end one win can change it all.
One only has to look back to last season to be reminded of the chaotic nature of SEC baseball. A year ago, one Saturday afternoon game literally meant Hoover or bust for the Arkansas Razorbacks. As Dunlap explained to me, the Hogs were down to a final home affair with Ole Miss. A win for Arkansas meant the Western Division title, and the two seed in the upcoming SEC Tournament. A loss and head coach Dave Van Horn's squad would watch the tournament on TV.
But, the Hogs did win, advancing to both the SEC and NCAA Tournament. They picked up two wins in Hoover, and then two more in the national event, culminating a successful year in Fayetteville. This year is even harder to predict, since a total of 10 teams are headed to the SEC's showcase. That keeps more programs in the mix, making for a hectic finish.
Big picture. That is all that matters.
1. Pollsters Dig The Long Ball
The Number: 37 Home Runs
You remember that commercial don't you?
Rewind to the late 1990s, as the home run dominated Major League Baseball. Historic records fell, and the whole world was enamored with the "long ball". Nike capitalized on this phenomenon, using Atlanta Braves starting pitchers Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine in a commercial that is widely viewed as one of the greatest of all-time.
In the video, Maddux and Glavine appear jealous, watching St. Louis Cardinals slugger Mark McGwire bash homerun after homerun during a batting practice session. Determined to win back fan attention, they went through a Rocky-like training montage, trying to transform themselves from skinny pitchers into power hitters.
It "worked", as Maddux and Glavine gained the admiration of Heather Locklear (if you are under 25 and don't know who she is, trust me you wanted her attention
) as they infamously stated "Chicks Dig the Long Ball". Although that commercial is at least 12 years old, the phrase has held over time, and perfectly describes one team in the SEC.
For a squad that is ranked number one in the country, I feel like I've kind of ignored Florida. While I mentioned Preston Tucker's bout with UF history
, overall the Gators have continued to roll along without much mention here.
If you polled major league scouts, I'd be willing to guess they'd name Florida as college baseball's most talented team. All year the Gators have been ranked in the country's top three, even starting in the top spot although the two-time defending National Champions (South Carolina) reside in their own division. Florida hasn't disappointed, evidenced by not only their overall record (22-2), but their 5-1 mark in the SEC.
Head coach Kevin O'Sullivan has a team that can beat you in many ways, from starting pitching to defensively (top fielding percentage in the SEC). The most devastating way might be the four-base hit, or more commonly known as the aforementioned "long ball". Florida has 37 home runs as a team, which ranks first in the SEC and second in the nation. The Gators are averaging 1.54 homers a game, also a top three mark nationally.
Catcher Mike Zunino, a likely top 10 pick in the upcoming MLB Draft, already has nine dingers, right on pace to match or possibly top the 19 he had last year. Tucker provides the other half of the one-two punch, as he sits just behind Zunino on the SEC leader board with eight deep flies of his own.
While the "long ball" is wildly popular, home runs are also very important statistically. They mean instant offense. Home runs can erase big deficits in one swing, giving the chance to add multiple runs to the scoreboard in a matter of seconds. Not that you should ever count on them solely to score, but having power hitters that can connect make a lineup much harder to navigate for pitchers.
In the college age of BBCOR (new bat design with less "sweet spot") bats, hitting the ball over the fence is harder than it has ever been. Home run totals are down nationally, and decades of broken records appear stable for the coming years.
Florida's ability to go deep as often as they do is another added attack weapon, making them even more difficult to defeat. With the Gators power, no lead is really ever safe. Though they haven't had the need for many rallies so far, knowing that runs are just a swing of the bat away makes Florida all the more lethal.
I think even Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine would be proud.
2. Taking "50" For The Team
The Number: 50 Hit By Pitches
The object of a hitter is to hit the ball. In Lexington, with the Wildcats in the midst of the hottest start in program history, they've managed to flip that simple idea on its head. Kentucky is doing the exact opposite. The Wildcats aren't just getting on base by hits, but by getting hit.
Kentucky has played 25 games this season. Do the math. Two times a game. One word comes to mind.
Being a former college baseball player myself, I can tell you I wanted nothing to do with leading this category. Not that I was scared of getting hit (maybe I was a little), but I certainly didn't want to get plunked. Usually getting hit by a pitch meant you or one of your teammates broke one of baseball's unwritten rules, and the pitcher was policing the situation with a well placed fastball.
That unfortunately happened to me a lot in college, mostly due to my roommate's choice of home run celebration. After hitting a bomb, my roomie (who shall remain nameless) proceeded to "fly" down to first base, spreading his arms like a crop duster as the ball sailed over the fence.
Needless to say, our opponents were often unhappy with his display, and it usually affected me as the next hitter up. My roommate knew it too, as he would routinely tell me he was sorry just after he crossed home plate. As you can imagine, I was thrilled. I'd "take one for the team", or in this case him, and head down to first base with a bruise on my shoulder.
Mind you, I never wanted to get it. It just happened. Kentucky looks like they welcome it, as every single player in their normal starting nine has been hit by a pitch this season. As a matter of fact, 12 total hitters have been plunked this year, helping to come up with the 50 total that currently leads the SEC.
Is there a benefit to this "strategy"? Sure. Being hit by a pitch gives the same effect as a walk or a single, putting runners on base for the upcoming batters. While it is certainly a more painful approach to getting on, it can still do the same amount of "damage" so to speak.
There are some coaches that teach this, encouraging their players to "crowd" the plate when they go up to hit. As the movie Sandlot tells us (James Earl Jones’ character), when you crowd the plate the strike zone shrinks, and gives a pitcher less room to work with. The downside of that type of philosophy (or upside in this case) is that batters will get hit more.
A quick look at Kentucky's SEC only stats show that getting batters on in this manner is part of their scoring success. UK has had 10 batters hit by pitch in six SEC games. Compared to the 20 walks they've drawn during that same span, it shows you that the hit by pitch has been a key to their ability to get on base and score.
Will their bodies survive this? Of course they will, but not without a few bruises and stitch marks along the way. But, as the numbers tell us, Kentucky has proven that they have no problem "feeling the pain" if it means a better chance to win. At this point of the season, it has meant 24 victories. I think they'll take the trade off, even if it means a few more ice packs after each game is over.
3. All He Does Is Hit
The Number: .467 Batting Average
LSU’s Raph Rhymes can hit.
Every step in his baseball career has featured Rhymes crushing the baseball. His numbers are astronomical, and luckily for the state of Louisiana, they’ve all come inside the borders of the Pelican State.
Rhymes’ odyssey began in Monroe, La., as the now junior at LSU was a three-time All-State selection at Neville High School. After a stellar high school campaign, where he, you guessed it, hit well, he attempted to continue his trek as the state’s flagship university (LSU). Yet despite a list of outstanding accomplishments, a roster spot wasn’t available for Rhymes at that time. The talented outfielder was forced to prove himself all over again.
When the decision of where he would take his lethal swing too was made, he stayed in state. Rhymes attended LSU-Eunice, a Division II junior college 90 miles west of Baton Rouge. In the shadow of the program that didn’t need his services yet, Rhymes did what he’s always done.
Reading some of the numbers from his one season in Eunice makes you think they can’t possibly be right. You might use the term “Playstation stats”, because it is difficult to believe that one person can be so dominant with a bat in his hand.
I’ll let the numbers explain for themselves.
Rhymes hit .483 (!), with 31 doubles, four triples and 12 home runs. If that wasn’t enough, he even stole 15 bases. He only struck out nine times in the entire season, a span encompassing 238 at-bats. To compare, major leaguer Mark Reynolds once struck out 223 times in a season (over 662 at bats). While Reynolds is facing superior competition over a longer season, that helps put Rhymes amazing feat into perspective.
Rhymes also lead LSU-Eunice to a National Championship, further cementing his year as legendary. As you can imagine, LSU called (back), and Rhymes joined the team as a sophomore last season.
You’ll never guess what he did when he got to Baton Rouge.
Rhymes lead LSU in hits (77) as a sophomore, and batted a robust .360 in 56 games for the Tigers. He came into this year as the team’s top returning hitter. 26 games into the 2012 season, he has risen into another stratosphere.
Again, I’ll let the numbers do the talking.
His current average is .467, which leads the SEC and is third in the country. He has an SEC high 43 hits, and is getting on base in just over half of his at bats. Conference play hasn’t slowed him either, as he has hit .500 in league matchups. He posted four hits against Mississippi State a week ago, tied for the highest single game total in conference action this year.
Where can Rhymes go from here? It is hard to say. While it is difficult to imagine him keeping up this type of pace all year, what if this is the season that he puts it all together? If he does, the SEC history books could be in jeopardy.
While the SEC record of a .525 batting average in a season by former Alabama player and MLB veteran Dave Magadan is likely safe, everything after that is fair game. The fact that he is doing this in a large number of at bats is all the more impressive, since the four totals below Magadan’s record were achieved in less than 100 total at bats in the season. Rhymes has already come to the plate 91 times, so if the season ended today he’d be eligible and rank fourth all-time.
You can’t question Rhymes anymore. The kid can hit.