By: Eric SanInocencio
SEC Digital Network
Birmingham, Ala. – Is it April already? Let me rephrase. Is it mid-April already?
With the grind of the schedule, days and weeks can quickly pass, putting an entire month in your rear view before you realize. That’s what happened to March.
As anyone that works in the SEC office can tell you, March is by far the busiest month of the year. You are traveling (SEC Men’s and Women’s Basketball Tournament) and in the midst of an intersection of every sport on the spring schedule. You spend so much time just trying to get everything done, that any kind of planning or trying to prepare for later dates isn’t possible.
The normal March “madness” spilled into April this year, as Kentucky’s National Championship win took center stage. Not that I’m complaining. If you are still playing basketball in April, that means you are winning. That’s all any conference can ask for.
Who won “numbers” wise this past weekend? Let’s explore.
1. The Tide Rises
The Number: 3
I called it!
Ok, so maybe I didn't call it exactly
like this, but in last week's column I did say that Alabama fans had reason for hope on the horizon. After analyzing and introducing a new stat (BABIP), I reasoned that the Crimson Tide had been a little "unlucky" so far, and that the numbers said a correction was likely to occur. Now, I'm not sure that anyone outside of the "Roll Tide" family expected this much, but change it was, as Alabama swept in-state rival Auburn this weekend in the baseball version of the "Iron Bowl".
Just like that, in a span of 72 hours, the Alabama mindset has gone from "forget about Hoover" to "don't forget about us", as the Crimson Tide are now just one game out of a spot in the SEC Tournament. This sweep was HUGE, and to have it come against the rival of all rivals has to make everyone in Tuscaloosa feel that much better. If you saw the ESPN documentary "Roll Tide, War Eagle", you know that the outcome of a checkers game between Auburn and Alabama means life or death in this state. So for the Crimson Tide to "rise" from the dead against their neighboring Tigers might be the moment that turns around their entire season.
Or maybe not. Let's see what the numbers tell us.
One interesting note from Sewell-Thomas Stadium in Tuscaloosa was the fact that Auburn actually out-hit the Tide in two of the three contests (Game 1 and 3), yet Alabama still managed to claim all three victories. Why? The ball "bounced" in a more normal fashion for Alabama.
Going into this past weekend's matchup with Auburn, Alabama had the league's highest BABIP at .346. As you remember, this statistic measures the average of balls put in play against a team, and that mark was 40 points higher than the conference's norm (.306).
That number dropped to .282, as Auburn's contact found more Crimson Tide fielders, meaning less hits and ultimately less runs against the Tide. Now this stat wasn't the sole reason for Alabama's success (Taylor Dugas deserves credit, I’ll get to him later), but it goes hand in hand with trying to understand what we are watching. Alabama’s numbers were likely to come down and did, and head coach Mitch Gaspard was able to breathe life into a fan base that wasn't sure about the 2012 season.
As for Dugas, his accomplishments this weekend cement him as both the physical and emotional leader for this Tide team. His full talent was on display, as he shattered the Alabama career triples record on Friday, then launched a two-out walk-off homerun on Saturday. There are players in this league that come to mind immediately when you think of a certain team, and with Alabama that player is Dugas. His Co-Player of the Week honors were well deserved.
2. No Place Like Home
The Number: .500
What started with the iconic movie “The Wizard of Oz” has now one of the most recognizable phrases in modern history. Whether it is Dorothy (Wizard Of Oz) uttering the famous line or the epic show Lost naming one of their episodes after it, there is truly no place like home. That is definitely the case in SEC baseball, as winning on the road has proven to be as difficult as beating Bubba Watson in a playoff at Augusta National (Go Georgia!)
Sorry, got sidetracked. Where was I? I was discussing road wins in the conference, and how only one team has figured it out. After some number crunching (that's what I do here), I was able to calculate the road records for every SEC team in conference games. What I found was rather interesting.
Only one team has a winning record on the road in SEC contests this year.
That team? The Kentucky Wildcats. Head coach Gary Henderson's squad is 4-2 away from Lexington, having taken two of three at Georgia and at Tennessee.
Other than Kentucky, no other SEC squad is better than .500 in the six away games they've played. Three teams (Florida, LSU, and Ole Miss) are at exactly .500 (3-3), while everyone else falls below that magical line. That means that two teams currently ranked in the top 10 in the country (Arkansas, South Carolina) have not won at least half of the games they've played away from their friendly confines.
How's that for a stat?
What do "the numbers" tell you? First off, they tell you the playing in the SEC is really hard. We've talked at length about the collective strength of this conference, and beating teams of that caliber on their home field is no easy task. Every coaches goal is to win the series (take 2 of the 3), but as long as you aren't getting swept, you are doing okay.
As of today, five losses separate the top of the Eastern Division with the bottom, an achievement that can be accomplished in a mere two weekends. The West's lead is smaller, with four games separating LSU from Alabama. SEC baseball is kind of like NASCAR, in that if you can keep up with the pack, you can make your move and be right in the race at the end.
Just make sure you are playing at your home ballpark when you decide to step on the gas.
3. There’s No “LSU” In Team
The Number: 8-4 SEC Record
How are they doing it?
LSU might be the single most perplexing team to examine in the Southeastern Conference. On the surface, the Tigers don’t appear to dominate any one category, but yet they still find success in the toughest environments in the country.
What LSU has done the past two weeks is nothing short of outstanding. In back-to-back matchups against Arkansas and Florida, teams ranked in the top three nationally at the time, LSU has gone a combined 5-1. At this point in the road, Paul Mainieri’s Tigers are the top “cat” in the Western Division, a considerable feat considering the plethora of talented teams that play in that side of the league.
It is hard to imagine that a team with the historical pedigree of LSU could be overlooked, but it kind of feels that way right now. Despite being ranked seventh in the country as of Monday, I just don’t see the Tigers mentioned in the media near as much as their top 10 counterparts. Why?
Asking that question brings me back to my original one, which is how are they doing it? I feel like once you start to answer that, you begin to understand why LSU isn’t a national media darling. LSU is a fantastic team, and I mean team, which perhaps doesn’t resonate as well in terms of adulation from fans and the media.
The Tigers do everything pretty well, not great, and rely on each phase of the game to capture victory. They don’t really have great star power (although Raph Rhymes is a special player), such as Florida with Mike Zunino or South Carolina with Michael Roth. They aren’t tearing the cover off the ball like Kentucky, or stealing tons of bases like Arkansas and Vanderbilt. They beat you with consistency, and have no weaknesses for their opponents to try and exploit.
You won’t find LSU leading any statistical categories in the SEC, but you will definitely find them in the top six in many. They play small ball well (12 sacrifice bunts and four sacrifice flies, both top five in the SEC) and get just enough runs to win.
They also pitch, and pitch well. Led by Friday starter and top draft prospect Kevin Gausman, the LSU pitching staff allows just over three runs a game. With that kind of firepower, you don’t need 10 runs a game to win. Head coach Paul Mainieri knows this and has adjusted, bringing a small school approach to a big-time conference.
Gone are the LSU teams from the mid 1990’s that decimated the SEC hitting record books, having been replaced by a version that moves runners and hits well with two outs. That type of approach isn’t sexy, but in a setting were wins trump everything else, it is damn sure effective.
As LSU fans will tell you….that’s all that matters. Being a complete team often means being a winning team. LSU defines that exactly.