By: Eric SanInocencio
SEC Digital Network
Birmingham, Ala. -- 15 down, 15 to go.
If SEC baseball had its version of a Midsummer Classic, the conference's All-Star game would be upon us this week. We are officially at the midpoint of the 2012 league season, five weekends away from the finish line that is the conference tournament.
While those at the major league level get a few days to recharge the batteries at this point in the year, the college game marches forward. Teams continue to compete with no semblance that anything has changed...and that's the beauty of it.
Baseball is a game of repetition, a pastime that endures its players to the lessons of routine and sequence. More so than any other sport, focusing on the daily activities is the key to grand success. You practice or play every day, which fosters a feeling of connection to each part of your schedule and your teammates. You get to the park, you get loose, and you play. It is the same every single day.
I'm sure you are thinking that each sport probably functions in that matter, but I stress that baseball is on its own island when it comes to that shared routine. Football competes once a week, basketball maybe twice, leaving open days during a calendar that provide for relief from the grind. Baseball's "grind" is the drive for daily perfection, the hope of peak performance over a sustained period of time.
No easy task, which is why the momentum swings and streaks are so prevalent. You are fighting your mind as much as your body as the "dog days" of late spring in this case creep in.
The games still go on.
Halfway does deserve reflection though, as we peer back into months' worth of statistics to understand what the numbers tell us. With that said, this week I'm going to feature the three "biggest" numbers of the 2012 season to date. Consider this the "All-Star" ballot for the SEC's first half of the year.
1. You Play To Win The Game
The Number: 32
Former NFL player and head coach, now ESPN personality Herm Edwards said it the best. Rap's DJ Khaled put it to music, making a song that is now familiar at stadiums and arenas all over the country. Whether these two men knew it or not, their words and beats have become a rallying cry for the sports world, and for legions of SEC fans.
Edwards told us "you play to win the game", and Khaled phrased "all we do is win". Put those two together, and you have one of the most important "numbers" in SEC baseball season.
You also have the 2012 Kentucky Wildcats.
Quick show of hands. How many people had Kentucky leading the SEC in victories at this point of the year?
Still waiting.....ok that's what I thought.
The Wildcats are the feel good (and real good) story of the year so far. UK is 32-5 at the halfway point, leading a stacked Eastern Division that features the nation's No. 1 team (Florida) and the two-time defending National Champion (South Carolina). Despite those obstacles, Kentucky has continued its magical run, winning an amazing 86 percent of their games this year. They've won every way you can imagine. At home, on the road (only team with a winning SEC road record), in close games and against teams they've hardly beaten (defeated Arkansas this past weekend for the first time in 10 years).
Kentucky is entering rarefied air for their program, as the totals continue to rise as each week passes. UK's 32 wins already puts them among the best teams in school history. If the season ended today, the 2012 Wildcat squad would be only the 12th in the program's 100-year tenure to reach the 32 win mark. The number would be the highest since 2008 (44), and be just the sixth time that UK has gotten to that level in the past 15 years.
The crazy part about it is that the season isn't over. With two months to go, Kentucky can shatter every single win number they've ever recorded. 19 games remain on their regular season schedule, meaning a 12-7 record down the stretch (entirely possible) would tie them with their highest win total ever (44).
Considering the path they are on right now, you'd have to imagine that a trip to the SEC and NCAA Tournaments remain after that. If you factor in the minimum games they'd play in each of those events (4) that gives you a 23 game total to reach that magic number. That puts the record needed to get to 44 at 12-11, which seems like a certainty with the way the Wildcats have played this year.
I'm not trying to get ahead of ourselves here, but what Kentucky has done in the first 37 games of the year is truly remarkable. They've defied the odds. Remember, the SEC coaches themselves picked Gary Henderson and company to finish fifth in their division, and who could blame them? UK was 8-22 in conference play a year ago, and graduated their top arm and one of the highest draft picks in school history (Alex Meyer).
Who could have predicted this?
Kentucky's team has believed in this journey, and they are halfway to the greatest season in the history of that program. Can they seal the deal? Stay tuned.
2. LSU...The Pitching School?
The Number: 338
What's the first thing that comes to mind when you think of LSU baseball? I don't know about you, but I go straight to 1996. I think of Warren Morris' game-winning homer in the College World Series, and how that home run symbolized the Tigers as a national powerhouse. LSU will be always "Gorilla Ball" to me, where for an amazing stretch in the 1990s they decimated the SEC records books with their prodigious power.
Names like Eddy Furniss, Brandon Larson and Brad Cresse are etched in my mind, powerful sluggers that hammered their way to National Championships. During that decade (1990-2000), an LSU player led the SEC in dingers six different times. To paraphrase an earlier "Numbers Game" column, LSU not only dug the long ball, but hit them more than anyone.
That isn't LSU anymore.
Not saying they don't hit, because Raph Rhymes will remind you that they do, but the program's philosophy has changed. Whether due to a change in bats, or the cycle of unbelievable arms currently wearing Tiger jerseys, LSU goes about it now in a different manner. Despite differences from the fabled champions you remember, they still do what they've always done.
But the majority of the power they flash today is from the mound. LSU has been the singular most dominant pitching team to this point of the season. That's why they are also leading the Western Division.
The number 338 is the amount of strikeouts the Tiger staff has amassed, which is tops in the Southeastern Conference. It goes deeper than just punch outs, as Paul Maineri's squad has decimated some of the league's best offenses en route to a 30-7 record and 11-4 mark in the SEC.
What's most impressive is how they've turned it up a notch in conference play. LSU's staff has 128 strikeouts in league action, number one in the SEC. Hold on, we are just getting started.
The Tigers staff ERA in SEC-only games is 3.16, which you guessed it, is the best in the conference. In nine of their 15 league matchups, LSU has held their opponents to under three runs. They gave up just four runs total in a three-game series against Alabama this past weekend, and held powerful Arkansas to nine runs in their set earlier this year.
A dominant staff is usually led by a dominant pitcher, and the Tigers definitely possess that in Kevin Gausman. Gausman, widely regarding as one of the top MLB draft prospects in the country, headlines an arsenal of arms that could become one of LSU's best pitching staffs in school history.
Since 1996, only three Tiger staffs have had an ERA under 4.00 for the entire season. The lowest total was the 2002 group, who put together a 3.41 mark for the year. That number is in jeopardy in 2012. LSU currently sits under at 2.96, a full half run better than any Tiger pitching staff in the past 15 years.
The old adage is that good pitching beats good hitting. LSU is banking on it.
3. Are You Kidding Me?
The Number: 3, 4, 27, 17
How many times have you seen something that made you shake your head? Whether it is on the playing field or in your daily life, occurrences happen that often leave us baffled, not sure whether what we witnessed really happened or not.
Baseball statistics can be the same way, as you look through a day's game and notice numbers that don’t make sense. That's what our third "number" is in today's column, a series of crazy happenings that have appeared so far during the 2012 season.
"Sacrificing" For The Team -- Florida's Nolan Fontana (3 Sacrifice Bunts)
You can never accuse Florida's Nolan Fontana of not being a team player. In a game this year against Bethune-Cookman (February 21), the junior shortstop showed his unselfishness in an unusual way. Fontana attempted a sacrifice bunt three different times in that game, the highest bunt total of anyone in an SEC game this season.
"Just A Bit Outside" -- Auburn's Zack Blatt (4 Wild Pitches...In One Game)
On February 25th, Auburn's Zack Blatt just couldn't find the plate against Arizona. The senior, in his best Nuke Laloosh impression (Bull Durham for you young folks), uncorked four wild pitches in four innings of relief. Four in four...kind of has a nice ring to it.
"Not Again" -- Ole Miss Rebels (27 Double Plays)
Nothing kills a rally faster than a double play. Unfortunately for Ole Miss this year, they seem to attract twin killings more than any other team in the SEC. The Rebels have grounded into 27 DPs, tops in the league. I'm guessing the phrase "6-4-3" isn't something that head coach Mike Bianco wants to hear anymore this year.
"The Iron Shoulder" -- Kentucky's Zac Zellers (17 Hit By Pitches)
We know Kentucky likes to get hits...and get hit themselves. No one embodies that "tough" game plan more than Zac Zellers, who has gotten hit by a pitch an SEC high 17 times this year. Kudos to the Wildcat training staff, as they've kept Zellers on the field for 32 out of 37 games this year. I'm sure he's gone through a few extra ice packs than the rest of his teammates.