By: Eric SanInocencio
SEC Digital Network
Birmingham, Ala. -- One month to go.
No, really, I counted. Four Tuesdays from now, on May 22, the SEC Baseball Tournament begins. As the month of April comes to a close later this week, you can finally see the finish line. Four weekends of play remain, just 12 games on the conference schedule. Crunch time is now, and if teams were saving an extra gear (they aren't), here is the time to solidify your spot in the field.
As we will learn in the space below, nothing is decided yet. Places in Hoover are wide open, with a good series capable of putting teams in the event, while a mistimed sweep can leave you on the outside looking in. It is that close.
Some SEC teams are better off than others, as Kentucky, LSU and a few other squads can start to feel safe thinking about postseason play. You noticed I said "start", because no conference squad has even clinched a .500 record, let alone a berth in the NCAA "Dance". As we've mentioned before, baseball can be a streaky game, and trying to navigate a schedule full of SEC teams can make even the best slip up.
Let's see what caught my eye this week.
1. The Game Of The Year
The Number: 16 innings
Four hours. 56 minutes.
That's how long Friday's 16-inning game between Florida and Georgia lasted. You know what you can do in five hours? I'm glad you asked, because I looked it up. In five hours of time you can...
-- Fly from Los Angeles to New York (2443 miles)
-- Watch the Alabama-LSU BCS title game one and a half times (if you really like defense)
-- Watch the entire new season of Khloe & Lamar (yeah I admit it)
-- Watch both upcoming movies The Avengers and The Dark Knight Rises
-- Watch the entire first round of the NFL Draft (maybe, not entirely sure)
-- Read one Bill Simmons (ESPN/Grantland) column (he's wordy)
Instead of partaking in any of those wonderful activities, Florida and Georgia decided to play baseball. Play they did, throwing a combined 444 pitches over those 16 frames. 10 different pitchers took the hill, and seven threw multiple innings.
Florida was technically shut out, as they went a full nine innings during the game without scoring a run. If these two were playing high school baseball, this would have been more than a doubleheader (high school is seven innings). By the time this contest ended, it was Saturday. Yup, as in an entire day passed while they competed.
None of that is even close to the most impressive thing to happen. Did you see the finish?
I'm going to go out on a limb (a small one I'm sure) and say that Gator Nolan Fontana will never be happier to strike out in his entire life again. After Fontana punched out in the bottom half of the 16th, the ball got away from the catcher. While trying to complete the out at first base, the catcher's throw went awry, allowing the game winning run to cross home plate. Not sure I've ever heard of a walk off strikeout, but that is exactly what happened in Gainesville on that Friday night.
I don't know what more I can add, because the numbers tell the story. So I'll just continue to display them.
-- Both teams combined to bat 113 times
-- Eight (!) players had seven at-bats during the game
-- 28 runners where left on base (14 apiece)
-- Georgia's Alex Wood started and threw eight innings, and got a no decision. He was eight innings away from the game ending.
How about Florida's Mike Zunino? He caught ALL 16 innings for Florida. All 16 innings. Did I mention all five hours worth? What a warrior.
What a game.
2. Everyone In Contention
The Number: 5 Games In The East/6 Games In The West
Who is the best team in the SEC?
You could ask this question every week and likely get a different answer, although your pool of choices would likely be four to five teams.
The better question might be...who are the 10 best teams in the SEC? That is a question we cannot come close to answering today.
Standings, or wins and losses, are the most important statistic there is (I feel like I've said that before). The SEC baseball rule of thumb is to win series at home, and not get swept on the road. That philosophy ensures that you are always close to the pack, in the hunt for a chance to win at the end. It is the old NASCAR analogy I used in a previous column.
This thought process works because the overall strength of the SEC is so good, in that there is hardly ever going to be a team that runs over the rest of the league.
Not. Going. To. Happen.
The schedule is tough, the gauntlet is too demanding. National Championship winning teams routinely lose 10 or more SEC games (think LSU 2009), so a .500 tally usually means a place at the table in the postseason. This year is no different, and the separation between the top and the bottom is the equivalent of two great weekends of baseball.
Vanderbilt and Tennessee, both 7-11 in league play, are just five games behind division leader Kentucky (13-5). More importantly, they are only two games behind the second place teams in the West, Ole Miss and Arkansas (9-9). Even Alabama, who owns a 6-12 mark in conference, is just two games out of a ticket to Hoover. As the Tide showed this weekend, taking two of three from Vanderbilt, anything can happen.
Remember, if the SEC were to get eight teams in the SEC Tournament, that means 75 percent of the time you play a conference series you'd be facing a postseason contender. That isn't easy. There is a reason why a 20-10 record likely means you won the SEC.
This league is the best in the country. Remember that.
3. What Did You Do Today?
The Number: 1,034,380
I ask this question all the time, mostly to my 17-month old son when I get home from work. While he tries to answer (words usually involve Buzz Lightyear), he can't always recall everything. However, in SEC circles, the overwhelming answer to this inquiry has been...."we watched SEC baseball".
The SEC currently has five of the top six schools in national attendance, including the top four. LSU, Arkansas, Ole Miss and South Carolina are currently the country's most attended baseball programs in the country. Add in Mississippi State (6th), and you have the number I featured above.
Let's go back to my favorite comparison, the population of cities. While a few weeks back I was talking about towns like Gainesville, SEC attendance figures now are comparable to top 10 markets. As a matter of fact, that 1 million plus number would be the United States 10th biggest city, ahead of metropolitan areas like Indianapolis and San Francisco.
Mind you, that's only using the number of the top six teams. The more you expand, the bigger the "city" of SEC fans. If you include the league's teams ranked in the top 26 (adding Florida, Alabama, Auburn and Vanderbilt), the total grows to 1,352,578. That figure would place 7th in the country, bigger than the Lone Star State's two largest cities, San Antonio and Dallas.
Back in prior years the SEC's goal was one million in attendance for a calendar year, but they have gotten to that point and it is still April. Conference venues have gotten bigger and along with that the number of fans that are going to watch has as well. While there are some questions as to the actual number of butts in the seats so to speak, the total attendance figures still dwarf every other conference. I mean, it isn't even close.
Now, part of that is the South's warm weather, but it is also because of the quality of play and the talent in this league. Fans are getting a chance to watch the next crop of Major League superstars now, players that are likely to compete at the highest level after their SEC days are over.
On opening day of the 2012 MLB season, 45 former SEC players were listed on 25-man rosters. Those names include All-Stars (David Price/Vanderbilt) and those viewed as the best at their position (Cliff Lee/Arkansas). Not long ago, names like those and others roamed fields in the Southeastern Conference.
Why wouldn't you go watch that?