By: Eric SanInocencio
SEC Digital Network
Birmingham, Ala. -- The month of May has finally arrived.
They say April showers bring May flowers, but when it comes to SEC baseball, April victories mean May tournaments. 70 percent of the conference schedule is complete, and while there is definitely time to go on a run, making up ground is getting more difficult by the weekend. While that "may" seem like common sense, it is important to reiterate. The finish line is near.
But, the standings aren't cooperating, at least in the sense of being able to determine anything concrete. So, while there are fewer games to play, the importance of them will only rise. A win means so much more this time of year, and that extra pressure will only raise the level of play across the SEC.
But, that is the month of May in SEC baseball for you. You can only hope your favorite team "blooms" during this pivotal stretch.
1. The Heart Of A Champion
The Number: 11
Let's rewind to March 24th. Two series into the SEC schedule, South Carolina was struggling. Despite coming into the year as the two-time defending NCAA champion, the Gamecocks found themselves 1-5 in league play. Ray Tanner's crew had been dismantled by a then surprising Kentucky squad, and then dispatched by Florida, a Gator team many pegged to push USC off their championship perch.
South Carolina’s offense looked pedestrian, scoring less than four runs in every conference game they’d played. Their bullpen, which had led them to glory in Omaha the year before, failed to slam the door, as the Gamecocks gave up leads. USC was reeling, and people began to ask the question.
Is this the end of South Carolina’s magical run?
11 straight conference wins later, the Gamecocks emphatically answered.
The champs are 14-7, and in a tie at the top of the Eastern Division with that very Kentucky team thought to have started USC's decline. Instead of the end of an era, South Carolina is now in the midst of a streak, putting the team where many expected when the season began. While Tanner would likely admit that he would have chosen a different path to today's reality, the bottom line is that the Gamecocks are back. I'm not a fan of clichés, but one truly applies here.
Never question the heart of a champion.
Since that, shall we say "slow" start, USC has gone a 13-2 tear through the league. And while the 11 wins in a row is the most eye catching stat, the most important victory happened the week before that began.
South Carolina's season, and perhaps its dynasty, hung in the balance on a Sunday afternoon in Nashville. USC and Vanderbilt had split the first two games of the series, the Gamecocks mired in an uphill battle. They had a 2-6 record in the SEC at the time, and could have easily folded up the tent. I mean, that's an impossible hole to dig out of right? Especially in this league.
South Carolina had other plans.
On that pivotal Sunday, the "heart" I spoke of earlier appeared. They battled through extra frames to win in a 13-inning thriller 6-4. Just one run away from losing their grip on the season, they somehow found a way to win. In fitting fashion, two upperclassmen, who have been big parts of many championship moments, led the way.
Junior Matt Price, the ace closer from CWS glory in 2011, pitched six (!) innings in relief, striking out seven. Junior Christian Walker provided the offense, smashing a two-run homer in the 13th to seal the win. Just like that, South Carolina had won its first series.
A month later, all is right in Columbia. The Gamecocks are winning, and the SEC Eastern Division championship is in their sights. Just like that.
The champion is off the ropes. Watch out.
2. Ties, Ties and More Ties
The Number: 3
Does anyone have a PhD in math?
As I mentioned earlier, ties in the standings have become the norm in the SEC every year. As of today, a staggering 67 percent (8 of 12) of teams in the league are involved in a tie. There are two three-way ties and one two-team tie for good measure. There are ties everywhere.
Thanks to this wonderful document
, we can try and interpret the multitude of scenarios going forward. “Try” being the operative word, because wins by other teams can completely throw off what the standings look like today.
That being said, if the SEC Baseball Tournament started today, here's what the field would look like.
1. Kentucky/LSU/South Carolina
2. Kentucky/LSU/South Carolina
3. Kentucky/LSU/South Carolina
6. Auburn/Mississippi State/Ole Miss
7. Auburn/Mississippi State/Ole Miss
8. Auburn/Mississippi State/Ole Miss
Well, except for the multiple teams listed in the one, two, three, six, seven, eight, nine and 10 spots, sure.
Determining the 10 teams going to Hoover as of now isn't as much of a problem; it essentially goes down the standings. Remember, the number one and two seeds will always be the division champions, and then teams three through 10 are determined by conference record. That is specifically mentioned in the tiebreaker document I linked too earlier, and can be read below.
"Seeding. The two division champions shall be automatically seeded number one and number two based on winning percentage in Conference competition. The remaining teams shall be seeded numbers three through 10 based on winning percentage without regard to division. "
Alright, no problem...yet. A little further reading explains how to proceed with multiple tiebreakers. Let's start at the top with our three-team dance.
"The following procedure will be used in the following order until the tie is broken: (Note: If the three tied teams have three different records against each other, they shall be seeded in best-percentage order.) Otherwise, once the tie has been reduced to two teams, the two-team tiebreaker procedure will be used.
A. If all three teams are common opponents: Total won-lost percentage of games played among the tied teams.
B. Won-lost percentage of the tied teams versus the No. 1 seed and proceeding through the No. 10 seed, if necessary, using common opponents only.
C. If three or more teams still are tied, the Commissioner will conduct a draw."
Seems straight forward doesn't it? However, it gets tricky because you are dealing with different divisions (LSU is in the West). So, with the Western Division champ having to get one of the top two seeds, right now this is an East tiebreaker only. That would make Kentucky the top seed, as they swept South Carolina earlier in the year. LSU, the West division winner, is the two and South Carolina the three. This could change though, as LSU and South Carolina play in the final weekend this season. For the sake of the headache I'm getting, let's just worry about that later.
The middle triple (Auburn, Mississippi State and Ole Miss) is easier to break down since all of the teams have played each other. Using the guidelines, an overall record determines the seeds. The order goes Auburn (6), Mississippi State (7) and Ole Miss (8). The Tigers hold a 4-2 record, having won series against both MSU and Ole Miss. The Bulldogs 3-3 record in those same contests is better than the Rebels 2-4 mark, so head coach John Cohen's group gets the seven slot. Ole Miss is your eight seed.
Our final tiebreaker is the easiest, as we have two Western Division teams (Vanderbilt and Georgia) that have already played this year. The Commodores took two of three against the UGA, giving them the edge and the ninth spot. UGA grabs the final spot, completing our field of 10 for Hoover.
What makes this fun (or what baseball SID Chuck Dunlap might call a nightmare) is that there are nine games to go. You only have to look back one year, when three teams tied for the best record in the East. In the West, Arkansas was either the champion or out of the tournament with only one game remaining.
I'm glad I'll just hear about the final seeds once it is all over. I don't want any part of having to compute this every week.
3. The Tiger Offensive
The Number: .307
Quick...who is the SEC's best hitting team?
Florida? Kentucky? Ole Miss?
Nope, that would be the Auburn Tigers. Hey, don't feel bad, I would have guessed one of the three squads above as well. For some reason, when you think offense in the SEC, Auburn doesn't come to mind, at least not for me. That changes now.
The Tigers are on a four-game winning streak, including a sweep of Tennessee on the weekend. Those victories place Auburn right in the hunt for a ticket to Hoover, and also one game out of second place in the West. When I profiled head coach John Pawlowski's team in pre-conference play, I noted they were using speed and small ball to try and win. Something changed along the way, as the Tigers are now bashing the ball like the elite SEC teams of the mid-90's. As always, the numbers tell the story.
In SEC-only games, Auburn is the only team batting over .300 (.307). The Tigers are first in six different SEC-only categories, including important stats like slugging (.444) and on base percentage (.378). Auburn is scoring close to six runs per game (5.57), and reached double digits in every contest against Tennessee.
A further examination shows a deep lineup, with the Tigers sporting seven starters with season marks over .300. The outfield duo of Ryan Tella and Cullen Wacker has been nearly unstoppable against conference foes, getting almost three hits a game (2.95) between them. That's what you call a one-two punch.
It is rare at this point in the year to see one team dominate so many stats, but Auburn is doing it. In addition to the categories they lead, they also place second in several others. You can't go through a team batting statistic that the Tigers aren't near the top of. The stat doesn’t exist.
So, who is the best hitting team in the SEC?