By: Eric SanInocencio
SEC Digital Network
Birmingham, Ala. -- Welcome to the SEC's seventh-inning stretch.
There are 10 conference weekends in the league season, and now only two remain. Out of a 30-game schedule, only six contests are left.
If the SEC season were a game, fans would be getting ready to stand for the famous "seventh-inning stretch". They'd get up out of their seat, look around the stadium and observe the scene. Then, they'd get ready for the final frames. That's where we are at right now.
The all important date to remember is May 22nd. That's when the 2012 SEC Baseball Tournament begins, effectively turning the page from regular season play to post season action. But, before you can get to that date, you have to take care of business now, ensuring you have a spot to get there. With only six games left, time is running out for some teams, as each game becomes more dire for any hopes of tournament dreams.
For others, the final series are about SEC Tournament seeding, and impressing national eyes in hopes of better NCAA matchups. Every game will be pivotal.
1. The SEC's Best Pitcher?
The Number: 0
Before I get started, a preface. When it comes to determining the best pitchers in the SEC, you can't really go wrong. You could easily make a case for eight different arms being the league's best, and no one could really argue with you. The strength of the Friday night starters in this conference is expansive, with nearly every team sporting a hurler that will become a professional some day.
That being said, the question still remains. Who is the league's best pitcher?
Sometimes the SEC's "best pitcher" has been confused with the SEC's "top prospect". Not that those two aren't synonymous most of the time, but just because a player may be viewed as a better bet to star in the majors does not mean they are the better pitcher right now. I point this out because it is common knowledge that LSU's Kevin Gausman will be the first SEC pitcher taken in the MLB Draft (ESPN's Keith Law said as much last week
). Does that automatically make him the conference's top arm?
Perhaps. But, I submit another name for you. What about Mississippi State's Chris Stratton?
Again, the numbers make the point for me. Stratton is MSU's ace, and leads the entire conference in wins (9). Perhaps more importantly, he hasn't lost a decision so far this year (that is the zero number above). A more detailed look at Stratton's resume makes the case for him even more.
His season ERA is 2.19, which ranks second in the SEC. He's been durable, throwing 82.1 innings this year (2nd-SEC). He's also been unhittable, striking out a league-high 101 batters (tied with Gausman) and holding hitters to a .207 average against him (5th-SEC).
Stratton's season got off to an interesting beginning, seeing as how he didn't make his first start until March 16th. After working out of the bullpen for the first month of the season, an injury thrust the junior into a starting role. Stratton's first start was in one of the nation's most intimidating venues, as he squared off against LSU in Alex Box Stadium. But, when the junior was officially "unleashed", it was bad news for the rest of the SEC.
Let's put it this way. Stratton has started eight games in conference play, and has won five of them. He has struck out 10 or more batters three different times, including an SEC-high 17 against LSU (more on that here
). He has allowed three or fewer earned runs in all but one of his league starts. He has held LSU, Arkansas, Auburn, Tennessee, Ole Miss and Alabama to a combined six runs total. Six!
Again, he is getting stronger as the season goes on. He hasn't allowed a run in 19 straight innings, a time spanning his last three starts. In his past two starts, against in-state rival Ole Miss and Alabama, he has struck out 13, while only walking one. That my friends, is domination.
So the question remains...who is the league's best pitcher?
2. The Hitting Machine
The Number: .500
The SEC has been playing baseball as a league for 69 years. In that time, 411 players have gone on to compete in the Major Leagues. This conference's past is filled with some of the best athletes in college history, names that hold spots in both the SEC and NCAA record books.
Making history in this league is hard to do. That is why it is all the more special when we witness it. Lucky for us, that history is taking place right now. If the season ended today, we'd be watching the second best hitting season the SEC has ever seen.
Who am I talking about?
The man I call the "hitting machine". LSU's Raph Rhymes.
I've featured him once before, telling the story of how the talented outfielder made his way from junior college stardom to SEC playing time. When I profiled him then, I kept writing one sentence over and over again.
The kid can hit.
On May 8th, that is still the case. But instead of having a good year, Rhymes' is in the midst of a legendary one, putting up numbers that are making the country's best conference look like Little League. For once, the math on this is simple. The junior native of Monroe, La., has 170 at bats this season. He has 85 hits. That's a .500 average...and that's amazing.
His .500 mark is tops in the SEC, leading second place Alex Yarbrough of Ole Miss by .93 points (that's a lot). He is a model of consistency, and has actually stepped up his game against conference competition. In SEC play, his average is .512, again the high number in the conference by far. In a simply amazing feat, Rhymes himself is responsible for 17 percent of LSU's hits as a team this year.
Soon to be Hall of Famer and current Anaheim Angel Albert Pujols, widely considered the Majors best hitter, at his peak has only accounted for 13 percent of his team's hits in any one season. That's as close as Pujols has gotten to Rhymes current pace. Does that get your attention?
If it doesn't, how about these stats?
Rhymes has had multiple-hit games 29 times this year, more than half of the total games (49) LSU has played. Since March 2nd, his average has not dropped lower than .394. In the past nine games, played against some of the league's best teams, he has maintained a .497 average or better, including reaching .503 on a few occasions.
The SEC season record for batting average is .525, held by Alabama great Dave Magadan. That number is likely safe. However, anything after that is well within Rhymes' reach. The junior outfielder is currently 35 hits away from the SEC season record of 120. At his current pace, Rhymes would need 17 games to reach that mark. The Tigers have seven games remaining in the regular season, and will likely advance to both the SEC and NCAA Tournament. At this point, how can you doubt him?
The bottom line is this. The kid can hit...with anyone that has ever played in the league.
3. The Right Idea
The Number: 11.7
Imagine you are an 18-year old athlete. You are very talented, and have succeeded on the gridiron, hardwood and diamond during your high school career. Coaches from all across the SEC are actively recruiting you, hoping that you will attend their program when you graduate high school.
But, you are still unsure which sport you will play at the next level, because you like them all. You and your family start to examine the scholarships you've been offered and it works out like this.
Football -- Full Athletic Scholarship
Basketball -- Full Athletic Scholarship
Baseball -- 50 Percent Athletic Scholarship
Which sport are you going to eliminate first?
That analogy serves as the background of some interesting news reported this weekend, as CBS Sports ascertained a document that shows Major League Baseball and the NCAA are hoping to form a partnership
. This partnership is aimed at growing college baseball's awareness and diversity, and it is possible that MLB will even attempt to fund baseball scholarships across the nation.
That is fantastic news.
Going back to my earlier example, the decision above is all too common for high school athletes today. I know this first hand, as my baseball scholarship offers never covered the full amount of the college experience. The fact that programs are only allowed 11.7 scholarships to field an entire team makes it all the more challenging. Florida has 32 players on its roster this year. While all of them aren't on scholarship, you still have to distribute 11.7 scholarships over that group. Very rarely is it feasible to give one player a full scholarship.
SEC football schools are allowed 85 full scholarships per program, while basketball has 13 at their disposal. How can college baseball compete?
College baseball coaches are constantly fighting an uphill battle, as they attempt to recruit multi-sport kids without the ammunition of multiple full scholarships. The differences in aid amounts available are pushing athletes away from baseball.
I can't blame them. If you cannot afford to cover the remaining cost after you accept a partial baseball scholarship, what choice do you have?
While there are questions about the how the partnership will work, on its face this seems like a wonderful idea. This not only allows for more scholarships here at home, but internationally as well, as athletes from across the globe can have more opportunities to play college baseball in the United States. This formula has worked well in college sports such as tennis, soccer and volleyball, and can add a larger pool of players to the collegiate game.
Baseball is widely regarded as the National Pastime. The time has come to treat it that way at the collegiate level.