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By: Eric SanInocencio
SEC Digital Network
Birmingham, Ala. -- It is time for Omaha.
After 735 games in the 2012 season, three teams from the Southeastern Conference are headed to the Mecca of college baseball to compete for a National Championship. Out of the nation's final eight, three league squads hope to continue an impressive SEC run, with all eyes on capturing the conference's fourth straight national crown. NCAA Regionals and Super Regionals are in the past, with just one more tournament separating team from title.
This is when champions are made.
For some, this is a new experience. For others, a trip to a familiar place.
All three of the SEC's representatives hold a unique story, a special set of circumstances that allowed them to reach this pinnacle of college baseball. There were key moments, important themes and lasting images that their fans and followers will never forget. With those memories as the backdrop, the page turns to making history...to winning it all.
In this column, I often use numbers to predict what will happen in the future, but that's is not the limit of the statistics. They can also tell the story of the past, explaining how teams achieved the greatness associated with a berth in the College World Series. That's what we will cover today.
How did these three teams make it to Omaha? Let's see what the numbers say.
1. The SEC's "Cinderella"
The Number: 291
"The 2012 Arkansas Razorbacks are an elite college baseball team. It often feels with the large shadow cast by a two-time defending champion (South Carolina) and the nation's current top ranked team (Florida), the Razorbacks fly under the radar a little more than they should. Well, Razorback Nation, that stops today. The Hogs are National Championship contenders."
Who said that?
Well I did, way back March 20th
, as I spotlighted the Hogs after their strong 19-2 start. The reason I was featuring them then, their ability to get on base, was precisely the factor that pushed Arkansas through a tough Super Regional win on the road at Baylor. The Razorbacks have without a doubt taken the most painful route to Omaha, using four pivotal hit by pitches to secure their spot.
As I said then, the ability to get on base is the most important tool an offense can have. While "on base" usually pertains to walk totals, being hit by pitch serves the same purpose. In Arkansas's case, it saved their season. Having lost the first game of their Super Regional matchup against Baylor, the Hogs were one defeat away from ending what had been a magical season.
With just three outs remaining in their 2012 campaign at the time, Arkansas found themselves trailing Baylor 4-3 heading into the bottom of the 9th. The Bears had their closer on the mound, and head coach Dave Van Horn's squad was facing elimination. The rally that started it all began with a walk to Matt Reynolds, and ended with John Clay Reeves taking a hit by pitch to score the winning run. Arkansas, life on the line, was able to score two runs despite producing only one hit. They literally fought their way on base, and more importantly, fought their way to TD Ameritrade Park.
After a 1-0 win on Monday night, now they are headed to Omaha. I used "Cinderella" in the headline not because this trip is a first for the Razorbacks (7th appearance at the CWS), but because during the year Arkansas was somewhat lost in the shuffle. With South Carolina, Florida and Kentucky dominating the headlines most of the season, the national discussion very rarely focused on Fayetteville. That's not the case today, as Arkansas is recognized as a College World Series participant.
The Razorbacks have reached bases 291 times this year either by walk or hit by pitch. At 90 feet a pop, that equates to nearly five miles. While the trip from Fayetteville to Omaha is slightly
longer than that, there's no doubt those five miles are the reason they are making the trip.
2. Back, Back, Gone
The Number: 75
"Head coach Kevin O'Sullivan has a team that can beat you in many ways, from starting pitching to defensively (top fielding percentage in the SEC). The most devastating way might be the four-base hit, or more commonly known as the aforementioned "long ball". Florida has 37 home runs as a team, which ranks first in the SEC and second in the nation. The Gators are averaging 1.54 homers a game, also a top three mark nationally."
Back on March 27th, I wrote this paragraph to describe the Florida offense. In the months since, not much has changed in Gainesville, as the Gators have bashed their way to a third-straight appearance at the College World Series. UF finished second in last year's CWS, but leads the way in 2012 when it comes to power.
In an era of diminished run production and decreased home run totals, Florida has continued to wield the type of offense you would have seen five years ago. The Gators have a nation leading 75 home runs on the season, nine more than any other team in the country. That power was on display this past weekend, as head coach Kevin O'Sullivan's team hit four home runs in a two-game sweep of North Carolina State.
While teams around the nation were winning 1-0 pitching duels, the Gators were busy bludgeoning the Wolfpack pitching staff. They scored a combined 16 runs in the two games, including nine in the decisive win on Sunday. Florida is averaging eight runs per game in the NCAA Tournament, and has scored at least four runs in 12 of their last 13 contests.
Can the Gators hit their way to a title? Perhaps so. But it isn't as if Florida can't pitch either. UF tops the country in both WHIP (walks/hits/innings pitched) and strikeout ratio. The pitching staff has allowed more than three runs just once, and that was Sunday's win. Even that can be explained, as a two-hour rain delay pushed starters from both teams out of the game. This team can beat you in any type of game you want to play.
Their power is also why no lead is ever safe against them. As North Carolina State can tell you, as well as many other teams across the land, the Gators hit, hit and hit some more. Will the third time be the charm for Florida? The next team we will feature will have something to do with that.
The Number: 2
"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. Is this the end of South Carolina’s magical run? 11 straight conference wins later, the Gamecocks emphatically answered. NO."
Me again. That was written on May 1st
, just as the Gamecocks made a run to get themselves back into regular season championship contention.
What more can you say about South Carolina? They are the two-time defending champions, and are in the midst of one of the greatest runs in college baseball history. At a time were the SEC is at its peak in terms of competition, South Carolina has elevated its game and its program, and have now become the league's flagship baseball team. They are looking for their THIRD straight National Championship.
Let's put it into perspective. Who are the country's most prestigious baseball programs?
Texas? They've never won three in a row.
Stanford? The Cardinal have been great, but no three-peat for them either.
LSU? Surely, the Bayou Bengals have won three straight right?
Only one team in the history of college baseball, Southern California, has ever done it. I find it fitting that another team with the initials USC has a chance to do it in 2012.
This year's run to Omaha was a bit bumpier for Gamecock fans than it had been the past two years. South Carolina was swept in their opening SEC series, and found themselves 1-5 six games into the conference slate. As I wrote then, the "heart of a champion" then emerged, with head coach Ray Tanner's group reeling off 11 straight league wins, while proceeding to go 17-6 after that slow start.
They are the epitome of "team", a collection of players that all work toward the common goal. Sure they have stars (Michael Roth, Matt Price), but they excel in sacrificing for one another, a trait that starts with their head coach. A three-time National Coach of the Year, the time has come to put Tanner's name in the elite of college baseball. I'm not talk about just now either. What Tanner has done at South Carolina rivals any run seen in college baseball's 100 year history.
What do they get for a reward? They get to face off with Florida in the opening round of the College World Series. When you have as many teams in the NCAA bracket as the SEC does, matchups like these are bound to happen.
Is it bad luck? Definitely. But if Florida wants to take the next step, they should have to go through the champion.
Trust me, South Carolina isn't going to back down from anyone.