By: Eric SanInocencio
SEC Digital Network
Birmingham, Ala. – And so it begins.
Umpires across college baseball uttered the phrase “play ball” this weekend, signifying the start of the 2013 season. In the Southeastern Conference, 44 games were played, league teams took to the diamond for the first time this year.
The opening series of the year is a chance to get on the field, seeing results from countless hours spent in preparation for the season. As a player, the goal is getting back acclimated, finding that timing after six months of not competing at the collegiate level.
It is the moment that the 12-year old in all of us can relate to. The waiting is over, and it is time to play.
1. All We Do Is Win
The Number: .711
Winning was prevalent for the SEC on this opening weekend, with league squads going 32-13 against their opponents. That’s a 71 percent winning percentage, an impressive mark for the first go round of 2013.
Eleven SEC teams won their opening series/matchups, including six either sweeping or going undefeated. Auburn and Mississippi State each picked up four wins on the weekend, with the Tigers achieving a 4-0 record for the first time since 2008. The Bulldogs absolutely dominated, pasting Portland 31-3 over their four-game set.
The SEC Western Division was particularly dominant, going 21-2 as a unit last weekend. Every squad in the West won their opening series, with five of seven going undefeated.
The reason? Good pitching.
The conference is loaded with top arms, and many of them were on display this past weekend. Nine out of 14 staffs pitched to an ERA of three or under, striking out a combined 226 batters in their 259 innings on the hill. The top five teams in ERA (MSU, LSU, Ole Miss, Texas A&M and Auburn) allowed just 21 earned runs combined in their 17 games played.
The most impressive sweep of the weekend was in Oxford, as Ole Miss took three from tenth ranked TCU. Junior Stuart Turner played the hero Sunday, hitting a grand slam in the first inning to put Ole Miss on the path to a third straight win. This was the Rebels first sweep of a ranked team since 2010, when they took a series against Western Division rival and then fifth-ranked LSU.
For a team that was out of the top 25 to start the season, expect the Rebels’ 3-0 mark to move them into the polls this week.
2. A Six Pack/Run Bama Run
The Number: 6, 10
Whenever it has been 10 years since an achievement has been done in the Southeastern Conference, chances are your performance was pretty remarkable.
I think it is safe to say what Kentucky’s JT Riddle accomplished this past Sunday was just that.
Riddle’s perfect day keyed an offensive explosion for the Wildcats, as UK defeated Niagara 20-3 to pick up their second win of the season. The junior joined a group of just 14 players in SEC history to ever to go 6-for-6, becoming the first to do so since 2003 (David Coffey, Georgia).
Riddle’s weekly performance was about more than Sunday’s game, as he battled .786 (11-for-14) during UK’s two victories. Five of his 11 hits went for extra bases, including a triple and a homerun. After just three games of play, Riddle has reached 1/6th of his entire hit total from 2012 (63).
Kentucky hit .366 as a team this past weekend, scoring 40 runs along the way. After that impressive offensive barrage, the Wildcats rank in the league’s top three in 10 different categories.
Over in Tuscaloosa, Alabama used a different weapon to pick up a series sweep over VMI. The Crimson Tide used their legs, swiping 10 bases in their three-game set. Five different Alabama players stole bags, led by Mikey White and Georgie Salem with three apiece.
If the name Salem and Alabama sound familiar together, it is because they are. Georgie’s cousin Emeel Salem was a standout with the Tide from 2005-07, twice being named All-American. The elder Emeel is now in the Tampa Bay Rays system, after having been drafted in the sixth round of the 2007 Major League Baseball Draft.
As for Georgie and this year’s Tide squad, speed looks to be a key factor in their offensive attack. Consider this. In 55 games last year, Alabama managed just 43 stolen bases for the entire campaign. Three games into 2013; they are already almost a quarter of the way to that total (10). Head coach Mitch Gaspard’s crew was also efficient, going a perfect 10-for-10 on stolen base attempts.
White and Salem, both freshmen, appear to be the cornerstones of a new offensive philosophy in Tuscaloosa. After struggling to score runs a year ago (11th in the SEC), the Tide put up at least seven runs in each of their three wins over VMI. Time will tell if speed can continue to equate to production as Alabama’s competition improves.
In our first look at the new Alabama, the Crimson Tide’s “SEC speed” was certainly on display.
3. People Everywhere
The Number: 168,505
No conference fan base in the country supports college baseball better than the SEC. 168,505 people came to watch league games at home this weekend, a phenomenal number. If that total were a United States city, it would be the 141st largest in the entire country.
To give some perspective to that total, below is a list of American cities with populations fewer than 168,505.
Port Saint Lucie, Florida
Syracuse, New York
According to official figures, seven of the top 10 highest attendance numbers were SEC schools. LSU, Ole Miss, Arkansas, South Carolina and Mississippi State round out the top five of the list, with Texas A&M (7th) and Florida (10th) in the top 10. All 10 league programs that hosted an opening series registered in the top 22. Nearly half of the nation’s top 22 (10/22) featured an SEC team.
The reason all 14 teams aren’t ranked? The remaining four (Georgia, Kentucky, Missouri and Tennessee) were on the road, therefore not applicable to the list.
This phenomenon is nothing new. Last year, four of the top six teams in attendance were SEC squads, with LSU pulling in 472,391 total fans on the season. All 12 teams in the league (Missouri and Texas A&M were not members yet) were in the top 34 nationally.
The SEC has drawn over two million fans the past two seasons, as the growth and popularity of college baseball has continued to rise each year. The league has had at least five teams average more than 5800 per contest for the past three years, indicating a passion for the game not seen anywhere in the country.