College Weekend Preview: (May 3-5) Three Crucial SEC Series To Watch

SEC Focus: Vanderbilt visits South Carolina in Eastern Division showdown

Vanderbilt takes on South Carolina this weekend in a matchup of two perennial SEC East heavyweights who enter the series as the top two teams in their division. Of course, six games separate them in the standings, as the Commodores are off to the best 21-game start in SEC history (19-2), while the Gamecocks have been swept twice in conference but have rebounded to post a 13-8 conference record.

Even at home, South Carolina is an underdog against a loaded Vanderbilt club, but if any team thrives as an underdog, it is the Gamecocks. They were an underdog against UCLA in the 2010 CWS Finals and swept that series. They were an underdog against Florida in the 2011 Finals and swept that series. They were an underdog last week at then-No. 2 LSU, and the took two of three on the road. Having disadvantages on paper means nothing to South Carolina, which simply has a knack for rising to big occasions.

Top 25 Schedule
(2) Vanderbilt at (15) South Carolina
(21) Florida at (3) Louisiana State
Long Beach State at (4) Cal State Fullerton
Presbyterian at (5) North Carolina State
California at (6) Oregon State
(7) Virginia at Virginia Commonwealth
Stanford at (8) Arizona State
Utah at (9) UCLA
Central Florida at (10) Florida State
(11) Oregon at Washington State
(12) Oklahoma at West Virginia
(13) Louisville at Villanova
(14) Arkansas at (23) Kentucky
(16) Indiana at Nebraska
Air Force at (17) New Mexico
Maryland at (18) Clemson
Middle Tennessee State at (20) South Alabama
Alabama at (22) Mississippi State
(24) Mississippi at Auburn
(25) Virginia Tech at Boston College

But Vanderbilt has proven that it has toughness as well as premium talent. The Commodores have won two road series against ranked opponents (taking two of three at Oregon and sweeping Mississippi), and they are coming off a home sweep of another ranked team, Mississippi State. Sure, Vandy is dangerous at home (27-3), but it is also 12-3 on the road. This team is dangerous anywhere.

“I think that Oregon trip was a good trip for us,” Vanderbilt coach Tim Corbin said. “I think we identified to ourselves what we could possibly become. Then we came back the next week and played well at Auburn. We got some confidence from those two trips.”

Both of these teams are healthier now than they were in the first half of the season, and the Gamecocks in particular are starting to peak now that they are close to full strength. Sophomore lefthander Jordan Montgomery missed five weeks in the first half of the season with a stress reaction near his elbow, but he is healthy now and has returned to form with strong starts over the last two Saturdays. When South Carolina was swept at Florida three weeks ago, the Gamecocks were without the player that coach Chad Holbrook called their team MVP this year—closer Tyler Webb (2-1, 0.59 with 14 saves, 44 strikeouts and seven walks in 30 innings). The senior lefthander was sidelined with a flexor tendon/muscle strain near his upper forearm, but he returned the following weekend to throw four scoreless innings and nail down the saves in the final two games of South Carolina’s sweep of Kentucky.

“He’s had an incredible year, and in my book, he’s a first-team All-American, based on his numbers and what he’s meant to our team,” Holbrook said. “He’s pretty close to being irreplaceable. He’s an unflappable kid—no stage is too big for him based on what he’s already experienced . . . I think his command has gotten better this year. Even though his stuff was good last year, he’s very fine. He can throw the thing where he wants. On top of that he’s got deception, it’s tough to pick up. His 89-91, touching 92, to a hitter it looks like 93-95, because it comes from behind his head; he’s a short-armer type kid. His offspeed is OK too, makes you honor it.”

Tyler Webb

Tyler Webb (Photo by Tom Priddy)

South Carolina relies heavily on lefthanders on the mound, and Webb has the most velocity of the group. Starters Nolan Belcher, Montgomery and Jack Wynkoop all work in the 80s, although Wynkoop sits 87-89 and has touched 92, Holbrook said. But all of them have very good changeups that allow them to combat righthanded hitters, which enabled them to keep LSU’s dangerous righthanded-heavy lineup in check. The key is, they all throw strikes (none of those four lefties has issued more than 10 walks this year), they all compete, and they all have good feel for pitching. Now, South Carolina’s rotation has stability, which makes the entire team more confident.

“We knew we had a humongous challenge at LSU,” Holbrook said. “One of my players said, ‘Coach don’t worry, we’re fine. You know we haven’t lost a series when Montgomery and Webb are healthy—we’re fine!’ It does give you some confidence as a coaching staff and a team and player to know the stability has worked itself out.”

South Carolina’s three starters are capable of working deep into games, which can mask the team’s pitching depth issues, but the Gamecocks do need a righthander or two to emerge in the middle innings, because Webb and fellow lefty Adam Westmoreland (5-1, 1.75) have been the only truly reliable relievers on the staff this year.

“We need a righthander to come back there and give us a boost of adrenaline with their performance—Evan Beal or Colby Holmes or Joel Seddon,” Holbrook said. “We’ve got some guys with experience, arm strength, really good stuff back there. For whatever reason they haven’t performed the way we’d like them to perform, but we still need them. We need some help in the middle of the bullpen, no doubt about that. Or else there will be a lot of pressure on Jordan and Nolan to go seven or eight innings every time, and then we’d be in trouble.”

On the other end of the spectrum, Vanderbilt’s bullpen is absurdly deep, which has allowed the ‘Dores to overcome inconsistent starting pitching on Sundays. But now junior righthander T.J. Pecoraro is getting closer to full strength after a knee injury slowed him down for much of the spring. He threw a season-long five innings last week against Mississippi State, allowing just one run. On the season Pecoraro is 2-1, 3.93 in 18 innings.

“Based on what he’s done here in the past, I think he’s as close to that as he has been in the last half a year, anyway,” Corbin said. “The fall wasn’t easy for him. Coming back from Christmas break wasn’t easy for him, because was having trouble with his knee, affected his mechanics a little bit. We had to shut him down to heal appropriately. He came back and we inserted him for short doses, and we could tell his velocity wasn’t back to where it usually is. The last couple weeks, he got the velo back, and the touch and feel for pitching is coming back.”

Tyler Beede

Tyler Beede (Photo by Danny Parker)

Corbin said Pecoraro works in the 89-93 range and occasionally bumps higher, making him a third straight power arm in that Vanderbilt rotation. Kevin Ziomek (8-2, 2.12) has a slightly above-average fastball from the left side, while Tyler Beede (11-0, 1.63) has a premium fastball and the makings of two plus secondary pitches from the right side.

Vandy’s trio of power arms in the rotation presents a contrast in styles with South Carolina’s three pitchability lefties. While the Commodores have better stuff, they also have issued dramatically more walks—Beede has walked 40 in 72 innings, while Ziomek has 29 walks in 81 innings. Both have the swing-and-miss stuff and the poise to get out of jams, however. Corbin said Beede’s fastball command was somewhat erratic early in the season, but he has done a better job harnessing it lately, and his walk numbers have come down. He has issued just four walks total over his last three starts, spanning 20 innings.

“It was just a phase he was going through,” Corbin said. “To get through what he did was really remarkable, because there were situations where it was bases loaded no outs, first and second no outs, I was thinking to myself, ‘We’re living on the edge, playing with fire. At some point this is going to catch up with us.’ I go back to maturity—he was able to pitch through those moments because he is mature. He could get in those situations and not panic. At this point it seems like those games happened last year. You look at him now, you’re seeing a lot of strikes.”

The Commodores have their own unflappable bullpen anchor in sophomore righthander Brian Miller (5-0, 0.68 with 12 saves, 34 strikeouts and six walks in 40 innings), whose low slot, deception and lively fastball have helped him hold hitters to a .194 average. The supporting cast is just brimming with electric young arms, led by freshman righties Carson Fulmer (1-0, 3.21) and Walker Buehler (3-1, 2.54), who both own premium stuff and pitch above their years thanks to their “controlled confidence,” in Corbin’s words. Sophomore righty Adam Ravenelle has seen his velocity spike into the mid-to-high-90s as well, giving the staff yet another bazooka.

The other area where injuries have affected Vanderbilt this year is on the infield. Shortstops Joel McKeithan and Dansby Swanson have both been relegated to limited action by injuries, forcing sophomore Vince Conde to slide from third base to short and thrusting freshman Xavier Turner into the everyday third base role. A year ago, an injury to Riley Reynolds forced Tony Kemp into duty at second base, which he learned on the fly and now plays with more confidence, taking better angles to balls, showing more reliable hands and cleaner exchanges.

Likewise, Vandy has simply inserted Conde and Turner on the left side of the infield and let them play. Their instincts and athleticism took over. Corbin said Conde’s hands are as good as the Commodores have had at the shortstop position, and his good reads off the bat allow his range and arm strength to play up.

“When he got (to shortstop), he just took to it—you could just tell that was his natural defensive position all along,” Corbin said. “Once he took to it, we moved Xavier over to third base, knew we would live and die with it just based on his athleticism. But he continued to grow into it, and Tony continued to grow at second base. And our infield became our infield, we just stuck with it.”

These are two very good defensive teams—Vandy is fielding at a robust .978 clip, while South Carolina has a solid .973 fielding percentage. The Gamecocks were counting on catcher Grayson Greiner, shortstop Joey Pankake and center fielder Tanner English to take steps forward as sophomores and become star-caliber players, and that is starting to happen, especially now that English is fully recovered from the shoulder injury that sidelined him for a stretch in the first half. All three are coming around offensively after slow starts; Pankake now has nine home runs (second on the team behind L.B. Dantzler) and has lifted his average to .311, while Greiner is up to .295 and English is hitting .292. But most importantly, that trio—along with freshman second baseman Max Schrock—make the Gamecocks outstanding defensively up the middle.

“Grayson has the respect of most coaches in our league, they very rarely challenge him because of his arm strength and accuracy,” Holbrook said. “He’s been a fixture behind the plate, our pitchers love throwing to him. Obviously Joey’s been a very big part of the puzzle as well, a leader on the field for us at shortstop, and Tanner’s commanding the outfield for us. And I think Max has played an incredible second base for us. So we’ve got some pieces. I don’t think we’ve played our best baseball yet. But our team is excited about where we are.”

SEC Focus: Surprising Alabama faces tough road test at Mississippi State

When Alabama welcomed the nation’s No. 4 recruiting class to campus last fall, it was obvious the future was bright for the Crimson Tide. But that bright future has become a bright present much sooner than expected.

Coaches voted Alabama to finish 12th in the 14-team SEC in the league’s preseason poll. The Crimson Tide went just 21-34 overall last year (9-21 in the SEC), and it figured to take some time for the talented newcomers to turn the program around.

But with three weeks left in the season, Alabama is on track to make a regional. The Tide is 27-18 overall, 11-9 in the SEC (third place in the West) and riding a four-game winning streak into this weekend’s series at Mississippi State. It was easy to dismiss the Tide when it started out 7-2 in the SEC against the softer part of its conference schedule (Tennessee, Georgia and Auburn, although the latter two series were on the road). Alabama lost its next three series when the meat of their conference schedule arrived (Arkansas, at Ole Miss, LSU). But the Tide pushed LSU to 16 innings before falling 11-8 in the second game of that series, and the next day ‘Bama pulled out a 4-3 win in 10 innings to avoid the sweep and get back to .500 in the SEC. The next weekend Alabama swept a crucial two-game series against Texas A&M (the third game was rained out, with the Tide leading 4-0 in the first).

“I feel like right now our team is probably in the best place we’ve been in mentally and from a confidence standpoint,” Alabama coach Mitch Gaspard said. “A lot of that was the LSU series. Even though we lost the Saturday game and went 16 innings, the fact that we were able to come back the next day and get that win, it really accelerated our confidence, made our players realize we can play with anybody on any day. I think that was kind of our statement win. To finally get that one in extra innings, it was almost kind of that monkey off the back that, ‘Hey, we can do it.’ And really we have become a little different team mentally than we were prior to that.”

Spencer Turnbull

Spencer Turnbull

The key to Alabama’s success has been its pitching. Sophomore righthander Spencer Turnbull (4-1, 2.26) struggled early in the year as the Friday starter, but he started to dominate as the Sunday guy once SEC play began. Last Sunday’s rainout means Turnbull is fresh heading into this weekend, and Alabama can slide him back to the Friday starter slot. He certainly has Friday starter stuff.

“I don’t think there’s any question, Turnbull has been our marquee guy,” Gaspard said. “He’ll sit in that 90-94 range, and he really gets stronger as the game goes on. He’s really matured into an SEC front-end type starter. The slider’s continuing to develop, but it’s a big fastball, and he maintains it, and obviously our team has a lot of confidence when he’s on the mound.”

With Turnbull returning to Friday, senior righthander Charley Sullivan (4-4, 3.27) moves back to Saturday, and sophomore lefty Justin Kamplain (1-0, 4.82) goes to Sunday. Sullivan is a classic strike-pumping, grinding bulldog with an 88-91 mph fastball and the ability to mix three pitches. Kamplain is an undersized lefty with a quick arm, capable of reaching 92 mph and eating up lefties with a sharp slider. Kamplain’s improved ability to command his fastball and get ahead in counts has helped him succeed in the rotation after taking over for Jon Keller three weeks ago.

Keller (3-5, 4.12) took over Kamplain’s former role as a key lefty out of the bullpen, which is anchored by talented freshman righty Ray Castillo (2-1, 1.80). Gaspard said Castillo works in the 89-93 range and has bumped 95, and his second-best pitch has been his changeup. His 12-to-6 curveball has been erratic, but when he has all three pitches going, “he’s just about unhittable,” Gaspard said.

“He’s pitched in some big critical spots, gone out there with a lot of confidence, been able to lock down some big saves for us,” Gaspard said. “He just has one of those fastballs that really jumps on you. It’s a real fluid, clean delivery.”

The other key members of Alabama’s heralded recruiting class have also assumed prominent roles. The Tide starts three freshmen up the middle—shortstop Mikey White, second baseman Kyle Overstreet and center fielder Georgie Salem. Salem and Overstreet also hit second and third in the lineup, and while none of the three has put up gaudy offensive numbers for a team that doesn’t have a single everyday player hitting .300, they have shown a knack for putting together quality at-bats. And all three have been outstanding defensively, helping the team field .974.

“They have defended really well all year—that’s been a big part of our success, and now you’re starting to see some offense come alive from them,” Gaspard said. “I think they’ll all be good offensive players. The flip side is the older players have had some nice weekends and nice games, had consistent, solid years. Brett Booth’s been really good behind the plate for us, particularly since two weeks before the season started, (junior-college transfer Wade) Wass went down with an ankle injury, Booth just stepped up and has been tremendous for us.”

The senior Booth (a team-leading four home runs), junior DH Austen Smith (three homers, 25 RBIS) and sophomore outfielder Ben Moore (a team-best .284 average with three homers and 29 RBIs) are Alabama’s best run producers, but Gaspard is right when he says, “offensively, we’re not a juggernaut.” His team just grinds out at-bats, and its pitching and defense give it a chance to win games.

And the more games they win, the more those young Tide players believe they are for real.

“Honestly, after the fall, we knew we had a pretty good group,” Gaspard said. “Not just the talent physically, but mentally they were a good group. One thing we’ve done is we’ve played them. From day one, we’ve played them every game. I really think that the youth on this team really connected with our older guys. The older guys were able to say, ‘We’ve got some good young players.’ It really has elevated some other kids’ play. It’s evolved into a group that feels like they can win . . . I do think they believe we can stack up with just about any team in the other dugout.”

Rejuvenated Florida travels to LSU

Last year, Vanderbilt was the SEC team that fell into a deep hole early in the season, then caught fire in the second half, made a deep run in the SEC tournament, and nearly won a regional. This year, Florida followed a similar pattern, struggling against a difficult schedule in the first half of the year, but getting hot down the stretch to put itself into position to feel comfortable about its at-large chances.

No team has played more games against the top 100 in the RPI than Florida, which is 19-18 in those contests (including a 13-13 mark against the top 50). The Gators lost home series to Florida Gulf Coast, Indiana and Kentucky, plus a road series at Vanderbilt, in the first six weeks of the season. After losing the opener of their series against Mississippi in Week Seven, the Gators were just 11-16 overall, 2-5 in the SEC.

But the Gators bounced back to shut out the Rebels in the next two games to win the series, and since that point they are 14-4, with a sweep of South Carolina highlighting their charge. Florida heads into a tough road series at LSU this weekend with a 25-20 overall record, and a 12-9 mark in the SEC.

“Obviously we’ve had some injuries, we’ve had some youth, we played a really difficult schedule,” Florida coach Kevin O’Sullivan said. “We had some bumps on the road, had to learn some things on the fly. We’re certainly not out of the woods yet—we’ve got some work to do. This weekend’s going to be a very difficult one. But overall we’re playing better. The bullpen’s been really good all year between (Ryan) Harris, (Daniel) Gibson and (Johnny) Magliozzi. We’re getting contributions from a lot of people offensively—it hasn’t really fallen on one or two guy’s shoulders. The last 18, 20 games, it seems like a new guy each day has picked us up offensively.”

It isn’t a star-studded lineup like the Florida lineups of the last three years, but it is a solid, competitive lineup with good athleticism and balance. The middle of the lineup has a bit of pop in Justin Shafer, Vickash Ramjit and Taylor Gushue, who have all recovered from slow starts and are now hitting above .300 and slugging above .400 (Shafer and Gushue are pushing .500). Gushue has really come on recently, settling into the No. 3 hole and providing a number of big hits, while also doing a fine job behind the plate.

Freshman Richie Martin missed 15 games in the first half with a broken index finger, and he returned to action in center field rather than at shortstop (which is where he began the year, and where he figures to move next year). His athleticism really plays in center, and veteran Cody Dent has handled shortstop exceptionally (he is fielding .986, making up for his .178 batting average).

“Our defense has really really solidified when (Martin) came back,” O’Sullivan said. “He’s done a really good job in center field, and Cody’s been really good at short. Since he’s come back, he’s kind of sparked our team. He’s certainly given us a lift.”

Florida has also gotten boosts from two other newcomers in the rotation. Freshman Danny Young (3-3, 3.44) and junior-college transfer Bobby Poyner (2-1, 4.22) are both strike-throwing upper-80s lefthander who compete with solid three-pitch mixes. They have found homes in the rotation, and Young will continue to start this week even after taking a line drive in the mouth last week against Tennessee. He was fortunate to avoid a concussion or any fractured teeth, and O’Sullivan said the swelling has gone down significantly. The Gators will hope Young and Poyner can keep the potent LSU lineup at bat until the middle innings, when Florida’s quality bullpen takes over.

“Those lefthanders that throw strikes, they can win at any level,” O’Sullivan said. “It’s nothing special—there’s no secret about that. Teams will get hits off Danny, but he throws so many strikes, you’ll have to bunch them together, because he’ll get a lot of ground balls and double plays.”

Jonathon Crawford

Jonathon Crawford (Photo by Tim Casey)

Junior righthander Jonathon Crawford is the lone power arm in the rotation, and he will return to the front of the rotation tonight after moving to the Saturday spot last week due to a rolled ankle that needed another day of rest. Crawford, a second-team preseason All-American and likely first-round pick, hasn’t put up numbers to match his pedigree, going 3-5, 4.06 with 52 strikeouts and 27 walks in 64 innings. Scouts and O’Sullivan agree his stuff has been fine.

“His numbers don’t tell the whole story,” O’Sullivan said. “His stuff is good, but for whatever reason we haven’t given him a lot of run support. Early on in the year, his stuff wasn’t quite as good. But every time out now it’s 92-96, the slider is good. He had a situation with second and third, nobody out on Saturday against Tennessee, and he struck out the side after that. You can’t do that type of thing without having plus stuff.”

The schedule eases up after this weekend, with remaining series at home against Auburn and at Georgia—the two last-place teams in their respective divisions. So even if the Gators get swept this weekend—and they could, against a more talented LSU team that is hungry to get back on track after losing its first series last week—they still have a strong chance to reach 16 or 17 SEC wins.

A month ago, it looked like Florida might not even make a regional. But O’Sullivan and his staff have turned in one of their finest coaching jobs to get this team back into contention, and the players have shown a lot of character.

“Obviously we still have work to do, but I will say this: I’m having a heck of a lot of fun coaching these guys,” O’Sullivan said. “Yes, it’s been difficult at times; yes, it’s been challenging. But if you can get the most out of your players, you feel like you’re making an impact and guys are getting better, you’ve got to feel good about your team. They’re paying attention, listening, giving good effort. It’s been an awful lot of fun.”