Three Strikes: May 21

Strike One: Heading To Hoover

It took until the very last day of the regular season, but we finally have some answers in the Southeastern Conference. Here’s what materialized in a wild final weekend as teams fought to earn a place in the conference tournament in Hoover, Ala.:

Vanderbilt put an exclamation point on its first SEC regular-season championship, sweeping Louisiana State. Beyond the practical implications of the weekend–Vanderbilt all but assured itself a national seed in the NCAA tournament–the series was ripe with symbolic meaning. As the Commodores ascended to the top of the SEC for the first time, perennial conference power LSU was swept out of the conference tournament field for the first time in 22 years.

“It speaks directly to (the parity in college baseball),” Vandy coach Tim Corbin said. “I think it’s going to be a little different not having (LSU) there.”

As for the Commodores, league coaches nearly tripped over themselves gushing about Vanderbilt on the league’s weekly teleconference this morning.

“They have all the pieces there in place,” Alabama coach Jim Wells said. “With pitching, they’re dominant. Their lineup’s excellent, they play very hard. They’re in good shape to go to Omaha and win in Omaha.”

The Crimson Tide and Tennessee both played their way into the SEC tournament with hard-fought road series victories. Alabama took two out of three at Mississippi State to earn the No. 7 seed in the conference tourney, and Tennessee took two of three at Florida to secure the No. 8 seed. Both teams had to come on strong just to make it into the SEC tournament field, and both won three of their final four regular-season series. Both are now likely safe bets to earn regional berths. On the other side of the coin, Kentucky is a huge long shot to make the NCAA tournament after dropping a home series against Auburn and missing out on the conference tournament.

South Carolina looked like the No. 5 seed in the top of eighth inning Saturday, when it trailed Georgia 13-5. But the Gamecocks rallied for nine runs in the bottom of the inning to escape with a dramatic 14-13 win and the No. 3 seed in Hoover.

“I haven’t looked back, but I can’t remember coming back from that kind of a deficit,” South Carolina coach Ray Tanner said. “When it was 13-2, our potential last regular-season game here at Sarge Frye (Field), I was a little agitated, irritated, embarrassed. I kept trying to motivate our guys–‘Let’s get some guys on base, get into grand slam range.’ But not in my wildest dreams did I think we’d get all the way back . . . It was a little bit crazy, but I’m just glad to be a part of the upside of that.”

All eight of the SEC tournament teams are likely to earn NCAA tournament berths, but Florida is the X-factor. The Gators are 28-28 overall, and by rule they won’t be eligible for the NCAA tournament if they finish below .500. That means Florida must win a minimum of two games in the double-elimination conference tournament just to have a shot at an at-large bid. And even if the Gators pull that off, coach Pat McMahon said he doesn’t feel comfortable that his team would be safe.

“I will say with our strength of schedule, the competitiveness in the league, injury factors, and particularly the strength of our non-SEC schedule–which is out of this world–that adds substance to (UF’s resume),” McMahon said. “But there are a lot of outstanding teams out there.”

Strike Two: Prairie View Times Two

The NCAA tournament’s third automatic berth was decided this past weekend, and Prairie View A&M won its second consecutive Southwestern Athletic Conference championship. The Panthers ran unscathed through the SWAC tournament, dispatching Mississippi Valley State (10-0), Southern (6-3), Jackson State (14-3) and Southern again (8-7).

Prairie View was the preseason favorite to win the SWAC in part because of senior outfielder Calvin Lester, the preseason player of the year who led the nation with 56 stolen bases in 2006. This season has been largely disappointing for Lester, who finished the year batting just .248 with 17 steals. But Lester exacted some measure of redemption this weekend, going 6-for-13 with three RBIs and three runs scored and capturing the tournament’s most outstanding player honors.

Lester, who runs the 60-yard dash in 6.3 seconds, and leadoff man Mike Richard (.407 with 39 steals), who runs a 6.5, have helped the Panthers rank at or near the top of the nation in stolen bases all season. That team speed, combined with a reliable ace in junior Wrandal Taylor (8-5, 3.58), could make Prairie View a dangerous No. 4 seed in a regional. That’s some serious progress for a program that won 17 games combined from 2000-2002.

Strike Three: Colonial Concerns

If you thought the SEC was tight, just take a look at the final regular-season standings in the Colonial Athletic Association. Four teams–Old Dominion, Delaware, Virginia Commonwealth and UNC Wilmington–tied atop the league standings at 18-11 after each team won its weekend series except ODU. The Monarchs still earned the No. 1 seed in the six-team CAA tournament based on its 7-2 aggregate record against the three other teams. Delaware is the No. 2 seed thanks to a 5-3 record against the other three; VCU (3-6) is third, and UNCW (2-6) is fourth.

Watch out for the Seahawks, despite their seed. The defending conference champions have rebounded from their 16-22 start and are riding a 10-game winning streak into the tournament. Offense has carried the Seahawks during their streak, as Wilmington has scored in double figures during eight of those 10 wins.

Preseason favorite Delaware has also turned around its season since starting 7-16, going 22-5 since. Offense was supposed to carry the Blue Hens this season, but lately it’s been the pitching that has done the heavy lifting. Delaware has surrendered two or fewer runs in six of its past nine games.