Off The Bat: SEC Play Begins, Florida State Makes A Statement

Image credit: (Brian Westerholt/Four Seam Images)

Contenders Separate On Opening Weekend Of SEC Play

The start of SEC play is always circled on the college baseball calendar. After four weeks of non-conference action, getting to see the conference’s top programs go head-to-head is both exciting and illuminating.

The 10-week, 30-game SEC season is a grind. There are few, if any, easy weekends to be found in conference play and we learn more about the 14 SEC teams throughout the spring. But, on this first weekend, there were thrilling highlights like Jack Leiter’s no-hitter and some early lessons.

March madness didn’t extend to the diamond—at least this weekend. None of the seven series results this weekend was an upset. Six of the seven series involved at least one ranked team and the higher-ranked team won every one. The one series that didn’t have a ranked team saw Kentucky (13-4, 2-1) beat Missouri (8-12, 1-2) twice in Lexington.

Not only did the slate go as expected, there was very little drama. Only two series—Alabama at Arkansas and Tennessee at Georgia—produced rubber games. Everything else was wrapped up going into the finales.

It still might be too early to draw broad conclusions, but the conference seems to be more stratified this year than in any season since 2016, when it produced a record seven regional hosts, but got no other teams into the NCAA Tournament.

The SEC this week boasts the top five teams in the country (though that has as much to do with early season slips by Louisville, Texas Tech and UCLA as much as the SEC’s play) and those teams—Arkansas, Mississippi State, Vanderbilt, Mississippi and Florida—all have what it takes to win the national championship. Tennessee, South Carolina and Alabama all rank between Nos. 16 and 23 and should factor into the hosting race. Georgia and Louisiana State aren’t far out of the Top 25.

That leaves Auburn, Kentucky, Missouri and Texas A&M looking to push into the conference’s middle class. All have taken some tough early series losses and Auburn and Texas A&M were swept on the road this weekend. They’ll get plenty of opportunity to prove themselves over the next nine weeks, but, as it stands, they have work to do.  

Alabama proved it can’t be overlooked. The Crimson Tide were 30-4 over the last two seasons going into the weekend and while it had played a solid schedule in that time, it hadn’t faced major-conference competition, let alone an SEC foe. That changed in a big way with a trip to top-ranked Arkansas and while Alabama ultimately lost the series with a 3-1 loss Sunday, it still showed just how far it has come under fourth-year coach Brad Bohannon.

Alabama on Friday routed Arkansas, 16-1, handing the Razorbacks their worst home loss this century. Arkansas rebounded Saturday with a 9-1 victory and held off Alabama on Sunday, though the Tide did bring the tying run to the plate in the ninth inning.

Alabama (15-5, 1-2) did that without ace Connor Prielipp, who remains out with an undisclosed medical condition, and veteran outfielder T.J. Reeves, who is out with a broken hamate. Getting that pair back would be significant, but even without them, the Tide has shown it is not the same team that finished in the SEC West cellar for three straight years from 2017-19. It won’t get much easier for Alabama this weekend as No. 4 Ole Miss comes to Tuscaloosa, but this team isn’t going anywhere.

The Vanderbilt 1-2 punch is going to be a problem. In case the first four weeks didn’t make it abundantly clear, Vanderbilt righthanders Kumar Rocker and Jack Leiter are going to make life miserable for opposing hitters. The Commodores’ duo aced their first SEC test against South Carolina.

Rocker delivered an outstanding start Friday in a 3-2 victory, striking out 14 batters in eight innings and holding the Gamecocks to two runs on three hits and two walks. Leiter was even better Saturday in a 5-0 victory. He struck out 16 in a no-hitter and retired 27 straight batters following a leadoff walk. It was Vanderbilt’s first no-hitter since Rocker no-hit Duke in super regionals in 2019.

Rocker (5-0, 0.58) and Leiter (5-0, 0.31) right now are playing like the two best pitchers in the country. South Carolina’s own impressive duo of Thomas Farr and Brannon Jordan weren’t quite good enough to match up with them and the same will be true on most weekends this season. There are pitching staffs in the league with more depth, but if Rocker and Leiter are on top of their game, it may not matter.

FSU Makes Resounding Statement With Dominant Week

With a game Tuesday against Florida followed by a weekend series against Miami, this was a big week for Florida State. Four games against its in-state rivals—both of whom were ranked in the top 10—represented an opportunity to make a statement and show it had put behind it that stunning sweep at home against Pittsburgh to open ACC play.

The Seminoles did that and then some. They went 4-0 on the week, obliterating the Gators and Hurricanes by a combined score of 44-4. They never trailed and wasted no time taking control of any of the games (The closest any game was after five innings was Saturday’s 9-1 victory, which they led, 5-1, after five). It was Florida State’s first sweep of Miami since 2012 and its first at Mark Light Stadium since 2002. The Seminoles (10-6, 7-5) have now won three straight ACC series and returned to the Top 25 at No. 15 after falling out following the sweep by Pitt.

Florida State didn’t just have the best week of any team in the country this week, it had the best week of any team in the country this season.

“I don’t think I’ve seen a group play better,” coach Mike Martin Jr. said. “We try to stress the fact that we’re playing a game and not playing an opponent, but any time you can take care of your rivals, that’s what it’s all about.”

Martin Jr. said the turnaround began last weekend against Virginia Tech. After winning the opener, Florida State was shutout, 5-0, in the second game. But the Seminoles came back strong in the finale and won 14-7. That started their five-game winning streak, during which their offense is averaging 11.6 runs per game and looking much more like the high-powered attack they were expected to be coming into the season.

“We said this is what we’ve got to do, we have to believe in each other, we have to trust in each other, and we’ll come out of it, and—when we do—it’ll be extremely satisfying,” Martin Jr. said. “That’s what happened, and their confidence is contagious right now.”

Slumps are a part of baseball and Martin Jr. has seen plenty of them during his coaching career. But he said he never had dealt with two-thirds of his lineup going cold at once. But that’s what Florida State was going through early this season. The situation was exasperated by the ACC’s decision to expand to 12 weekends of conference play, which meant its teams were playing conference games in the second weekend of the season.

A big piece to the puzzle for the turnaround has been Preseason All-American outfielder Robby Martin. The third-year sophomore was 8-for-34 with no extra-base hits going into the Virginia Tech series but has found his stride over the last two weeks. He has an eight-game hitting streak and this week went 11-for-20 with three doubles and three home runs. He is now hitting .338/.418/.559 with four home runs on the season.

With Robby Martin and catcher Mat Nelson (.327/.448/.764, 7 HR) heating up to join first baseman Tyler Martin (.373/.535/.451), who has led the Seminoles in hitting all season, the core of the lineup is starting to round into form. But an injury to outfielder Reese Albert and some early season slumps have forced the Seminoles to dig a little deeper to find alternatives. Outfielder Logan Lacey (.309/.377/.527) has emerged as one of their key cogs and pitchers Wyatt Crowell (.250/.304/.300) and Parker Messick (.364/.391/.500) have become two-way players.

Florida State has also found a formula that works on the mound. Messick has locked in as the staff’s ace after a poor start on Opening Day against North Florida. On Friday, he struck out 10 batters and held Miami to one run on four hits and a walk in 6.2 innings. The second-year freshman is now 2-2, 3.00 with 40 strikeouts and eight walks in 27 innings on the season.

Veteran righthander Conor Grady (3-1, 3.42) has been solid on Sundays, while freshmen Bryce Hubbart (3-2, 2.08) and Carson Montgomery (0-1, 1.86) have settled into their roles as Saturday and midweek starter, respectively. With veterans Chase Haney, Clayton Kwiatkowski, Hunter Perdue and Jonah Scolaro working out of the bullpen, Florida State has built an impressive pitching staff.

That’s no surprise to anyone at Florida State.

“I told everyone that would listen, ‘Just wait until you see these guys,’ ” Martin Jr. said. “I love the arms and the depth.”

Now that Florida State has gotten back on track, its challenge now is to keep the good times rolling even without the added adrenaline of a crisis or rivalry. It will this week return to Dick Howser Stadium to face Central Florida on Wednesday and Wake Forest on the weekend.

There are still some aspects of their game that Martin Jr. would like to see cleaned up, but more than anything else the Seminoles need to get healthy. Not only is Albert sidelined, but several other players are carrying nagging injuries that keep them from practicing.

In a rough-and-tumble ACC, Florida State has already taken some knocks and fought back. Its combination of talent and mental fortitude will make it tough the rest of the season.

Eight for Omaha

Arkansas, Florida, Louisville, Mississippi, Mississippi State, Notre Dame, Texas Tech, Vanderbilt

Florida State swept Miami right out of the field. The Hurricanes haven’t clicked the way they did Opening Weekend and clearly have some things to work out on the mound. So, we welcome back Louisville, which over the last two weeks seems to have solved its own issues on the mound. Getting Glenn Albanese back in the rotation has been crucial in that regard. Otherwise, it’s status quo, with Texas and Florida State firmly on my radar among the other contenders.

Weekend standouts

Alabama State: The Hornets on Saturday threw a combined, seven-inning no-hitter in a 14-0 victory against Mississippi Valley State. More impressively, Breon Pooler, Ryan Velazquez and Payton Harris struck out 18 batters on the day. The other three outs were recorded on fly outs (two) and a caught stealing. Alabama State (6-10, 3-3) swept the series.

Bryant: The Bulldogs (4-7, 3-0) swept their Northeast Conference opening series against Merrimack by a combined score of 42-1. Outfielder James Ciliento went 7-for-10 with two home runs and seven runs on the weekend to both become the eighth player in program history to collect 200 career hits and move into fifth place in career home runs.

Aaron Rea, RHP, Coppin State: Rea on Saturday struck out nine batters in a seven-inning complete game victory against Delaware State to break Coppin State’s career strikeouts record. He now has 230 career strikeouts, which ranks seventh among all active players. Rea this season is 2-2, 3.32 with 22 strikeouts in 19 innings.

Freddy Rojas, OF, Texas-Rio Grande Valley: Rojas homered in each game of UTRGV’s four-game series against Dixie State, which the teams split. On the weekend, Rojas went 5-for-14 with four homers, a double and four walks and five runs. He had not homered this season going into the series and is now hitting .381/.480/.738.

Wright State: The Raiders swept Illinois-Chicago in a four-game series to extend their winning streak to 12 games, all in Horizon League play. Wright State outscored UIC, 38-14, on the weekend. Since going 0-5 the first two weekends of the season at Vanderbilt and Alabama, Wright State has not lost and has opened a six-game lead in the league standings. Its series at UIC may have been its toughest test in Horizon League play.

Looking ahead

No. 1 Arkansas at No. 2 Mississippi State: The top-two ranked teams in the Top 25 will meet in the regular season for just the 14th time in the 40-year history of the rankings. While it is still just March, it this weekend will feel more like June in Starkville. Arkansas (14-3, 2-1) and Mississippi State (16-4, 2-1) have two of the deepest pitching staffs in the country and star-power on offense.

No. 7 Louisville at No. 12 Notre Dame: The Fighting Irish (9-3, 9-3) have won four straight ACC series to open the season and race to the top of the standings. This weekend, however, they’ll get a chance to make their biggest statement yet as the Cardinals (14-5, 7-2) come to South Bend. Louisville has found its stride and swept back-to-back conference series and has the most talented team in the ACC. The winner this weekend has to be considered the conference favorite going forward.

Conference USA play begins with a showdown between Louisiana Tech and Southern Mississippi: Conference USA looks like it will this spring have a competitive race to watch, and it wastes no time getting right into it, with a showdown between LaTech (13-5) and Southern Miss (12-6). The Golden Eagles have won eight of their last nine games, including sweeping their last two series against Louisiana-Lafayette and Missouri State. The Bulldogs have won five straight, a streak that began with wins against Arkansas and Mississippi before a weekend sweep of Tulane. The winner of this weekend’s series will emerge as the conference favorite.

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