Rick Fires is a reporter and columnist for the Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.
Traveling Memory Lane to SEC baseball tournament
Arkansas' Jess Todd pitches against South Carolina during an SEC baseball tournament game, in Hoover, Ala., Thursday, May 24, 2007. (AP Photo/Neil Brake)
Quickly now, name the past 10 winners of the SEC baseball tournament.
Then how about the past five?
The last three?
Last year’s winner?
Only the baseball diehards can recite past winners of the SEC Tournament, where 12 of the league’s 14 teams are invited to frolic for a few days before the serious business of the NCAA Tournament begins. Most of the participants, including Arkansas, have already done enough to secure a bid to the NCAA Tournament, even if their stay in Hoover, Ala., is brief. But the SEC Tournament is not a complete waste of time as some have suggested.
The SEC Tournament is a reward for the players, who receive the royal treatment from the folks at Hoover, which will host the event beginning Tuesday for the 22nd year. Arkansas will be eager to get back onto the field after losing its final series at Texas A&M. But coaches don’t want to risk wearing out their pitching staffs before the start of the NCAA Tournament the following week.
You’ll know a team is ready to head home when it starts a pitcher who might be 1-4 with a 6.78 earned run average. They’re out there. I’ve seen them.
I made the trip to Hoover many times while covering Arkansas baseball for 15 years for this newspaper, beginning in 1999. Here are some of the Arkansas highlights I can recall while traveling mostly with Nate Allen and Chris Cocoles, a former sidekick and fantastic college baseball writer who brought a national perspective to our coverage.
2007: Jess Todd set a school record with 17 strikeouts, including the first nine batters he faced, during a 6-0 victory over South Carolina.
Todd’s pitching performance is the most dominant I’ve ever seen in person. He rarely threw a pitch above the waist in that game and blew away a South Carolina team that was very good when Ray Tanner was coach of the Gamecocks.
An honorable mention goes to Nick Schmidt, who threw a two-hit shutout during a 6-0 victory over Alabama. It always warms the heart to beat Alabama, especially in Alabama.
2009: Zack Cox is one of the finest hitters to play at Arkansas, but he was not known for his power.
That’s what made it even more amazing when Cox slammed one of the longest home runs in the history of the SEC Tournament. It happened during an elimination game against Florida, when Cox turned on a 3-1 fastball and smashed the letter “R” on the Regions Park sign atop a 90-foot structure in right-center field.
The crowd was still buzzing while Cox rounded the bases, and the Razorbacks eventually won the game, 10-7.
Cox was a first-round draft pick by the St. Louis Cardinals in 2010, but he never made it to the major leagues and is now out of baseball.
2004: Picked 11th of 12 teams in a preseason poll, Arkansas instead won the league championship despite having only one player, shortstop Scott Hode, selected All-SEC. Arkansas then went 2-2 in the SEC Tournament, where freshman outfielder Jake Dugger was the only Razorback to make the all-tournament team.
Still feeling overlooked, Arkansas returned home to win both the Fayetteville Regional and a Super Regional before advancing to the College World Series for the first time since 1989.
1999: Arkansas had already won the SEC championship and two games in the SEC Tournament when the Razorbacks handed second baseman Travis McDaniel the baseball to finish a game against Auburn.
Arkansas was ready to head home, but something happened to prevent their departure that day. McDaniel pitched great in relief, and Arkansas beat Auburn a second time to advance to the championship game, where the Razorbacks fell 9-3 to Alabama.
It was the only time in four years McDaniel pitched for the Razorbacks.
2009: Arkansas was in great danger of missing the NCAA Tournament after losing its final eight in SEC play, including getting swept at home by Alabama and Ole Miss.
Given a second chance, Arkansas went 2-2 in the SEC Tournament then exploded onto the national scene by winning Norman (Okla.) Regional and the Super Regional at Florida State. Arkansas marched to Omaha, Neb., and the College World Series, where Brett Eibner blasted a ninth-inning home run and the Razorbacks went on to beat Virginia 4-3 in an epic, 12-inning elimination battle.
Arkansas finished tied for third place in the College World Series in 2009 after placing fourth in the SEC West with a 14-15 league record. It was an impressive run for the Razorbacks that began in the SEC Tournament, which is not a complete waste of time as some have suggested.
So, please stop. Let the players enjoy a trip they very much deserve.
Rick Fires can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @NWARick.
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