Matt Jones is the online sports director for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. A double graduate of the University of Arkansas, he is a member of the Football Writers Association of America and National Collegiate Baseball Writers Association, and voter for the Heisman Trophy.
SEC Baseball Report: Mississippi teams struggle, East division gains ground
Mississippi State head coach Chris Lemonis talks with his infielders during a pitching change in an NCAA baseball game on Wednesday, Feb. 22, 2023, in Starkville, Miss. (AP Photo/Vasha Hunt)
The programs that have won the last two national championships of college baseball are off to a bad start in SEC play.
Mississippi State and Ole Miss have a combined conference record of 0-12.
A sign of the baseball times came last weekend at Dudy-Noble Field, where Vanderbilt defeated Mississippi State by scores of 26-3, 18-5 and 11-7. The first two games ended after seven innings due to run rule.
“I see the fight and the frustration,” Mississippi State coach Chris Lemonis told SuperTalk Mississippi on Monday. “There’s frustration. There’s expectation. This is a prideful program, a prideful fan base and when you’re not playing well, it’s not good. It’s not good anywhere, but it’s harder here. They’re frustrated. They’re pissed.”
The Bulldogs have lost their SEC games against Vanderbilt and Kentucky by a combined score of 90-26. Mississippi State has lost 17 consecutive conference games dating to last season and hosts South Carolina — undefeated in SEC play — this week.
Mississippi State ranks last in the conference in several categories, including ERA (6.51), walks allowed (161) and fielding (.960).
“We have to figure out a little bit defensively, but we have to figure out our pitching staff,” Lemonis said. “We have performed at a really low level. I know we’ve had some injuries…but the kids we are pitching are better than what they’re pitching right now, and that goes on the [coaching] staff of trying to figure it out.”
After a bad opening conference series at Vanderbilt, Ole Miss was competitive last weekend when it was swept by Florida by a combined score of 28-19. It was the Gators’ first series sweep at Ole Miss since 1988.
“It’s not good enough, not playing well enough, but I thought we competed better,” Ole Miss coach Mike Bianco told SuperTalk Mississippi on Monday. “I thought we were in the games, we had chances to win at least two of the games. We didn’t play well enough to do that, but much better than we did the weekend before.”
Ole Miss is scheduled to play at Texas A&M this week. The Aggies are also off to a rough start in conference play after a 1-5 stretch against pre-season favorites LSU and Tennessee.
Both Mississippi programs are in danger of potentially missing the NCAA Tournament. According to Baseball America, no SEC team has made the postseason after starting conference play 0-6 since 2001.
East bests West
With the Mississippi teams struggling, the balance of power in the SEC might be shifting east.
SEC East teams have a 20-4 record against teams from the SEC West. East teams have won 7 of 8 cross-divisional series, and 5 resulted in a sweep.
Last year SEC East teams won 13 of 28 series against SEC West teams, including 4 by way of sweep. Tennessee’s dominant 2022 season contributed to much of that success, as the Volunteers went 10-2 and swept twice in series against the SEC West.
The emergence of South Carolina and Kentucky has made for an intriguing division race that was already expected to be a battle between heavyweights Tennessee, Florida and Vanderbilt.
South Carolina (24-2, 6-0 SEC) has the most wins in college baseball against a schedule that is ranked 41st hardest entering Thursday’s games.
Kentucky (22-3, 5-1) has the No. 7 strength of schedule and had the nation’s longest win streak (17) before a series-ending loss at Alabama last weekend.
Vanderbilt (20-5, 6-0) has contributed most to the SEC East’s cross-divisional dominance with sweeps of Ole Miss and Mississippi State by combined scores of 27-4 and 55-15. The Commodores’ offense has come to life after some rough games in non-conference play, and Vanderbilt’s three-man pitching rotation of Carter Holton, Hunter Owen and Devin Futrell is one of the league’s best.
Florida (22-4, 5-1) and Tennessee (20-6, 3-3) also have stellar rotations, and the Gators rank fourth nationally behind LSU, Wake Forest and South Carolina in scoring.
Of the SEC East’s five hottest teams, four should be favored to win series this weekend, while Tennessee plays at No. 1 LSU.
Duel of the year?
The SEC’s most anticipated pitching matchup will take place Thursday night at Alex Box Stadium in Baton Rouge, La.
LSU right-hander Paul Skenes and Tennessee right-hander Chase Dollander are the projected starters. Baseball America rates Skenes the No. 1 pitcher and No. 3 overall prospect for this year’s MLB Draft. Dollander is ranked the No. 2 pitcher and No. 4 overall prospect.
First pitch, from Skenes, is scheduled for 7 p.m. on ESPNU.
Skenes, a junior transfer from Air Force, leads college baseball in WHIP (0.56) and strikeouts (71), and ranks second with a 0.72 ERA.
Dollander was last year’s SEC pitcher of the year after transferring from Georgia Southern. He has a 3.93 ERA in 34 1/3 innings, ballooned by a bad outing at Missouri two weeks ago when he allowed 6 runs on 9 hits in 5 2/3 innings.
Dollander has 53 strikeouts and a WHIP of 1.08.
Time will tell if Skenes vs. Dollander can live up to the pitcher’s duel Skenes was a part of last week.
Arkansas left-hander Hunter Hollan pitched 5 1/3 scoreless innings and struck out 7 before giving way to closer Hagen Smith, who pitched the final 4 2/3 innings in the Razorbacks’ 9-3 victory over the Tigers in 10 innings. The game was tied 1-1 after the ninth inning.
Hollan said after the game he was motivated by a social media post hyping the Skenes-Dollander showdown.
“I saw this tweet this morning that said, ‘We’re seven days away from the pitching duel of the year,’” Hollan said, “and it was Dollander vs. Skenes. That kind of got the fire in the butt a little bit.”
There were two big ninth-inning rallies in SEC play last week.
On Thursday, Auburn scored three runs in the ninth to tie Georgia, and the Tigers won 7-6 in 11 innings. It was their eighth comeback victory of the season.
Auburn put 5 two-out hitters on base in the ninth, including Bryson Ware, whose double pulled the Tigers within 6-5. Justin Kirby reached on a two-out throwing error by Georgia shortstop Murillo Sebastian, which allowed Ware to score from second base and tie the game.
On Friday, South Carolina scored 4 two-out runs in the ninth to rally for a 9-8 victory over Missouri. Michael Braswell singled with two outs and Caleb Denny scored on a throwing error by Mizzou shortstop Justin Colon to win the game.
All four runs came against Missouri right-hander Zach Franklin, who got a groundout and two strikeouts in the inning, but Ethan Petry reached first base after he struck out swinging at a wild pitch.
Franklin hit a batter to load the bases before Denny’s two-run single. Pinch hitter Jonathan French tied the game with a single.
In the polls
There are eight SEC teams ranked in the latest USA Today Baseball Coaches Poll:
8. South Carolina
25. Ole Miss
Texas A&M, Missouri and Alabama received votes, but fell from the poll after series losses last week. Auburn, which was ranked earlier this year, is also receiving votes.
SEC East standings
South Carolina 6-0
SEC West standings
Texas A&M 1-5
Ole Miss 0-6
Mississippi State 0-6
Series of the Week — Tennessee (20-6) at LSU (22-3)
The Volunteers were last year’s SEC bully and it appears the Tigers might be this year’s.
LSU right-hander Paul Skenes has proved nearly untouchable through six weeks and the Tigers might have the sport’s best offensive lineup.
These teams were ranked Nos. 1 and 2 in the preseason, but some cold water was thrown on the series when Tennessee was swept at Missouri two weeks ago. The Vols rebounded at home and swept Texas A&M last weekend.
This series is sure to draw a who’s who of pro baseball scouts, especially for Thursday's anticipated pitching matchup.
Four players in the series — Skenes, LSU center fielder Dylan Crews, Tennessee right-hander Chase Dollander and Tennessee shortstop Maui Ahuna — are ranked among the top 28 prospects by Baseball America for this year’s MLB Draft. Several underclassmen are sure to be top prospects in 2024 and 2025.
Crews is the nation’s hottest hitter with a .542 batting average. The projected No. 1 overall pick is also tops nationally in on-base percentage (.667) and runs (48).
Other weekend series
Missouri at Kentucky
Auburn at Florida
Ole Miss at Texas A&M
Georgia at Vanderbilt
Alabama at Arkansas
*South Carolina at Mississippi State
• - Series begins Thursday
Hitter of the Week — Dylan Crews, LSU
Entering the series batting .515, Crews raised his average by 23 points with a hitting clinic against Arkansas.
Crews homered in every game and went 8 for 13 with 7 RBI and 7 runs against the Razorbacks. He had a .667 on-base percentage and slugged 1.308 during the series, and extended his hitting streak to 22 games.
"He's the best baseball player I've ever seen — not college player I've ever seen, the best baseball player," LSU coach Jay Johnson told the LSU Sports Radio Network.
Pitcher of the Week — Paul Skenes, LSU
Skenes allowed 1 run, 2 hits and 3 walks, and struck out 12 during his 7-inning no-decision against Arkansas.
It was Skenes’ sixth game this year with at least 11 strikeouts.
"Skenes was as advertised," Arkansas coach Dave Van Horn said. "I've never seen a better arm at this level. It's unbelievable."
Other notable performances
• Vanderbilt first baseman Parker Noland went 5 for 6 with 2 grand slams and 11 RBI during the first game of the Commodores’ series at Mississippi State. He homered three times and had 14 RBI during the week.
• Florida outfielder Jac Caglianone hit four home runs during the Gators’ series at Ole Miss. Caglianone homered three times during a Saturday doubleheader. He leads college baseball with 17 home runs.
• South Carolina right-hander Noah Hall struck out 10 and pitched seven scoreless innings against Missouri.
• Arkansas left-hander Hunter Hollan allowed 3 hits and 1 walk, and struck out 7 during 5 1/3 scoreless innings at LSU.
Stat of the Week
Kentucky’s small-ball approach has resulted in 27 sacrifice bunts and 46 stolen bases — both SEC highs.
The Wildcats were 8 for 9 on stolen-base attempts and had 6 sac bunts during their series win at Alabama.
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