Anyone wondering what the College World Series field might look like next month should keep a close eye on Hoover Metropolitan Stadium this week. The SEC baseball tournament is sure to provide a primer.
The SEC has placed a team in the CWS finals – two in 2011 when South Carolina defeated Florida for the title – over the last five seasons and won three championships. The last two seasons, SEC teams have comprised three of the eight-teams CWS field in Omaha.
The conference, which opens its tournament Tuesday with a single-elimination round for seeds five through 12, is loaded again this season. Baseball America ranks five teams in its Top 25: No. 1 Vanderbilt (48-7), No. 2 LSU (48-8), No. 14 Arkansas (35-19), No. 16 Mississippi State (40-16), and No. 17 South Carolina (39-16).
Additionally, six other SEC teams – Ole Miss, Florida, Alabama, Auburn, Kentucky and Texas A&M – are ranked in college baseball’s top 50 in RPI, one of the measures used for selection in the NCAA tournament.
“There are five or six teams in the SEC this year that could make it to Omaha and succeed there,” said LSU coach Paul Mainieri, whose team won the 2009 national championship. “I would be shocked if there aren’t at least two, maybe three, teams in Omaha this year from the SEC. I’d be disappointed if at least one of them isn’t playing for the national championship.”
USC coach Chad Holbrook, who served as an assistant on the 2010 and 2011 national championship teams, seconds that notion.
“You look at Vandy’s and LSU’s records and say it’s a top-heavy league, but anybody can beat anybody on any given day,” Holbrook said. “It’s extremely deep and extremely talented. I talked to (Florida coach) Kevin O’Sullivan yesterday and he said the SEC is the best it has ever been. A lot of other head coaches are echoing that as well.”
Arkansas features arguably the best pitching staff in the nation, which could be a big advantage when the NCAA tournament begins, but the Razorbacks weren’t quite as consistent during the regular season because of the difficulty of the league.
“We’ve got teams in this league with tremendous depth on the mound and such a variety of talent,” said Arkansas coach Dave Van Horn, who took the Razorbacks to the CWS in 2004, 2009 and 2012. “I do feel like the SEC is as strong as it’s ever been, experienced pitching up and down the league, older kids, and teams that can make a long run.”
Vanderbilt won a league-record 26 games in the regular season – breaking USC’s mark of 25 in 2000 – while LSU finished second with 23 wins, the third-best figure in conference history. But Vanderbilt coach Tim Corbin points to Arkansas, South Carolina and the two Mississippi teams to show it’s not a two-team league.
“From a pitching standpoint and a lineup standpoint, there are teams that have a chance to go on long runs after they leave this tournament,” said Corbin, who guided the Commodores to the 2011 CWS.
Mainieri gave a nod to the always-dangerous Gamecocks, the only team to win a series from LSU this season.
“Everybody thinks South Carolina had a down year, but (they had) 17 (SEC) wins, 39 overall. They beat us two-of-three on the road,” he said.
Being battle-tested enough to win multiple series in the SEC is great preparation for the NCAA tournament. The conference has sent at least one team to the CWS for 20 straight years, and it sent four teams – half the field – in 1997 and 2004. The SEC has claimed nine national championships beginning in 1990.
Vanderbilt and LSU did not meet in the regular season, but they could play in the SEC championship game or in Omaha.
“What can you say? We had a tremendous year, and Vanderbilt trumped us. You give all the credit in the world to them. What they did was phenomenal,” Mainieri said. “It would be awesome to meet them in the finals of the College World Series. That would be outstanding.”
But there’s always a chance some other team from the conference could sneak in there instead.
“It wouldn’t surprise me at all if somebody from the SEC is playing for the national championship,” Holbrook said.