The Official Website of the Southeastern Conference
The Official Website of the Southeastern Conference

SEC Baseball Tournament Blog: Tuesday

35 days ago
By Kevin Scarbinsky
Photo: Michael Wade

Welcome to the SEC Baseball Tournament Blog, your online home for the big news, behind-the-scenes notes and quotes and special moments that make this annual event at the Hoover (Ala.) Met the best college baseball tournament in the nation. Check back for updates each day throughout the week.

12:21 a.m.

Welcome to Death Valley North

The SEC Baseball Tournament has found a home at the Hoover Met. This is the 22nd straight year the event has been held here, the 24th time overall.

No one in the conference, not even home-state schools Alabama or Auburn, has made itself at home here quite like LSU. With the support of their traveling army of fans, the Tigers have turned the Met into Alabama Box Stadium. Or Death Valley North.

For the seventh straight year, they won their SEC Tournament opener, outslugging South Carolina 8-6 in Tuesday's late game. It didn't matter that the Gamecocks jumped out to a 5-1 lead after their second at-bat. Or that freshman All-SEC starting pitcher Cole Henry, from Florence (Ala.) High School, struggled in his first outing since April 19 as he works his way back from an arm ailment. Or that speedy Zach Watson was caught stealing for the first time all season. Or that they committed three errors as a team.

This is Hoover so, as is the custom, after the sun set in the Western sky, LSU's bats and wheels generated more than enough sparks to push the Tigers through to double-elimination play. That means they'll have a chance to win the SEC Tournament for the seventh time in the last 12 years and repaint this town purple and gold.

Wednesday's Schedule

  • 9:30 a.m. Game 5: No. 3 seed Georgia vs. No. 6 Texas A&M
  • 30 minutes after Game 5 Game 6: No. 2 Arkansas vs. No. 7 Ole Miss
  • 4:30 p.m. Game 7: No. 1 Vanderbilt vs. No. 8 Auburn
  • 30 minutes after Game 7 Game 8: No. 4 Mississippi State vs. No. 5 LSU

9:45 p.m.

When you least expect it, expect it

Every year, players come to the SEC Tournament and deliver clutch performances that make you ask the question: Where did that come from? Auburn's Bailey Horn was that player Tuesday evening.

The redshirt sophomore left-hander enjoyed the best outing of his Auburn career, giving up just one run in four innings, getting the Tigers safely from the fourth inning to the ninth in their 5-3 victory over Tennessee.

Horn's four innings pitched and six strikeouts - against just one walk - were the best numbers of his time on the Plains, where he arrived from McLennan Junior College in Texas. That he stepped up at the SEC Tournament, barely a year and change removed from Tommy John surgery, made his mastery all the more impressive.

"That's definitely what I've been striving for throughout the season," Horn said, and his coach echoed that sentiment.

"We've been waiting all year for him to get into a rhythm like tonight," Auburn coach Butch Thompson said.

One person who wasn't surprised by Horn's effort was Tennessee coach Tony Vitello, who recruited Horn out of junior college. Vitello said the way to rise to the occasion, as Horn did, isn't complicated.

"You don't need to 'ball out' or any of that crap," Vitello said. "You just need to be who you are."

Horn was exactly who Auburn needed him to be Tuesday - a shutdown middle relief man.

Harder to win in Hoover than Omaha

It was only natural that Tennessee might not feel totally at home Tuesday. The Vols were making their first trip to the SEC Tournament in three years and trying to win here for the first time in 12 years.

"A couple of our guys thought they were in Game 3 of the final series in Omaha," UT coach Tony Vitello said. "I think a few guys changed a few things because of the setting."

The experience, even in defeat, should only help as Tennessee at 38-19 is expected to return to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2005.

"This tournament's harder to win than in Omaha," Vitello said. "That's what the older coaches who've been here the longest whisper. You come here, and it's just an absolute grind. Look at the games we've already had. It's just a grand stage, and it's back-to-back-to-back days."

He didn't lie. The first three games of the tournament were decided by one, one and two runs. None of the games was decided until the final pitch.

7:35 p.m.

Just like Little League

As much as any sport, baseball has become a game of specialists, which makes you appreciate all the more what Ryan Olenek does for Ole Miss. The senior is the starting center fielder for the Rebels, but on rare and necessary occasions, he sprints from the outfield to the mound to become the team's closer.

That was the case Tuesday in a 2-1 victory over Missouri on the first day of the SEC Tournament.

Olenek went 2 for 4 at the plate and notched a putout and an assist from his post in center field, but when the game reached the top of the ninth inning with Ole Miss holding a one-run lead, coach Mike Bianco called on Olenek to close it out.

He did, but not without a little drama. With two runners aboard after a hit batter and a walk, Olenek ended the threat and the game with a called third strike. It was the second save of his college career. The first came in the final regular-season game Saturday against Tennessee when he worked a perfect ninth inning.

Bianco said Olenek's double-duty versatility "is just like Little League." Ole Miss starting pitcher Will Ethridge, who got the win with seven strong innings, said he appreciates Olenek in the field and out of the bullpen because "he's going to do whatever it takes to get guys out."

6:10 p.m.

The bid for 11 NCAA Tournament berths

Thirteen SEC schools play softball. Every one of those teams made the NCAA Softball Tournament.

"Why?" Ole Miss baseball coach Mike Bianco asked. "They take the best teams."

Bianco would like to see the Division I Baseball Committee follow that same simple philosophy. If that were the case, this could and maybe should be the year the SEC sets a record by sending 11 teams to the NCAA Baseball Tournament.

The conference put 10 teams in the field in 2014 and 2018.

This time, nine SEC teams likely did enough to earn bids before arriving in Hoover. The bubble teams appeared to be Florida and Missouri, both of which lost one-run games Tuesday that went down to the last pitch. Bianco made a strong case that the 33-24 Gators and 34-22-1 Tigers should be considered on their individual merits and not as part of a conference collective.

"At the end of the day, you shouldn't be talking about whether it's a record," Bianco said. "You should be talking about, is Missouri good enough to be in a regional? Is Florida good enough? Not are they going to break a record and should that be OK. What's really a crime is if they're good enough but they're not taken because somebody didn't want to take 11 teams. That's a shame, and that's what's wrong with our game."

Preach, coach.

Take Missouri. They may have been one-and-done in Hoover after losing 2-1 to Ole Miss, with the tying run in scoring position when the game ended, but Bianco said you won't want to face the Tigers if they advance.

"That Missouri team can win a regional without a doubt," Bianco said. "They would be one of the scariest teams out there because of those arms."

The NCAA Tournament field will be unveiled next Monday May 27 at 11 a.m. on ESPNU.

Neither Missouri coach Steve Bieser nor Florida coach Kevin O'Sullivan put on a full-blown lobbying effort after their losses Tuesday. Bieser pointed out that Missouri has lost only four of its 10 regular-season SEC series. His Tigers have 10 wins against teams ranked in the top 50 in the NCAA RPI.

"I like our resume," he said. "I like our team. We would be very, very difficult in a regional. I feel our resume is really solid."

O'Sullivan said he believes the committee emphasizes body of work over one conference tournament game in deciding whether to award a team an at-large berth. His Gators finished the regular season with an RPI of 25 against the nation's third-toughest schedule.

"That's for the committee to decide," he said. "I'm not going to put my two cents in there. At the end of the day, I like our team. Simple as that."

The Gators and the Tigers have to hope the committee likes their teams as much as Bianco does.

2:15 p.m.

That wasn't the championship game?
Mood swings. Lead changes. Innings. Heroes. The slogan is real. When SEC baseball teams reach the postseason, #ItJustMeansMore.

Texas A&M 8, Florida 7 in 10 innings was the first game of the 2019 SEC Baseball Tournament. It just felt like a Sunday trophy game. Or a College World Series elimination extravaganza.

It took three hours and 23 minutes to separate the sixth-seeded Aggies, trying to build a resume to host a NCAA Regional, and the No. 11 Gators, perhaps needing another quality win to secure a spot on the Road to Omaha. Florida coach Kevin O'Sullivan put it this way:

"We were facing one of the better starters in the country (in A&M's Asa Lacy) and one of the better closers in the country (in Kasey Kalich)," O'Sullivan said. "It's pretty obvious our league is probably deeper than any other league."

A&M went deep into the batting order to find the biggest hero in Jonathan Ducoff. The No. 8 hitter launched a three-run homer in the bottom of the eighth, just his third big fly of the season, to put the Aggies back in front. After the Gators tied it in the ninth, Ducoff ended it with a walk-off RBI single in the 10th.

We should've expected nothing less than drama to the last drop. Five Division I baseball programs won at least 40 games every season from 2015-2018. Texas A&M and Florida are two of them.

As for NCAA Tournament decisions, O'Sullivan refused to try to lobby the Division I Baseball Committee on behalf of his 33-24 Gators.

"That's for the committee to decide," he said. "I'm not going to put my two cents in there. At the end of the day, I like our team. Simple as that."

'The most special moment of my career'
Real pressure isn't stepping to the plate with two on, two out and your team down a run in the bottom of the eighth inning - or coming back up with the game tied and the winning run aboard in the 10th.

Not if you're Jonathan Ducoff.

The Texas A&M graduate transfer rose to both occasions Tuesday with the three-run dinger in the eighth and the game-winning single in the 10th, but he's faced a far greater challenge.

Ducoff played the 2018 season at Houston Baptist while undergoing cancer treatments for follicular lymphoma. Now a cancer survivor, Ducoff preferred to focus on baseball after his big day.

"No doubt about it," he said. "This is probably the most special moment of my career. It's less about everything I've been through and more about this is the highlight of my career. After what I've been through the last year and a half, I never would've thought this is where I'd be. God is good."

A&M coach Rob Childress said he called Ducoff's three-run homer in the eighth.

"I was thinking he was going to do something special," Childress said. "He's a special kid and an inspiration to our team."