SEC Baseball Tournament Blog: Wednesday
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.
Now we can all geaux home
Sometime after midnight, this stopped being a baseball game between two proud rivals that set the bar for the entire Southeastern Conference and morphed into something more. LSU vs. Mississippi State became nothing less than an Infinity War.
Minus the death and destruction.
Not much else was missing as the Tigers and Bulldogs set the record for the longest game in SEC Tournament history and kept right on going. Through seven straight scoreless innings from the ninth to the 15th. Through a go-ahead LSU run in the top of the 16th and a matching score by State in the bottom.
All the way to the bottom of the 17th inning, where State's Gunner Halter singled in the winning run, telling LSU and everyone else to geaux home. We all departed, bedraggled, but this game will never leave us.
Mississippi State 6, LSU 5 consumed six hours, 43 minutes and every ounce of energy from everyone in the house, including the hardy souls remaining from the 13,902 fans who made up the fifth-largest single-session crowd in tournament history.
This tug-of-war lasted an hour and 36 minutes longer than the previous longest game this event had seen. It took 125 at-bats, 30 hits, 32 strikeouts and enough woulda coulda shoulda moments to last a season. Or a lifetime.
When it was over, neither team was eliminated, with more baseball to play later in the day, but each team was as enriched as it was exhausted.
On this special occasion, the SEC's well-traveled slogan was dead solid perfect. On this night above all others, this game just meant more of everything that makes this sport and this tournament two of the crown jewels in the conference's possession.
Baseball and the SEC Tournament. Call them the SEC's Infinity Stones.
- 9:30 a.m.
Game 9: No. 6 seed Texas A&M vs. No. 7 Ole Miss
- 30 minutes after Game 9
Game 10: No. 5 LSU vs. No. 8 Auburn
- 4:30 p.m.
Game 11: No. 2 Arkansas vs. No. 3 Georgia
- 30 minutes after Game 11
Game 12: No. 1 Vanderbilt vs. No. 4 Mississippi State
It's getting crowded in here
Georgia coach Scott Stricklin called it, in a tongue-in-cheek kinda way. After his Bulldogs walked off Texas A&M on Wednesday morning, he made a lighthearted prediction for the evening session ahead on Day Two of the SEC Tournament.
"I hear there may be a few people here tonight," he said.
With home-state Auburn playing regular-season champion Vanderbilt and fan-base heavyweights LSU and Mississippi State tangling, it was the easiest prediction of the week.
The actual, eye-popping number for the evening session: 13,902. That's the fifth-largest crowd for a single session in tournament history. It's the third-largest crowd for a non-championship game.
With Wednesday's eight teams returning Thursday in different matchups, expect a few people to show up again at the Hoover Met.
On the bright side, Auburn, Vandy is just that good
How do you flush from your mind a run-rule defeat in the SEC Tournament with a game to play the next day? How do you turn the page when you give up 16 hits in an 11-1 defeat?
Auburn found itself searching for answers after running into the wrecking crew that is SEC regular-season champion Vanderbilt. Shortstop Will Holland, whose solo homer was one of only two Tiger hits, turned philosophical.
"Baseball's a sport where you have to have a short-term memory," Holland said.
Maybe he and his teammates should remember one thing before turning out the lights. Vanderbilt, the No. 2 team in the nation, is just that good.
The Commodores didn't just sweep the Tigers during their 23-7 run through the toughest conference in the nation. They posted four wins of 10 runs or more against SEC opponents. They beat SEC West champ Arkansas 12-2 and South Carolina 22-11. Must've missed a couple extra points.
In a particularly savage display in back-to-back games in March, the Vandy boys went nuclear on perennial power Florida, dominating the Gators 15-2 and 14-4.
Auburn coach Butch Thompson said he thought his team "played too timid early in the ballgame" against Vanderbilt.
Lesson learned. There's no room for timid in the SEC Tournament.
Have a JJ Bleday
The last time someone stroked five hits in an SEC Baseball Tournament game, JJ Bleday was 5 years old. The symmetry is as sweet as the Vanderbilt junior's left-handed swing.
Sixteen years after Nick Pitts of Arkansas did it in 2003, Bleday rapped out a career-high five hits as the regular-season champions raked Auburn 11-1. Pitts got his five hits in six at-bats. Bleday was a perfect 5 for 5.
"I've seen his growth," Auburn coach Butch Thompson said. "I'm seeing a very mature, almost professional approach to the game."
Bleday showed why he's SEC player of the year and a Golden Spikes Award semifinalist for national player of the year, along with Vandy teammate Austin Martin.
Auburn had success against Bleday during the regular season, holding him to one hit in three games by pitching him away. That approach didn't work Wednesday as he used the whole field, with a double to right, single to center, double to left, single to left and another single to left.
"It starts in batting practice," Bleday said. "You try to let the ball travel. When that's what you do day in and day out, it comes naturally."
If you watched Bleday's efficient approach for the first time at the Hoover Met, you might be surprised to learn he leads the nation with 25 home runs.
"He never seems like he's out of balance," Vandy coach Tim Corbin said. "He never seems like he's trying to do too much. ... Mentally? He's a 35-year-old man. We may have helped him, but his parents have everything to do with that. He's so consistent academically, athletically, socially."
Corbin said he and his wife joke that Bleday "is like a unicorn. He's just that different kid that can do a lot of different things."
The world's strongest leadoff hitter
Who says a 230-pound slugger can't bat leadoff? Not Ole Miss coach Mike Bianco.
Junior left fielder Thomas Dillard had been the team's cleanup hitter "basically since he stepped on campus," Bianco said, but with Dillard going hitless five times in May, the coach decided to grant his power hitter's longstanding request to move to the top of the batting order.
"I've been joking with Coach B for two years now about hitting leadoff," Dillard said. "It's just taken a little bit of pressure off me, not having to hit fourth and just drive in everybody and put a lot of pressure on myself to hit a lot of balls out of the yard."
The change is working at the SEC Tournament. Through two games, a win and a loss, Dillard is 4 for 8 with a run scored and two RBIs.
Bianco said, despite Dillard's size, he can run and steal bases, too. His ability to draw walks also makes him an ideal leadoff man.
"I thought he got a little stagnant in the middle of the lineup," Bianco said.
Coaches get thirsty, too
It was hotter than Alabama asphalt Wednesday at the Hoover Met, and Arkansas coach Dave Van Horn was thirsty. His Hogs were waiting to play Ole Miss while Georgia and Texas A&M were locked in a scoreless duel he thought might go 15 innings.
Did one of the most successful college baseball coaches in the country send a minion to fetch him a beverage? No. He did what any fan would do. He got in line at a concession stand for a cold drink.
"I get per diem," Van Horn said. "I can buy it. I'm good."
In the middle of Van Horn's purchase on the inside concourse, the crowd started roaring. Georgia had just hit a walk-off home run to end it. The Arkansas coach had to hurry, but not before getting his drink.
That down-to-earth vibe is the heartbeat of the SEC Tournament. It's one of the reasons Peter Burns of the SEC Network calls this event one of his favorites every year. As he said, "It's real."
Arkansas closer Matt Cronin brings the heat
What do you do if you're clinging to a one-run lead with the tying and go-ahead runs on base with two outs in the eighth inning? If you're Arkansas coach Dave Van Horn, you go get Matt Cronin.
And Cronin brings the heat.
Hard to tell which was hotter Wednesday, the on-field temperature or the junior lefty's fastball. The Arkansas closer ended the Ole Miss threat in the eighth inning with a three-pitch strikeout and then, after the Hogs added an insurance run, struck out the side in the ninth to preserve a 5-3 victory.
Cronin's final line to earn his 11th save in 21 appearances: four batters faced, four strikeouts, 15 pitches, 13 strikes. He's three saves shy of matching the school record he set last season.
Van Horn called it "one of his best outings ever." Teammate Jack Kenley, who carried the offense with three RBIs, called it "nothing short of spectacular." Cronin called it "fun."
The Ole Miss hitters? They didn't exactly enjoy themselves.
"Cronin's an electric arm," said Ole Miss leadoff man Thomas Dillard, who had two hits earlier in the game but was one of Cronin's strikeout victims. "He has one of the best fastballs in the country, but we have to have better at-bats against him."
Cronin, who's struck out 39 batters in 25.1 innings on the season, didn't make it any easier on the Rebels by seasoning the heat with two nasty curveballs. One of them, he said, was the first breaking ball he'd thrown for a strike "in five weeks."
That's almost unfair. Or, to use the word Kenley chose to describe the hook that dropped in for a strike, "gross."
Georgia's long Hoover nightmare is over
They knew. Coach Scott Stricklin made sure of it during the team breakdown after their last practice in Athens before heading to Hoover. The Georgia players knew their program had not won a game in the SEC Tournament since 2011.
"We kinda used that to put a chip on our shoulder to come in here and play hard and try to get a win," shortstop Cam Shepherd said, "and that's what we did."
Shepherd's two-run walk-off homer in the bottom of the ninth broke a scoreless tie with Texas A&M to end Georgia's Hoover losing streak. That streak had hit Stricklin in the face last year. Back at the team hotel after losing their first game to the Aggies, he saw the stat about the streak on the SEC Network.
"I told the players I do not want to see that anymore," Stricklin said. "We talked about it. I don't believe in jinxes. I believe in talking about stuff."
The victory came with a bonus for the Bulldogs. SEC baseball legend Ron Polk, who coached two years at Georgia between longer stints at Mississippi State, stopped by to visit with Stricklin and his players in the postgame interview room.
"When you win," Stricklin said, "Coach Polk comes to see you."
Now a UAB volunteer assistant, Polk's not surprised at the success Georgia is enjoying. The Bulldogs are a lock to be a national seed in the NCAA Tournament for the second straight year.
After spending two seasons in Athens, he said, "I thought it was a gold mine."
Cam's the man for Georgia
Cam Shepherd started his 174th consecutive game at shortstop for Georgia in the team's SEC Tournament opener against Texas A&M. In the previous 173 games, the junior shortstop had never hit a walk-off home run. The closest he'd come, he said, was a walk-off sacrifice fly.
Never say never.
With two out and one on in the bottom of the ninth Wednesday, Shepherd lifted a hanging breaking ball just over the left-field wall and Texas A&M's leaping Cam Blake. That shot broke a scoreless tie to give No. 3 seed Georgia the 2-0 victory, its first win in the tournament since 2011.
As he was rounding first base, Shepherd looked up and saw Blake jump to try and bring the ball back, "and my heart just dropped." But the ball dropped just over the fence.
"Clutch play by a clutch player," Georgia coach Scott Stricklin said.
It was one of only three hits all day by the Bulldogs, all of them in the last two innings. Texas A&M starter Chris Weber set an SEC Tournament record by throwing a no-hitter through 7.1 innings.
"We knew we were getting no-hit," Shepherd said. "We were talking about it in the dugout, trying to jinx it."
Georgia's Randon Jernigan ended the no-hitter in the eighth. An inning later, Shepherd ended the game. His walk-off homer earned him the honor of wearing the spiked gold "savage helmet," the baseball equivalent of Georgia football's "savage pads."
Texas A&M's Weber gem
In the long history of the SEC Tournament, no pitcher had ever carried a no-hitter through 7.1 innings - until Wednesday morning.
Texas A&M freshman left-hander Chris Weber baffled the Georgia bats until, with one out in the eighth inning, No. 9 hitter Randon Jernigan bounced a single into left field to spoil the no-no.
Weber said he knew he was throwing a no-hitter, "but it wasn't my focus. It was a little disappointing they got the hit, but I wasn't worried about anybody scoring."
Weber departed after giving up that hit. His stellar performance in the longest outing of his young college career - with 106 pitches, 68 for strikes - went unrewarded after Georgia hit a game-winning walk-off homer in the ninth.
Prior to Weber, two SEC pitchers had carried no-hitters through seven full innings in the tournament. A&M teammate John Doxakis did it last year against Auburn, and Tennessee's James Adkins against Vanderbilt in 2007. Both gave up leadoff singles in the eighth inning.
How good was Weber against the veteran Georgia lineup?
"When you see LJ Talley not comfortable at the plate, you know the guy's got good stuff because LJ Talley's as good a hitter as there is in the country," Georgia coach Scott Stricklin said. "I thought (Weber) was outstanding. I really hate that he's a freshman. (Texas A&M coach) Rob Childress has a great staff. They always have arms, but man, that's a special pitching staff."
Childress said Weber didn't just pop out of nowhere to throw so well Wednesday, even though he had just seven starts in 21 appearances, with only one previous start against an SEC opponent.
"The last eight weeks, Chris has been as good as anybody we have," Childress said. "That's a bold statement considering the guys we run out there."
Is this heaven? No, it's Hoover
It was a Tuesday. The top four teams in the league, all of them ranked in the top six nationally, weren't playing. School was still in session at many area schools. It was the first time this year the thermometer hit 90. And did we mention it was a Tuesday?
If you were looking for reasons not to come to the first day of the SEC Baseball Tournament, there were plenty of them handy. And still 14,263 fans brought the noise and the feel Hoover is famous for.
No one was more excited about the atmosphere than Auburn outfielder Judd Ward. It helped his mood that he plated one run with a perfect safety squeeze bunt and two more with a home run as the Tigers won, but it was obvious this event just means more to the sophomore from Russellville, Ala.
"I've been watching this tournament since I was born," Ward said. "I love this tournament. Coming out here and competing in it and being able to be a part of it, it's one of the best feelings in the world - especially with the atmosphere we brought tonight with all the fans. It was awesome."
Tuesday's first session - which started at 9:30 a.m. - featured Texas A&M's walk-off win over Florida and an Ole Miss nailbiter over Missouri. Those games drew 4,135. The second session - which ended at 12:16 a.m. - was highlighted by Auburn's hard-fought victory over Tennessee and LSU's slugfest past South Carolina. It attracted 10,128.
Last year's SEC Baseball Tournament drew a total attendance of 144,086, the second largest overall number in history behind 2016's total of 150,064. With a dry and sunny forecast for the rest of the week, this tournament could make a run at the top spot.