SEC Baseball Tournament Blog: Thursday
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.
Brother, can you spare a run?
It started with a 1-0 victory in which the winning team had two hits. It ended with a 1-0 victory in which the winning team had three hits. Thursday had to be the most stomach-churning, nail-biting day in SEC Tournament history.
Every pitch mattered. Any pitch could've been the difference in any of the four games. Three of those games were decided by one run. The blowout? It was a two-run decision.
If you don't believe great pitching beats great hitting, or that the best conference in college baseball is as good from top to bottom as it's ever been, you haven't been to the Hoover Met this week.
Look at Thursday's scores:
- Ole Miss 1, Texas A&M 0
- LSU 4, Auburn 3
- Georgia 3, Arkansas 1
- Vanderbilt 1, Mississippi State 0
If the pitching got any better, there would be perfect games left and right. If the competition got any tighter, every game would end in a tie. Chicks may dig the long ball, but if you appreciate pitching and defense, here it is.
The nightcap between two of the top three teams in the national rankings was the perfect cherry on top for baseball purists. Ethan Small, the ace for No. 3 Mississippi State, worked seven innings and struck out 11, allowing just three hits. He shackled the two candidates for national player of the year from No. 2 Vanderbilt - Austin Martin and JJ Bleday - to a combined 0 for 5.
Yet he allowed the game's only run and took the loss because the Commodores ran one power arm after another to the mound.
"When you get in a situation like that," Vandy coach Tim Corbin said, "you can feel that you're in a good game."
Thursday was the peak for shutdown starters and relentless relief pitchers, but this entire tournament to date has revealed an army of superior arms. The parade of superior pitching performances has kept the games shrink-wrap tight.
Fun facts: Eleven of the 12 games have been decided by one or two runs. The losing team has been shut out three times and held to one run three times. The winning team has scored three runs or less five times.
Vanderbilt's 11-1 run-rule victory over Auburn on Wednesday is the outlier. The other 11 games have been decided by a combined 16 runs.
"Every year I keep saying this league can't get any better," Auburn coach Butch Thompson said. "And it keeps doing it. Iron sharpens iron. If you persevere and hang in there in this league, you'll be rewarded."
The reward for true baseball fans: Three more days and five more games.
- 3 p.m. -- Game 13: No. 2 Arkansas vs. No. 7 Ole Miss
- 30 minutes after Game 13 -- Game 14: No. 4 Mississippi State vs. No. 5 LSU
The curse of the pitch count
Isaiah Campbell understands it. Pitch counts are part of life as a starting pitcher, especially when you're throwing in the SEC Tournament and a national seed in the NCAA Tournament awaits next week.
That doesn't mean the Arkansas ace has to like it.
"I'm a competitor," Campbell said after going only five innings and getting no decision in Thursday's 3-1 loss to Georgia. "Having a pitch count sucks, but it's baseball. Hopefully, we have a long journey ahead of us."
If the Hogs are going to return to the championship series of the College World Series - they lost in a decisive Game 3 to Oregon State last year - Campbell will be a key. The 6-4, 235-pound junior right-hander, who's 10-1 this season as the Friday night starter, didn't have his best stuff against Georgia. He still limited the Bulldogs to no runs and two hits in his five innings and exited according to plan after throwing 71 pitches.
The day before, Arkansas coach Dave Van Horn took up for Campbell by taking a subtle shot at his fellow coaches, who left Campbell off the All-SEC teams this year.
"We got a guy that went 10-1 with a 2.50 ERA, and he can't make first or second team," Van Horn said. "He's on the Golden Spikes list (as a semifinalist for national player of the year), and he can't make All-SEC."
As Campbell said, though, this season's journey for him and Arkansas is far from over.
Time to recalibrate that radar gun?
After every pitch of the SEC Tournament, the new state-of-the-art video board at the Hoover Met flashes the pitch speed in miles per hour. Those readings may not be totally up to speed.
That was the verdict from Georgia coach Scott Stricklin and Arkansas coach Dave Van Horn after the Bulldogs beat the Razorbacks 3-1 Thursday. What made them both sit up and take notice were the readings on the ferocious fastballs of Georgia starter Cole Wilcox.
The 6-foot-5, 235-pound freshman phenom limited one of the best batting orders in the nation to three hits and one unearned run during his 6.1 innings of work, which included five strikeouts and four walks. The video board clocked Wilcox's heaters in the 94-mph range.
"The board up there is wrong," Van Horn said. "He's throwing 95-97."
Stricklin said Wilcox has hit 100 mph on the radar gun several times this season - with movement - and believed "it was 95-98" Thursday.
Stricklin and Van Horn both figured the readings in general are about 4 mph slow. Don't think their pitchers don't notice.
"Our pitchers all think they've got dead arms right now," Stricklin joked. "Our egos are getting hurt."
Stricklin explained that Wilcox had to check his ego at the door after arriving at Georgia as a high school All-American with great expectations "to strike everybody out." He was scuffed up a bit in the fall and early this season, but dealing with that adversity has only made him better.
"It ticked him off," Stricklin said. "It's a positive thing in the long run he's had some failure."
Auburn finds a positive to take home from Hoover
You have to hand it to Butch Thompson. After one of the more jarring defeats of his career, the Auburn baseball coach looked on the bright side Thursday.
It couldn't have been easy. He'd just watched his team get eliminated from the SEC Tournament by LSU on a stunning play, a walk-off wild pitch and throwing error at the plate that brought in the tying run from third base and the winning run from second.
But as difficult as LSU 4, Auburn 3 was for him to witness, it was encouraging compared to the 11-1 run-rule loss to Vanderbilt the day before.
"Unusual, tough way to lose it, but I enjoyed our guys' bounceback from yesterday's contest," Thompson said. "We talked about pace, and we talked about pride."
Auburn started faster against LSU, staying within a run until taking the lead in the seventh, then taking the lead back an inning later after LSU tied it. Starter Jack Owen gave Auburn a chance through his 5.2 innings. Reliever Cody Greenhill showed his durability, throwing 42 pitches over 2.2 innings before giving way for the final, fateful batter.
It was Greenhill's third appearance in seven days after throwing 90 pitches in last weekend's win over LSU and 16 in Tuesday's SEC Tournament victory over Tennessee.
"That kid's a courageous young man," LSU coach Paul Mainieri said.
The Thursday exit from the SEC Tournament wasn't the plan, but Thompson has made Auburn baseball relevant again in this event. His Tigers have won at least one game in Hoover each of the last three seasons. It's the first time the program has done that since 1997-99.
More of that Hoover voodoo the LSU Tigers do so well
Of course the pitch in the dirt kicked away from the Auburn catcher, who couldn't find it for precious seconds as the tying run sprinted home from third.
Of course the sliding hustle of the Auburn first baseman to retrieve the ball went unrewarded as his throw to cut down the tying run at the plate missed the target and headed toward the dugout, allowing the winning run to score all the way from second base.
Of course Auburn's one-run lead in the bottom of the ninth wasn't enough, not even against a team running on fumes and pride after its 17-inning gut-punch defeat in the middle of the night.
This is LSU. This is Hoover. LSU 4, Auburn 3 is the kind of thing that happens when the Tigers return to their safe space every May.
They find a way. They cook up new ways. The team and its fans pack their spices, voices and passion and turn the Hoover Met into Alabama Box Stadium. Or Death Valley North.
"I feel like since I've been a kid I've been watching LSU win games like that," shortstop Josh Smith said. "I feel like it happens every time LSU's here. That's why we love playing here."
As inconceivable as it was that LSU would lose the longest game in SEC Tournament history the night before, a 6-hour-and-43-minute epic against Mississippi State, it was even more improbable that the same bedraggled bunch could come back just hours later to stage a ninth-inning comeback.
Coach Paul Mainieri joked at a way-too-early team breakfast Thursday that he'd asked the SEC to push back the Auburn start time but the conference refused. Since a forfeit was out of the question, it was up to pitcher Landon Marceaux to eat up innings, and he did, 6.2 of them. It was up to catcher Saul Garza, after going 12 1/2 of the 17 innings the night before, to summon the will to get back in his crouch, and he did that and more.
It was Garza taking the wheel in the middle of the winning rally, singling the suddenly scintillating Giovanni DiGiacomo to third and grinding to second on the throw. That set the table for a pinch-runner, a pinch-hitter, a vanishing breaking ball in the dirt and the ensuing chaos that sent the players and the entire Rally Possum Nation into mass hysteria.
In less than 24 hours, the Tigers saw the voodoo they do so well in this house fail them and then return with a vengeance.
"Every day you show up to the field, you're liable to see something you've never seen before," Mainieri said. "I can't recall in 37 years (of coaching) that I've ever seen that."
Maybe not that wacky game-ending play, but that action-adventure thriller that ends with the Tigers stirring the pot, savoring the meal and sticking around for one more day? Yeah. We've all seen that movie before.
No hits, no worries for Ole Miss
Doug Nikhazy wasn't totally satisfied with his performance Thursday. Sure, he went a career-high eight full innings, throwing 107 pitches, allowing just three hits and no runs, matching the no-hit brilliance of Texas A&M starter John Doxakis almost pitch for pitch, but the Ole Miss freshman lefty saw a dark lining to that silver cloud.
"I don't think I ever found it today on the mound, like having complete control of all my pitches," he said.
Wait. What? If Nikhazy ever does "find it," he'll be almost untouchable.
His eight shutout innings kept the Rebels even in a scoreless tie until they touched the A&M bullpen for two hits and the only run necessary in a 1-0 victory. That'll keep them in Hoover for another day as they work to defend their 2018 SEC Tournament championship.
Nikhazy has been a rock for the Rebels as a rookie. He leads the pitching staff with seven wins - he's 7-3 overall - and he's the only player in the league to win SEC Freshman of the Week honors twice during the 2019 season.
A&M put runners on the corners twice against Nikhazy in the fourth and eighth innings, but each time, he pitched out of the jam.
"The team has so much confidence when he has the ball," Ole Miss coach Mike Bianco said. "He's one of those guys that just doesn't have bad innings. He's a fighter and a competitor."
Based on his postgame comments, he's harder on himself than opposing hitters are.
Walking the SEC/NCAA Tournament tightrope
Rob Childress came to that challenging place Thursday that SEC baseball coaches know so well because it's unique to their sport. He had to make a strategic decision in Texas A&M's elimination game against Ole Miss with one eye on winning the SEC Tournament and the other on having his team ready for an NCAA Regional next week.
A&M starter John Doxakis had thrown a brilliant game, holding the Rebels hitless through eight innings with 10 strikeouts. That no-hit stretch broke a tournament record Doxakis had tied last year and teammate Chris Weber had bested Wednesday.
Doxakis wanted to pitch the ninth in a scoreless tie. Childress examined the immediate evidence - his starter's 99-pitch effort and the fact he'd never pitched longer than eight innings for the Aggies - factored it into the bigger picture and went to the bullpen. Ole Miss got two hits and the only run necessary to win and advance 1-0.
"He did more than we needed him to do or asked him to do, just like he has all year long," Childress said. "He's as competitive a guy as I've coached in a long time. It was a hard decision to make, but it was the right decision to make. He's going to be on the mound again for us in eight days."
Ole Miss coach Mike Bianco called Childress' decision to pull Doxakis "tough but smart."
"You've got to be careful in this tournament," Bianco said. "As much as everybody wants to win it, you have to be careful because there is a next week. You're here to win a championship, but there's a fine line. I think we all struggle with that, but I totally understand."
Humbling and unforgiving: That's SEC Baseball
What if I told you that the special Texas A&M pitching staff delivered not one but two record-setting starts this week? That Chris Weber broke an SEC Tournament record shared by teammate John Doxakis by throwing 7.1 no-hit innings Wednesday against Georgia and Doxakis took the record back by throwing 8 no-hit innings Thursday against Ole Miss?
What if I told you that, despite that mastery, the Aggies lost both games and headed home? The hard, cold numbers:
Georgia 2, Texas A&M 0.
Ole Miss 1, Texas A&M 0.
"In so many ways, this league is very humbling and very unforgiving," Ole Miss coach Mike Bianco said. "All teams in the country would like to pitch like that."
The trouble for Texas A&M was, Georgia and Ole Miss pitched like that, too, and the Aggies essentially came up a couple of key hits short.
"Hopefully, we're saving those (hits) up for next week," A&M coach Rob Childress said. "The big hits are due to come our way."
The only question for the Aggies now is whether the Division I Baseball Committee will choose them to host an NCAA Tournament regional. Their 37-21-1 overall record and 16-13-1 SEC record, with an NCAA RPI of 15 through Wednesday, should have them in prime position.
"We feel like we've done enough (to host)," Childress said. "We certainly would love to be at home, and we feel we've done enough to do that."