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

SEC Baseball Tournament Blog: Saturday

112 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.

10:00 p.m.

The attendance bar has just been raised

They've been playing the SEC Baseball Tournament in various forms in various places since 1977. They've played the tournament at the Hoover Met every year since 1998 and on two occasions before that, or 24 times overall.

All of which makes the following numbers stand out.

The attendance of 12,872 for Saturday's semifinal session pushed the week's total to 152,212, a new tournament record. That's before we get to Sunday's championship game between Vanderbilt and Ole Miss, which will only add to the record and set the bar higher for the future.

The previous record of 150,064 was set in 2016.

Sunday's Schedule

2 p.m. ● Game 17: No. 1 seed Vanderbilt vs. No. 7 Ole Miss

9:40 p.m.

Reflecting on the end of a great four-year Hoover run

It only seems as if Antoine Duplantis has been in the LSU lineup for every one of the 24 SEC Tournaments played at the Hoover Met. In truth, he concluded his four-year run here with a bang.

The senior outfielder went 2 for 4 with a double and a triple Saturday. He was one of the few bright spots for the Tigers as their somewhat surprising seventh straight run to the semifinals ended in a 13-4 loss to Vanderbilt.

That triple made Duplantis LSU's all-time leader in that category. His two hits gave him 349 for his career, moving him within four of passing Eddy Furniss (1995-98) as the program's career hit leader. This week, he became the SEC career leader in at-bats. He now has 1,084, which puts him second all-time in Division I baseball.

It would take a hard-target record book search to know for sure, but Duplantis has to be one of the winningest players in tournament history. He walked away for the last time with a 14-5 SEC Tournament record, which included the 2017 championship and a runner-up finish in 2018. The Tigers reached at least the semifinals all four of his college years.

Duplantis didn't want to reflect on any of those accomplishments Saturday. He said he'd prefer to wait until his final college season is finished. LSU coach Paul Mainieri didn't mind musing about his senior leader.

"Antoine's just been a remarkable player for us," Mainieri said. "I just love the kid to death. He's been of the favorite players I've ever coached."

Duplantis did say he'll walk away with good memories of his final week in Hoover from a team standpoint. Going 3-2 here, knowing the Tigers were "inches away" from a second win over Mississippi State in their 17-inning marathon, he said, "I think that just sets us up for positive momentum into the postseason."

9:00 p.m.

A chip off the old Rock

Despite carving up LSU in the semifinals with 13 hits and 13 runs, Vanderbilt coach Tim Corbin started his postgame assessment with a compliment for starting pitcher Kumar Rocker.

In his first postseason start, the freshman allowed just one run in his five innings to get the win and improve to 8-5. Rocker now has gone at least five innings in 10 of his last 11 starts.

"It all starts on the mound," Corbin said, noting that Rocker quieted "a very potent offensive team."

Rocker, the son of all-time great Auburn defensive lineman Tracy Rocker, didn't sound as impressed with himself. After all, after averaging about a strikeout an inning all season, the 6-foot-4, 255-pound right-hander punched out just two Tigers.

"My fastball command was working," he said. "The breaker wasn't that good."

Corbin said his All-SEC freshman - the SEC's No. 3-ranked prospect for the 2021 MLB Draft, according to D1 Baseball - is "all business in everything he does."

Sounds a lot like his father, the first SEC football player to win both the Lombardi Award and Outland Trophy.

"Kumar's a tough critic on Kumar," Corbin said. "That's why he's going to be good."

8:45 p.m.

Vanderbilt's batting order: A bottomless pit of slashers

Eleven of the 12 teams here have done their best to keep the fans on the edge of their seats with a succession of low-scoring affairs undecided until the final pitch.

Then there's Vanderbilt, the No. 2 team in the nation in the polls and No. 1 team in the RPI.

Looking everything like the team that bludgeoned its way to the SEC regular-season title, the Commodores have sprayed hits all over the Hoover Met and challenged the scoreboard operator to keep up.

Thirteen of the week's 16 games have been decided by one or two runs. Blame Vandy for two of the three that got out of hand.

The Vandy Boys started their run with an 11-1 beatdown of Auburn, and after showing their pitching prowess with a 1-0 gem to survive Mississippi State, went nuclear again Saturday to send LSU home 13-4. The Commodores have scored 10 runs or more against an SEC opponent 12 times this season.

Everyone knows the slashers at the top of the lineup in 1-2 hitters Austin Martin and JJ Bleday, both candidates for national player of the year. Bleday blasted his nation-leading 26th homer against LSU, but what makes Vanderbilt unusually hard to handle is the production all the way through the order.

Pat DeMarco, Ty Duvall and Harrison Ray - a k a the No. 6-8 hitters - combined to go 7 for 12 Saturday with seven RBIs and four runs. Duvall, the DH, matched his career highs with three hits and four RBIs, which included a three-run home run.

"I don't see the bottom of our order as the bottom of the order," Vanderbilt coach Tim Corbin said. "I think our parts are interchangeable."

6:00 p.m.

Put me in again and again and again, coach

Before it's time to head to the bullpen, Ole Miss closer Parker Caracci likes to stand next to his head coach in the dugout.

"Maybe strategically," Mike Bianco said.

The junior right-hander reminded his coach Saturday that his appearances Thursday and Friday at the SEC Tournament, with him saving Ole Miss victories each day, lasted just one inning each. Which meant Caracci believed he could go more than one inning in the semifinal against Georgia if necessary.

"Parker's a bulldog," Ole Miss starter Houston Roth said. "He tells coach every day, 'I'm ready to go.' I don't think there's ever been a time when he's said he's sore and can't pitch. He always wants the ball in his hands to end the game."

Caracci's time Saturday came with two outs in the eighth inning with two outs, a two-run lead and a runner on third. He got a pop-up to end that inning, then found trouble in the ninth.

Or so it seemed. With runners on second and third who could tie the game, Caracci put down the threat with a strikeout and a flyball. It was his third save in three days, tying the record for an entire SEC Tournament with one game to play.

5:40 p.m.

Grae Kessinger puts his foot down for Ole Miss

Grae Kessinger freely admits he'd been struggling at the plate and not just in the SEC Tournament. Not that anyone around the Ole Miss team could tell by his demeanor.

"He's the consummate professional as a college baseball player," Ole Miss coach Mike Bianco said. "He's steady Eddie. You can't tell if he's hitting .200 or .400. That's why he's so good and is probably the best shortstop in college baseball."

Heredity helps, too. Kessinger's grandfather, Don, played shortstop for 16 years in the major leagues, mostly with the Chicago Cubs.

His grandson lived in the moment Saturday. Despite his recent rough patch with the bat, Grae was able to turn around a major league fastball for a two-run home run ... and go 3 for 4 ... and key a 5-3 victory to send the Rebels back to the tournament championship game for a second straight year.

Georgia fireballer Emerson Hancock had gotten a fastball by him earlier in his third at-bat, Kessinger said, but "I felt like I was on it, and I saw it well. I told myself to get my foot down early, be on time for the fastball and put a good swing on it."

He did.

The entire Ole Miss offense finally busted out Saturday. The 11 hits was more than the Rebels had put together in any of their previous 11 games. They had 10 hits combined in their three previous games in Hoover.

"Today our offense did what we can do," Kessinger said. "You could see the guys were really locked in."

5:10 p.m.

A national title for Georgia? Why not?

The one-and-only time Georgia won the College World Series title - in 1990 - none of its current players were alive. The Bulldogs haven't been to Omaha since 2008, but their coach believes his 44-15 team is fully capable of making that kind of deep run in the NCAA Tournament.

That was the message he delivered to them after their SEC Tournament run ended with a 5-3 loss to Ole Miss in Saturday's first semifinal. The past doesn't have to be prologue. After all, the Bulldogs hadn't won a game in this tournament since 2011 but still went 2-1 here.

"The message I gave our players is they should be proud of what we did to get to Saturday," Stricklin said. "Our challenge now is to win our last game. We think it's a very good goal for us to have. We think it's a realistic goal for us to have. If we win our last game, we'll be national champions."

5:00 p.m.

No blister, no worries for Georgia pitcher Emerson Hancock

When Georgia starter Emerson Hancock left the semifinal loss to Ole Miss in the fourth inning with an injury on his pitching hand, it didn't look good. It looked like a blister. Blisters can be one of a pitcher's worst enemies, and the Bulldogs have more work to do starting next week in the NCAA Tournament.

The sophomore right-hander has been a big part of Georgia's run to a No. 6 national ranking by DI Baseball with an RPI of 3. After getting a no-decision Saturday, he's 8-2 with a 1.31 ERA.

Coach Scott Stricklin delivered some good news after the game: It wasn't a blister. Turns out, Hancock cut a cuticle on the top of his thumb with his index finger.

"They couldn't stop the bleeding," Stricklin said. "Just a freak thing. That's not going to affect him (going forward)."

Hancock was on a pitch count anyway Saturday. At 64 pitches when he got hurt, he'd about reached his limit, Stricklin said. Before the injury, Hancock had been hitting 98 mph on the radar, as measured on the stadium video board, but Ole Miss touched him for six hits and three earned runs in his 3.2 innings.

Despite that, catcher Mason Meadows said, "I thought he was pretty much on top of his game."

4:30 p.m.

Wanna talk tough? That's Georgia catcher Mason Meadows

Catchers by nature are tough because they have to be, but Georgia's Mason "Moose" Meadows has taken toughness to a new level this season.

On March 24, the redshirt sophomore fouled a ball directly off his face against LSU, suffering facial fractures. His eye was swollen shut. The immediate reaction: "Oh, no, his career's over," Georgia coach Scott Stricklin thought. The initial prognosis: He almost certainly would need surgery.

On April 9, after missing just nine games, without requiring surgery, Meadows returned to the team and the starting lineup. He got a hit in his first game back in the batter's box.

"It was unbelievable," Stricklin said. "He did a lot of praying. A lot of people did a lot of praying for him."

Still, coming back was a struggle. It took Meadows time to feel comfortable again standing in against live pitching.

On Saturday at the Hoover Met, two months after that scary injury, Meadows blasted a two-run home run to give Georgia an early lead over Ole Miss in an SEC Tournament semifinal. It was just his third homer of the season.

"It means more than you know," he said. "I've finally started to feel like myself. It's always good when you get the barrel on the ball to help the team like that."

Meadows also worked a walk in the ninth inning as Georgia tried to come back, but the rally fell short in a 5-3 defeat.

"He's a big part of our team," Stricklin said, "a big reason why we're here in Hoover and a big reason why we're hosting a regional next week."

So yeah, it's true. Catchers are different from you and me and other baseball players, and not just because they wear armor. Meadows has added a chapter to that tradition of toughness.

2:00 p.m.

Just a little more deja vu for LSU

The expectations for LSU baseball are so high that arriving in Hoover with a No. 17 national ranking and a No. 5 seed in the SEC Tournament felt like underachievement. Then the Tigers started doing what they usually do here.

Acting like the traditional power they are.

"This tournament always seems to bring out the best in us," LSU coach Paul Mainieri said.

Even after losing Wednesday's 17-inning epic to Mississippi State, LSU found its way back to today's semifinals by beating Auburn on a two-run walk-off wild pitch and State in a one-sided rematch. This is the seventh straight year the Tigers have reached the tournament semifinals. At least.

Deep into his 13th season in Baton Rouge, Mainieri is well aware of the impossibly high expectations that come with the job.

"We always felt good about ourselves," he said Friday night. "Outside people expect us to win every game. We'd have had a much better regular season if a couple of pitchers had stayed healthy."

LSU is 37-23 heading into today's semifinal against regular-season champ Vanderbilt. That may not impress the casual observer familiar with the program's six national titles, but look inside the numbers. The Tigers have beaten soon-to-be national seed Mississippi State three times in five games. They've won seven of their last nine games, and their RPI stands at the moment at 16.

LSU has 21 wins over Top-50 RPI teams, the fifth-highest total in the country. Mainieri hopes the Division I Baseball Committee looks closely at those numbers as it decides which teams will host NCAA regionals next week.

"Hopefully, this gets us a hosting opportunity," he said. "I'm proud of our team."

10:40 a.m.

On Ole Miss and the power of the powder blues

How do you choose an outfit every morning? For college baseball teams, with an increasing number of uniform combinations, more thought goes into wardrobe than you might think.

Ole Miss coach Mike Bianco discussed the uniform choice of the day with his team before Friday's elimination game against Arkansas.

"He's not a superstitious guy but ...," leadoff hitter Thomas Dillard said.

But the Rebels love what they call "the powder blues." Powder blue jerseys. Matching powder blue pants. Powder blue seems to equal power for the Rebels.

"I guess look good, feel good, play good," Dillard said.

Not to mention, Ole Miss had worn its navy blue jerseys and white pants Wednesday and lost to Arkansas.

Back in their favorite colors for the second straight day, the Rebels dismissed the Hogs 3-2 to advance to today's noon semifinal against Georgia in pursuit of their second straight SEC Tournament championship. Of course, having won seven of their last eight SEC Tournament games, they'll wear the powder blues again.

Bianco explained that there is a psychology behind choosing a uniform before each game.

"I am a believer in confidence and feeling good," he said. "If they think a certain thing works, I think that matters. To say it doesn't is ludicrous. Is that superstition or is it routine?"

Color the Rebels believers in the power of the powder blues.