It's that time of year baseball fans. That time of year where the diaspora of SEC fans that live in Birmingham wonder, "can I leave work to watch my team play at the Hoover Met?"
Today, eight teams pair off in single elimination combat for the right to face one of the four monsters at the top of the league bracket. Those four have their tickets to the postseason punched as do two of the remaining eight. Four others playing today are playing wondering if their team will be eliminated from more than the SEC Tournament with a loss.
#6 Ole Miss vs #11 Alabama 9:30 a.m. CST
The tournament leads off with the homestanding Alabama Crimson Tide against the Ole Miss Rebels. Ole Miss took the season series from the Tide 2-1 but today the Rebels must face Geoffrey Bramblett who gave them fits in Oxford. Bramblett went seven strong innings in a 13-4 Alabama rout. Ole Miss going with Scott Weathersby who has a fantastic stat line but only has two starts in nine appearances in conference play. Against Alabama, Weathersby pitched 1.2 innings in relief, retiring all five batters he faced in an Ole Miss shutout win. Alabama has more on the line than Ole Miss. Ole Miss should be in the tournament win, lose, or draw. Alabama needs a deep tournament run to be considered for a regional. I pick Ole Miss in a low scoring game, 5-2.
#7 Missouri vs. #10 South Carolina, 12:30 a.m. CST
The noon game in the tournament is a fascinating matchup between a used-to-be and an almost-is. South Carolina struggled through an unusual rebuilding year while Missouri finished a .500 in conference play that left people wondering how they kept winning. Missouri took two of three from the Gamecocks in a tightly contested series in Columbia earlier this year. Both teams need deep runs in the tournament to be considered for a regional. In the Loser Leaves Town match, Missouri turns to Reggie McClain who torched the Gamecocks earlier this season. Not surprisingly, South Carolina is throwing its ace, Jack Wyncoop, who Auburn fans may remember less than fondly from the Cocks only win against the Tigers. Look for Frank Martin to challenge the cavernous Hoover Met outfield in an easy South Carolina victory, 8-3.
#9 Auburn vs. #8 Kentucky, 4:30 CST (if I leave work downtown at 4:00 can I beat traffic and will anyone notice?)
Now for the preview you've all been waiting for. Auburn and Kentucky didn't meet this year, but I'm still plenty pissed at the Cats for how last year's series went down. It was emblematic of everything that went wrong for the Tigers last spring. In the Sunday rubber match, Auburn scored four runs in an early inning for once because the Cats kept throwing balls to the Auburn players who just wanted to sacrifice themselves to move the runners over. Auburn later gave up two unearned runs in the 6th before the bullpen blew the game in the 9th. It caused me to rage drink over a baseball loss. I am so glad Auburn gets a shot at these Cats. A loss closes the door on Kentucky's postseason and would give me closure. Don't get me wrong Kentucky, in general, we're cool. Thanks for the horse racing, bourbon, and mountain scenery but for the next 24 hours, "lay on MacDuff and damned be he that first cries 'HOLD ENOUGH!'"
Neither team has listed a starter yet but I would expect Auburn to go with Cole Lipscomb who has become the ace with Keegan Thompson out and doubtful to return. Kentucky only has three regular starters so it will probably go with its Friday night guy, Zack Brown. Brown is fresh off a complete game shutout of Missouri so look for signs of fatigue early against the Tigers. If the Tigers can get to the bullpen early, they have a chance to put up big runs late as Kentucky only has one reliever with an ERA under 4.00.
Kentucky is led offensively by its all conference second baseman, Javon Shelby. Shelby hit .318 with nine homeruns. Second team All-SEC centerfielder Kyle Barrett is a singles machine who hit .352 and should take to the expansive Hoover Met like a duck takes to water. Another offensive threat is the speedy Hawaiian left fielder, Ka'ai Tom, Tom hit .368 with four homeruns and swiped 15 bags on 16 attempts.
I see this game as the reverse of last year's heartbreaker. Look for the starters to keep both offenses in check but for Auburn to pull it out in the last three innings for a 4-2 win.
For the record, I think Auburn makes a regional even if we lose but it will be significantly easier if we win.
#5 Arkansas vs. #12 Tennessee,
The nightcap for the day of madness has Arkansas facing Tennessee. On paper, Arkansas should chase the Vols back to Rocky Top easily but with round bats and round balls and 18-22 year old kids, strange things happen sometimes. Tennessee and Arkansas split the season series 1-1 in a rain shortened weekend. The Vols are below .500 on the season. It would take a miracle to get them to a Regional. Arkansas should be in no matter what happens this week in Hoover. Tennessee is throwing Andy Cox, who, despite his 3-3 record, was their most consistent starter in conference play. Cox threw seven strong innings, giving up four runs in Tennessee's win over the Hogs a few weeks back. Arkansas is going with Trey Killian who had a no decision against the Vols in that same game despite only giving up one earned run. I think the deep fences at the Met will neutralize Benintendi and the rest of Arkansas' big bats and allow Tennessee to escape with the improbable upset 6-4.
War Eagle everybody!