By Steve Parkhurst
The top twelve teams of the Southeastern Conference worked their way to Hoover, Alabama for this week's conference championship.
The opening day honors went to Florida and Kentucky to get things started. Florida’s Jacob Young homered on the first pitch of the bottom of the first, the beginning of a two-run frame. That was all the offense the Gators needed, even though they added two more runs before taking the opener 4-1.
Tommy Mace was on the mound for the Gators and improved to 6-1 with the win in five innings of work allowing just the one run. Sean Harney suffered the loss while only allowing one earned run over 4 1/3 innings, the three unearned runs were the difference in the outcome.
Alabama scored six in the third inning of Tuesday’s second game, powered by a three-run, Jackson Tate home run. Alabama defeated South Carolina 9-3. Starter Tyler Ras (7-4) pitched six innings for the win. Brock Guffey (2) pitched the final three innings, allowing no runs, for the save.
Georgia and LSU matched up in the third game of the day, and they put on quite a show. Both teams did all their scoring in the first inning, making it the first time in SEC Tournament history (554 games) that all the runs by both teams were scored in the first inning.
While the Tigers scored a single run in the opening frame, the Bulldogs powered across four runs, led by Chaney Rogers who hit a two-out three-run double to give Georgia a 4-1 advantage. Eight innings later, that would be the final score. Jaden Woods (4-1) got the win for the Bulldogs.
Tuesday’s finale matched Ole Miss against Auburn.
Two home runs by Ole Miss, including one inside the park by Justin Bench (only the second inside the park home run in SEC Tournament history), combined with a 4-for-5 performance by shortstop Jacob Gonzalez powered Ole Miss to a 7-4 win over Auburn.
Doug Nikhazy (9-2) picked up the win for the Rebels. Nikhazy retired fourteen straight Tigers at one point. Taylor Broadway (13) earned the save in 2 1/3 innings to finish the game and to put Tuesday’s action to bed.
Wednesday started with Florida pounding Mississippi State 13-1. Florida had eighteen hits including at least one from every hitter in the starting lineup. Mississippi State scored their only run in the first to tie the game, and Florida led 9-1 after three innings. Hunter Barco (10-2) collected the win with a complete game, seven-inning performance.
Alabama and Tennessee were the matchup for the second game on Wednesday. A low-scoring affair throughout, Alabama led 2-0 after the sixth inning. The Volunteers tied things in the seventh inning on the back of two Alabama errors. The two teams remained tied into the eleventh inning when Owen Diodati (2-for-4) hit an RBI single that would prove to be the winning run for Alabama as they took the game 3-2. Chase Lee (7-0) got the win with 4 2/3 innings pitched in relief.
Arkansas and Georgia faced off in the next game, and a six-run second inning all but decided the contest. Cullen Smith (2-for-4) hit a home run to right to increase the lead to 8-0.
Lael Lockhart pitched seven innings allowing just two runs; the two runs came via a long ball by Corey Collins with two outs in the seventh. Heston Tole pitched the final two innings without allowing a run; he struck out four of the six outs he recorded. Georgia had three total hits in the 11-2 loss.
Vanderbilt and Ole Miss closed out the action on Wednesday with a classic ballgame that was not decided until the final pitch in the bottom of the ninth.
Ole Miss scored three in the sixth to take a 3-1 lead before Vanderbilt tied the game in the bottom half of the sixth. After the Rebels added a run in the eighth, they led 4-3 going to the bottom of the ninth.
In the ninth, a single and a walk preceded a game-tying single by Isaiah Thomas which then put runners on the corners. Dominic Keegan then laced a 1-2 pitch to right field scoring the winning run and handing the Commodores a 5-4 walk-off win.
Thursday got going with a game between Tennessee and Mississippi State. Pete Derkay keyed a four-run second inning for the Volunteers with a three-run home run. A four run-eighth by Tennessee ended the game and eliminated Mississippi State 12-2 in an eight-inning, run-rule victory. Chad Dallas (10-1) earned the win as he pitched 6 2/3 innings allowing just one run.
As Ole Miss faced Georgia on Thursday, Kevin Graham got the Rebels on the board with a home run to right-center in the second inning. Jacob Gonzalez and Peyton Chatagnier both went 2-for-4 and each had an RBI.
Drew McDaniel was terrific on the mound for the Rebels, pitching 6 2/3 innings, striking out eleven, and allowing just four hits. Brandon Johnson and Taylor Broadway followed McDaniel to preserve the 4-0 shutout which eliminated Georgia.
Alabama and Florida squared off in Thursday’s third game. Jacob Young (3-for-5) and Nathan Hickey (2-for-5) both homered for the Gators to lead the offense, while Franco Aleman threw seven scoreless innings.
Six Gators had multiple hits, and in an odd twist, no Florida batter had just one hit, every hitter had two or more hits. Alabama starter Dylan Smith allowed four runs in seven innings and struck out six and the Crimson Tide only trailed 4-0 when he departed after the seventh inning. Alabama would score two quiet runs while Florida added two more to take the game by a final of 7-2.
The marquee matchup of Arkansas and Vanderbilt had the promise of a good, low-scoring game. Vanderbilt jumped out to a quick 2-0 lead in the game’s opening frame. Vanderbilt ace Kumar Rocker departed in the fourth inning, having given up five runs in 3 1/3 innings pitched. For Rocker, six of his ten recorded outs were by strike out, but the five runs are evidence of an uneven performance.
Matt Goodheart provided three RBI for the Razorbacks while Ethan Nates drove in two of his own and Isaiah Thomas hit his twelfth home run of the year. Arkansas sent four pitchers to the mound in the contest, with Kevin Kopps tossing the final three innings and retiring all nine batters he faced, striking out five.
Asked about competing for the conference championship this weekend after the win on Thursday, Kopps said, “It would be incredible, just like the conference title that we won. We’re not just cruising through this tournament. We want to win every game that we have to play.”
Tennessee and Alabama played a game on Friday which was so one-sided the 11-0 final makes the game seem closer than it was. Volunteers starter Blade Tidwell threw six scoreless innings and allowed just two hits and the Tennessee offense went about punishing Alabama pitching. Leading 9-0 after the fourth, the game was effectively over with Tennessee tacking on two more runs in the sixth to set up the run-rule at the end of seven innings.
To close out the action on Friday and set up the Saturday semi-finals, Ole Miss took on Vanderbilt and their terrific starter, Jack Leiter. The Rebels got to Leiter in the second inning when he walked in a run and then a sacrifice fly put Ole Miss in front 2-0. Leiter was chased from the game in the seventh.
Tyler Myers, who started for the Rebels, was the better pitcher on this day. In only his third career start, Myers threw seven scoreless innings against the Commodores.
Kevin Graham homered for Ole Miss in the eighth for a 4-0 lead. Vanderbilt scored one, but it was not enough as the Rebels shut the door behind Brandon Johnson for the 4-1win. Leiter took the loss, only his third of the year as he fell to 8-3.
Saturday will feature two games, Tennessee and Florida along with Ole Miss and Arkansas, to determine who will compete for the SEC Championship on Sunday.