COLUMN: The way it was supposed to be
All season long, Florida, South Carolina and Vanderbilt played a game of one-upmanship in the tough-as-nails SEC, each one holding onto to the top spot in one of the several polls that circulate weekly in the college baseball world.
Virginia jumped into the fray every once in a while and even claimed the top national seed when the NCAA Tournament field was unveiled.
And the Cavaliers proved worthy of their SEC brethren in three of the four games they played – shutting California down in two of them and playing a co-starring role in a 13-inning epic battle against South Carolina on Friday night in the semifinal round.
But this season and then this College World Series turned into the SEC show right off the bat.
Almost every game was competitive for stretches, but the most entertaining games all involved SEC teams. When it came to gut-check time, Florida, South Carolina and Vanderbilt had a decided edge.
That edge? Those three teams had been in those situations so often this season – including in the series of round-robin games each other – that they didn't blink.
A glance at the stat sheet through 12 games shows South Carolina owning the best team batting average (.274) and ERA (0.68) among the eight teams at the CWS with Florida, Vanderbilt and Virginia filling out the top three in both categories.
The Gators and Commodores each lead the field with 17 runs. Vandy bashed four of the seven home runs pumped out of the new stadium, and between them South Carolina and Florida have tagged 16 of and the 28 doubles in 218 innings.
The most impressive stat of the CWS? No SEC team has lost a game outside the conference so far. Take that a step back to the Super Regionals and Mississippi State is included as an SEC team whose only NCAA Tournament losses came to fellow league foes.
This is the same Mississippi State team that narrowly avoided being swept in the final regular season by an LSU team that didn't even get an invitation to the NCAA Tournament. Those Tigers were also a ninth innings away from handing Florida a loss in its SEC season opener and a swing or two away from beating the Gators the next day as well.
Likewise, last week after one of their two victories over North Carolina, the Vanderbilt players were chatting about how tough a series against Kentucky was. The SEC's 11th-place team.
The Wildcats beat the Commodores and FLorida once apiece and lost three games against Soth Carolina by six runs total, one by a run in extra innings.
Florida's hex over Vanderbilt this season is the only thing that kept the Commodores from keeping their season alive. Anybody not think Vandy was clearly the third best in the CWS this season?
There's no question there are good teams all over the country and a handful of leagues where the level of baseball is close to the SEC's intense competitiveness.
Close only counts in a few things, as the cliché goes, though. As the 12-game tuneup for the national championship series has shown, nobody plays better baseball than the SEC.
And now, for at least two and most likely three more nights, we'll get to sit back and watch Florida and South Carolina to settle – once and for all – who gets to claim the spot as the king of the SEC hill this season.
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