SEC Baseball Race Going Down To Final Pitches

Although the final weekend of conference regular season play starts on Friday, it is still unclear who is going to win the divisional titles and which eight teams will make the league tournament.

It will be the climactic weekend in one of the more interesting Southeastern Conference baseball races in recent history.

Going into the final weekend, three teams are tied for first place in the overall race and six teams are within a game of first place. Eleven teams remain mathematically in the running for the eight berths in next week's SEC Tournament at Hoover Metropolitan Stadium.

From top to bottom, baseball is surely the most competitive of all SEC sports. It should be a fun weekend.

Some of the storylines:

Ole Miss and Arkansas lead the West and Georgia leads the East. All are 17-10 in SEC play. LSU, Florida and South Carolina are 16-11. Any of those six could emerge from next weekend as the SEC regular-season champion. Chances are, there will be co-champions.

The big series in the East have South Carolina at Georgia and Florida at Tennessee. The big series in the West have LSU at Ole Miss and Auburn at Arkansas. The outcome of those three series will determine who wins it all.

But there's more.

The six contenders have locked up spots in the SEC Tournament. Vanderbilt needs only to win one at home against Kentucky to punch its ticket to Hoover. But Tennessee's hold on the eighth spot is precarious at best.

The Vols, eliminated on the last day of the regular season last year, lead Auburn by one game. If the Tigers can win one more at Arkansas than Tennessee wins at home against Florida, they will almost certainly squeeze into the tournament field.

Alabama and Mississippi State play in Tuscaloosa. Only if one sweeps the other can either realistically hope to make the field. And even then it would be a long shot at best.

Rest assured, folks in Hoover are pulling hard for Auburn, Alabama or Mississippi State to get around Tennessee. Those three provide, by far, the most fans for the tournament each year.

It's truly amazing how far SEC baseball has come in the past 20 years in terms of quality, commitment and interest. It's time for the SEC office to recognize that. It's the only SEC men's sport that can lose games to weather and not make them up. Sunday games are sometimes played under a curfew based on the travel plans of the visiting team. SEC officials say it's because they won't take a chance on players missing class time on Monday.

The outcome of the SEC race could conceivably turn on a team having to leave early to catch an airplane. That would not happen in any other sport and shouldn't happen in baseball.

That doesn't seem to be an issue for golf tournaments, which start with practice rounds at midweek. It doesn't seem to be an issue for midweek basketball games. It's only an issue for baseball games.

Coaches have pleaded with the SEC to eliminate the tournament, eliminate divisions and play an 11-series schedule or make the tournament a 12-team event. They have gotten nowhere. A tournament that included everyone, they are told, would reduce the importance of the regular season. Why is that not a concern in basketball?

The issue that could damage the entire enterprise is about scholarships. Six teams are in states with lottery scholarships. They have a remarkably unfair advantage. Without going into a detailed explanation, the bottom line is that those schools--LSU, Georgia, Florida, South Carolina, Tennessee and Vanderbilt--have far more scholarship money to give than do those in states without lottery scholarships. As Jason Caldwell reported on this site, Auburn felt the sting in recruiting Chuck Jeroloman's younger brother, Brian. Brian wanted to play with his brother, wanted to play for Renfroe. But because he is from Florida, his parents could either pay thousands of dollars a year for him to play at Auburn or he could almost make money by going to Florida. He's the starting catcher at Florida.

Mississippi State coach Ron Polk, who coached at Georgia for two seasons, has seen it from both sides. He is outspoken to the point of anger on the issue.

The other schools can still win, of course. Two of them--Ole Miss and Arkansas--are tied for first. But they will never have the numbers the others have. LSU could lose a player like Karl Amonite and be much more likely to have a quality replacement than Auburn or others not in lottery states.

It's an uneven playing field and, over time, it will turn the league into one of haves and have-nots if it is not addressed.

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