Play Ball: The SEC Baseball Season Has Arrived

In addition to Auburn's series with the Tennessee Volunteers, there are several big series taking place in the SEC this weekend.

In addition to Auburn beginning SEC play at Plainsman Park with Tennessee coming in for a three-game series, the 10 other conference baseball teams will begin league play with Friday-Sunday series.

One of the best opening weekend series is between Arkansas and South Carolina in Columbia, where the sixth-ranked Gamecocks will be looking to start on the road to make a return trip to Omaha, Neb., for the College World Series. The Razorbacks enter the series with the best overall record in the conference at 14-1 while the Gamecocks are 14-3 overall.

"So far it has gone real well," said first-year Arkansas Coach Dave Van Horn. "It's a little better than I expected to be honest. We've just kind of come out and played solid baseball and beaten who we have to beat. We throw a lot of strikes and don't beat ourselves too often. We know that the SEC play is going to be a lot tougher."

The Razorbacks enter the weekend after sweeping the nationally ranked Kansas Jayhawks in a mid-week series in Fayetteville, a team that swept LSU earlier in the season in Baton Rouge. The Razorbacks have outscored opponents 130-59 and have one of the best starting pitching rotations in the league. South Carolina defeated Western Carolina 5-2 Wednesday night and comes into the opening weekend a tough team to beat at home with an 11-2 record at Sarge Frye Field.

In Starkville, Miss., possibly the two-best pitching teams in the league square off when the Mississippi State Bulldogs take on the Vanderbilt Commodores. Maybe the most talented overall team in the league, the Bulldogs enter with a record of 11-1-1 after winning two games at New Orleans this week in a final tune-up for conference play. The Commodores have struggled to a 10-6 record, but are capable of winning at any time because of several outstanding pitchers and good defense.

MSU Coach Ron Polk said this weekend would be a tough one for his club. Perhaps the marquee pitching matchup in the league and the country takes place Friday night when MSU junior lefty Paul Maholm (2-1, 0.90 ERA) takes the mound against superb lefty Jeremy Sowers for Vanderbilt. Sowers is 3-2 with a 3.86 earned run average this season, but shut out the Bulldogs on four hits last season in Nashville.

"Vanderbilt is a team that is certainly pitching great right now looking at their stats and playing super defense early in the year," Polk said. "I'm sure Tim Corbin and his new staff are doing a fine job with their kids. They have quality pitching and great defense and that's pretty much what our team has been about our first 11 games. We've been very fortunate so far to get some timely hitting. This weekend vs. Vandy will probably be low scoring games and the team that gets that timely hit or makes that great play will have a good chance to win each game."

Maybe the biggest name series this weekend is the matchup between 16th-ranked Florida and 18th-ranked LSU in Baton Rouge. After winning one of three against Florida State last weekend and winning two games against Pace University this week, the Gators come into the series at 15-3 overal, but are 0-2 on the road. The most potent offensive team in the league, averaging 11.6 runs per game and hitting .356 as a team, the Gators will be looking to make some noise this weekend.

LSU is an uncharacteristic 11-7 overall and just 9-4 at Alex Box Stadium, somewhere they rarely lost in the past. This LSU team isn't the physical, home run hitting team fans are used to seeing out of the Tigers, but they are deep in the pitching staff and have played solid defense since star Aaron Hill moved from third base to shortstop two weekends ago. Gator Coach Pat McMahon said this is still about as tough as it gets to open conference play.

"We opened our road schedule last week at Florida State for a two-game series and then came back for our final game Sunday here," McMahon said. "That was our first road test at a great environment. We're excited about going to LSU. It's an outstanding college atmosphere and they have outstanding fans. The team is well coached and it's a wonderful challenge. We look forward to it."

A team that has a chance to improve its offensive numbers this weekend is the Georgia Bulldogs. At 11-4 on the season, they have struggled with the long ball this season (eight home runs in 15 games) playing in the biggest ballpark in the league. That won't be the case this weekend when they travel to Tuscaloosa to play the 24th-ranked Alabama Crimson Tide in a big series for both teams to open the conference.

With a record of 13-3 overall, Alabama has won 10-straight games and Beau Hearod is the hottest hitter in the league with a .436 average, seven home runs and 32 runs batted in. Alabama's offense will present the Bulldogs with a challenge but Coach David Perno said he's looking forward to watching his team take the show on the road.

"One thing you have to do in this league to compete is you have to be able to win on the road," Perno said. "I am very excited about the newfound intensity and the level that we're playing at now. Unfortunately, I don't like going into Alabama without a healthy Clint Sammons, our catcher. Someone else just has to step up and we have to get ready to go."

Rounding out the conference schedule for the opening weekend is a battle in Oxford, Miss., between the Ole Miss Rebels and the Kentucky Wildcats. At 7-8 overall and coming off back-to-back losses to Indiana State at home during the week, the Wildcats appear to be the one pushover in the league this season. Struggling both offensively and defensively, they will have to improve dramatically to challenge in the SEC race.

The Rebels, on the other hand, have the talent to play with anyone, but have been inconsistent to begin the 2003 season and enter this weekend at just 10-6 overall. The strength of the Ole Miss squad is in the pitching staff where starters Mark Holliman (3-0, 2.19), T.J. Beam (2-0, 1.83), and Alan Horne (3-2, 3.86) are all capable of shutting down an opponent for extended periods of time. Coach Mike Bianco said he's hoping to see continued improvement out of his team after starting the season slow.

"It has been a little disappointing in a sense that we got off to a little bit of a slow start," Bianco said, "especially offensively. As of late we have swung the bats much better and we have really pitched well with a very young pitching staff. That's very exciting. We've played pretty good defense to this point. Hopefully, we've got some bad games out of our system and have better games in front of us."

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