Handicapping the SEC Baseball Tournament

For the 11th consecutive season, the SEC baseball tournament returns to Hoover, AL for its double elimination tournament. Regions Park, the home of the Birmingham Barons, will host the tournament once again. In a league filled with parity, who will emerge as this season's tournament champions? Read inside as Scout.com's Eric Guimaraes takes a look at each team.

It would be difficult not to place Georgia as the favorites. They are the number one seed and have been the most consistent throughout conference play. However, the Bulldogs have never won an SEC tournament championship.

Louisiana State is playing the best baseball having won 12 consecutive SEC games which includes four straight sweeps in conference play.

Alabama is also a threat to win since this tournament is played in their back yard. Since the tournament was permanently placed in Hoover, the Tide have won five tournament championships in 11 seasons. They also have the most tournament championships of any SEC school with seven.

Florida returns to Hoover for the second consecutive season and is primed to take it all. They finished with the third best record overall and do a great job of playing small ball.

With their tournament experience and their ability to score runs in bunches, South Carolina also has a chance. They will need their bullpen to improve its play and eliminate costly errors that have given away unnecessary runs of late.

Handicapping the tournament, this is how I see it.

1: LSU

2: Georgia

3: Alabama

4: Florida

5: South Carolina

6: Vanderbilt

7: Kentucky

8: Ole Miss

Louisiana State: Like I mentioned earlier, it would be difficult not to place UGA here, but I ended up choosing LSU as the favorites. They are the best team in the conference right now having completed four consecutive sweeps in the brutal SEC. Baseball is a game of streaks and LSU picked a good time to get hot. They have not lost since April 19th when Georgia defeated them 9-8. Since then, they have one tie (10-10 at UGA) and have reeled off 16 wins in a row. They swept USC and Mississippi St. at home and Kentucky and Auburn on the road. The Tigers also hit the ball as a team very well. There are eight players on this team hitting over .300 that have at least 100 at bats on the season. During conference play, LSU has scored more runs and driven in more than any other team in the SEC and have the third best ERA in the league.

The Gamecocks drew a tough opening round match up, but as Ray Tanner said after Saturday's dramatic win against Tennessee, they are due for a loss. As of this moment, the Bayou Boys are firing on all cylinders. The key to victory is to frustrate their batters early. Do not allow this team to build on their momentum. Slow down the game if you have to but do not allow the Tigers to dictate the rhythm of the game.

Georgia: Georgia gets the two seed because they were regular season conference champs. Though they enter the tournament as the one seed, they are a soft number one. This past weekend, the Bulldog pitching staff gave up 38 runs to Alabama in 27 innings in Athens. The Dogs do have a strong closer in Joshua Fields. He is 2-2 on the season with 16 saves and a 1.52 ERA. He also has 52 strikeouts in only 29 and 2/3 innings this season. Dean Weaver has also been good out of the pen with a 4-1 record and a 3.22 ERA in 24 appearances. However, their starting pitching, though good has not been great. Only one of their weekend starters has an ERA under 4.

This team can put runs on the boards as well. There are five Bulldogs boasting a .300 or better average and shortstop Gordon Beckham, Jr. is hitting at a .401 clip. The keys to victory against this team are to get the bullpen early and limit Beckham's offensive role for Georgia. Force the long relievers and anyone but Beckham to beat you.

Alabama: Another no-brainer in this position, and quite frankly, I considered making them the second seed. Playing in Hoover gives the Tide a decided home field advantage. This would be like the Gamecocks playing in Camden. They will have the largest fan base at Regions Park. Alabama's history in this tournament is also very strong. The Tide have won five out of the last 11 tournaments. They also just completed a series win over SEC champs Georgia in Athens scoring 17 runs in game one and 16 runs in game two. In their last five SEC series, Bama has taken all two games to one. Five consecutive series wins is a sign this team is gelling and can be dangerous in double elimination tournament play. Regardless, their biggest advantage is the location of the tournament. Home field advantage will tough for the other seven teams in the tournament to overcome. The keys to victory over Bama is to take the crowd out of the game. You must eliminate the crowd from having any affect on the game. Minimize your mistakes against the Tide as well. Their offense is very balanced from top to bottom getting run production from everyone. Force this team to earn their way on base. Their bullpen has also been fairly sharp over the season so get to their starters early.

Florida: This team is my sleeper pick for the title. Of all the teams I witnessed this season at The Sarge, The Gators were my favorite. Florida hit's the ball, as a team, better than anyone in the conference. They have the highest batting average in conference play at .305. This team does a great job spraying the ball all over the ballpark making them extremely difficult to defend. The Gators also do a great job of stringing hits together and are aggressive on the base paths. They lead the league in steals with 54. That is 20 more then the next team. What is interesting is that because of their aggressiveness, they do not lay down many sacrifice bunts. They like to swipe the base or play hit and run. The Gators are always looking for the big inning and compensate for their lack of power by putting a lot of pressure on the defense.

They also have the best ERA in the conference play. Their top pitcher, Patrick Keating is 8-0 on the season with a 3.15 ERA. He has been unbeatable on Friday nights. The bullpen has been decent, but like most SEC teams this season, they lack the big time closer. The key to beating Florida is to keep their batters off base. When they do get on, minimize the damage by trading runs for outs.

South Carolina: South Carolina makes their 11th straight trip to Hoover after a dramatic home run at The Sarge on Saturday. They are still a very dangerous team. Their pitching staff has the second best ERA in the league but only the 8h best in tournament play. They face a tough LSU team on Wednesday in the first game of the tournament. The Gamecocks send Sam Dyson, likely the hardest thrower on the staff, to the mound while LSU counters with Ryan Verdugo. This could be an advantage for the Cocks as they have already faced the Tigers Sunday starter. Dyson did not face LSU in Baton Rouge and this could give USC an opportunity to jump out to an early lead. Also, the early start time may be an advantage as well. Playing a midweek game at 10:00am could throw the rhythm of both teams off and this is a greater disadvantage to the team that is currently on fire. The Tigers could take longer to adjust to this.

Carolina also has the SEC's leading RBI man in James Darnell. He is tied with Kentucky's Sawyer Carroll for the league lead at 77. His teammates at the top of the order have also done a great job of setting the table for him. With opponents often avoiding South Carolina's best hitter, Justin Smoak, there are ample opportunities for Darnell to deliver and he has. This must continue for the Gamecocks to be successful in the tournament.

The starting pitching will also need to pitch deeper into the game taking some pressure of the struggling bullpen. Both Brandon Todd and Parker Bangs have shown flashes of brilliance, but neither as emerged as a true closer. The keys to beating Carolina is to get to their pen early and minimize the offensive production of the bottom of the order. If the Gamecocks can get any contribution from the lower part of their order and their starters can give them seven strong, they'll will be a force to reckon with in Hoover.

Vanderbilt: The defending champs return to the tournament for the sixth consecutive season and are beginning to make a habit of it. Head Coach Tim Corbin has done a fine job with this program. This season's version of Vandy is relying more on their offense to win games. In league play, the Dores are leading the league in doubles and in the top three in both hits and total bases. They also have a team batting average of over .300. This team will remind you a lot of Florida and the way they play which makes sense. Both Florida Head Coach Kevin O'Sullivan and Corbin honed their skills under Jack Leggett at Clemson. This team likes to use the entire field and will play for the big inning. You will not see them sacrificing outs to advance a runner. They like to be aggressive.

Where this team does not emulate Florida is in pitching. They are seventh in league play in ERA and have struggled in the pen (where are all the closers committing to?). They have lost a lot of one and two run ball games this season which would indicate the pen is their weakness. Their starters have done an above average job this season so to beat them; you want to chase these guys early. Once again, this team mimics that of Florida offensively, so don't be afraid to trade runs for outs.

Kentucky: After missing last year's trip to Hoover, the Wildcats make a return visit. Like Vandy, this is not like the team of old. Kentucky looks toward their pitching to win these days. This team has the second best ERA in conference play. Of their three weekend starters, two of them have ERAs under 3.0 with the other starter's ERA under 4.0. However, you can probably guess by now where they are struggling. Brock Baber and Andrew Albers have combined to take on most of the bullpen duties. Baber has 24 appearances compiling a 1-2 record with only one save. He does have a 2.33 ERA. In 27 appearances, Albers is 7-4 with four saves and a 2.52 ERA. All but one of those appearances was in relief. Every other pitcher in the pen is over 4.0. If these guys are worked early in the tournament, I can't see Kentucky making it all the way to Sunday.

Don't get the impression that team can no longer hit the baseball, for they have six guys batting over .300. Unfortunately, it appears these stats may be inflated by a weak non-conference schedule. In conference play, the Cats have a team average of .289. That's good enough for seventh place. Overall, their average is .322. Rough math tells me they are batting about 40 points lower in conference play. To give you an idea of the difference, South Carolina is batting .301 overall and .283 in the league. This makes me question their ability to put a run together in this tournament against the pitching they will face. They do have the aforementioned Sawyer Carroll and he is still very dangerous. He leads the league with a .416 average and 77 RBIs (tied with James Darnell). Quite honestly, I can't see a reason to pitch to this guy. Much like Gordon Beckham of Georgia, don't allow this kid to beat you. That's the kind of thing that keep you up all night. Kentucky may have the best pitching staff in the league. Their statistics certainly indicate so. In order to beat this club, keep them off the scoreboard and play for every run. It's going to be a pitcher's duel and if you're not prepared, you could be down 10-0 in second before you know what ‘hit' you (Ask Mike Cisco). Play for every run. If you're too aggressive against this team, you may run yourself out of the inning, out of a scoring chance, and into their hands.

Ole Miss: This is another team that relies on their pitching to win in the SEC. If you look at their hitting statistics, they are near the bottom of the league in average, slugging percentage, on base percentage, runs scored, and RBIs. On the contrary, their pitching staff is fourth in conference play with an ERA of 4.88. This may not seem impressive, but considering that no team has an ERA below 4.0, this is not that bad. The strength of this staff is their bullpen (did I hear someone cheering?). Scott Bittle, Justin Cryer, and Rory McKean have done an excellent job shutting the door on their opponents. In 62 innings, Bittle has 109 strike outs, an ERA of 1.45, a 6-1 record, and seven saves. Needless to say, you do not want this guy in the game when Ole Miss has the lead.

On offense, Cody Overbeck leads the team with a .362 average, 14 homers an d 48 RBIs. He leads the team in all of these areas. Once again, this is not a very strong hitting team. That's why I am taking them as the least likely to win. You need to be able to hit the ball to win a tournament of this format. Pitching will not likely be stellar over a five day period. There is always a hiccup of two. The key to beating this team is to be smart. Throw strikes and force these guys to earn their way on base. Minimize errors, both mental and physical. Score early and take their pen out of the game.

That's a look at the eight teams that earned a berth to this year's SEC Baseball tournament. The team that wins it all will get contributions on both offense and defense. A team that relies on one or the other too much, may win a game or two, but won't be able to have sustained throughout the tournament. Quite honestly, the difference between the one and six seeds (according to me) is very small and one of these teams will have the ball bounce their way. We'll just have to wait until Sunday to see who the baseball gods smile upon this year.

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