Dores face crucial series on the bayou

With an overall record of 34-14 after Wednesday's win over Samford, the Vanderbilt baseball team is approaching near-lock status for earning its first NCAA Regional appearance since 1980. But with a 12-12 Southeastern Conference record and six tough games remaining, the Commodores are anything but a lock to make the eight-team SEC Tournament field. That's the way it works in the baseball-mad SEC, where eight of 12 teams are currently ranked in the Top 25, and four are ranked in the Top 10.

With an overall record of 34-14 after Wednesday's win over Samford, the Vanderbilt baseball team is approaching near-lock status for earning its first NCAA Regional appearance since 1980. Still, with a 12-12 Southeastern Conference record and six tough games remaining, the Commodores are anything but a lock to make the eight-team SEC Tournament field.

That's the way it works in the baseball-mad SEC, where eight of 12 teams are currently ranked in the Top 25, and four are ranked in the Top 10. Vanderbilt will try to prove its worthiness this weekend with a road series vs. No. 5 LSU (36-13, 14-10).

The SEC Tournament takes the top two finishers in each division, along with the four teams with the best in-conference records regardless of division. Vanderbilt's 12-12 record puts the Commodores in a tie with Tennessee for fourth place in the Eastern Division, and a tie with the Vols for seventh-best overall conference record. Vandy owns the tie-breaker over UT after taking two of three games from the Vols last weekend.

How big is this weekend's series vs. LSU to Vanderbilt's post-season hopes? With a sweep, the Commodores could match their all-time high for wins (37) and virtually assure themselves a spot in the conference tournament in Hoover, Ala. May 26-30.

By the same token, should the Commodores be swept by the fifth-ranked Bengals, Vandy could fall behind Tennessee and Auburn in the overall standings and find itself needing help the following weekend in order to qualify for the SEC tournament field.

Next week, the final week of the regular season, the Commodores host MTSU on Wednesday before wrapping up the SEC slate with a three-game home series vs. Kentucky.

Tim Corbin's Commodores were ranked 19th in the most recent RPI, which bodes well for Vanderbilt's chances of earning an NCAA regional berth. Nonetheless, this weekend the Commodores face one of the league's most dangerous teams in perhaps the SEC's most intimidating ballpark.

With a .334 team batting average, the Tigers are the league's best hitting team.

"As pitchers, we've got to throw strikes and stay ahead in the count," said sophomore lefthander Ryan Mullins. "You have to keep the ball down in such a small ballpark."

Currently second in the SEC East behind Arkansas, LSU has won seven of its eight league series to date in 2004, including last weekend's at Kentucky.

LSU right fielder Jon Zeringue enters the series on a hitting tear, batting .600 (9-for-15) last weekend with four runs scored and three RBI. Zeringue is now hitting .419 (78-for-186) on the year with 16 doubles, two triples, 11 homers and 45 RBI.

LSU's home attendance average of 7,937 per home game is tops in the SEC. The team flew to Baton Rouge Thursday in order to get in a practice on LSU's field.

"We've been practicing hard, and hopefully it's all going to pay off," said Mullins. "We've been playing well lately, and hopefully it will just carry over."

Vanderbilt has won four of its last six games from LSU, claiming 2-1 series wins in both 2002 and 2003.

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Vanderbilt's Friday night game vs. LSU will be telecast by the Cox Cable network beginning at 6:30 p.m. Saturday's game begins at 2 p.m., and Sunday's begins at 1 p.m., but neither will be televised.


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