Florida has the power. Vanderbilt has the pitching. South Carolina has the swagger.
The three teams just finished one of the most entertaining regular-season races in recent Southeastern Conference history, finishing in a three-way tie with identical 22-8 records. Now the powerhouse programs are the favorites to win this week’s SEC tournament that begins Wednesday at Regions Park in Hoover, Ala.
“All three teams had a great year, and you kind of knew it would come down to the end,” Vanderbilt coach Tim Corbin said. “That was a great finish. I just think it speaks volumes about the league.”
South Carolina (44-12 overall) earned the No. 1 seed in a tiebreaker and the defending national champions certainly have a reasonable claim as the team to beat. The Gamecocks took the season series from both Florida and Vanderbilt while weathering multiple injuries, including one that’s kept star outfielder Jackie Bradley Jr. out of the lineup for much of the past month.
But South Carolina coach Ray Tanner has masterfully mixed and matched lineups to keep his team among the nation’s elite. The Gamecocks have leaned on their outstanding pitching staff, led by Michael Roth, who comes into the tournament with a 10-3 record and a 1.28 ERA.
“We’re not the most talented team in the world, but we’ve got guys who play the game the right way,” Tanner said.
Florida (41-15) is led by arguably the league’s most potent offense. Catcher Mike Zunino was named the SEC Player of the Year by the league’s coaches on Tuesday after batting .383 with a league-leading 15 homers, anchoring a lineup that leads the SEC with 52 home runs.
That power advantage could be zapped by the spacious dimensions of Regions Park. It’s always known as pitcher-friendly, and that reputation could grow even greater thanks to the NCAA’s mandate of less powerful metal bats that have caused offense to plummet across the nation.
But as teams have grown used to the new bats, offense has improved. The Gators hit 31 homers in 30 SEC games.
“I think people are hitting a little better,” Florida coach Kevin O’Sullivan said. “As much as pitching had the advantage in the first half of the season, I don’t see the gap as big right now.”
Vanderbilt (44-9) hopes that’s not the case. The Commodores have an SEC-best 2.55 ERA, led by Sonny Gray, who has a 9-3 record, 2.17 ERA and 105 strikeouts in 95.1 innings. He’s considered one of the top prospects for next month’s Major League Baseball draft.
The Commodores can hit, too, with a league-leading .319 batting average. Vanderbilt’s played well in Hoover recently, with a tournament title in 2007.
“I’m certainly proud of how we’ve navigated our way through the season,” Vanderbilt coach Tim Corbin said. “We haven’t had many ups and downs. Not many injuries. From that standpoint everything’s gone well. We thought this year could be a good one.”
While the Gamecocks, Gators and Commodores have been the league’s three best teams, the real drama will be for programs lower in the bracket that are fighting for their NCAA tournament lives.
Georgia (28-28) is the No. 5 seed and Auburn (29-27) is No. 8 at this week’s tournament. Both have computer profiles that would give them a good chance to earn an at-large bid into the NCAAs, but there’s one stipulation — teams must be at least one game over .500 for at-large consideration.
Georgia coach David Perno said he didn’t expect the added pressure to get to his team. The Bulldogs have consistently battled adversity this season, starting with a 3-8 record and losing outfielder Johnathan Taylor to a horrific injury that left him partially paralyzed.
“Nothing changes for us,” Perno said. “We’ve got to win games and play good baseball.”
Arkansas is the tournament’s No. 2 seed after winning the Western Division with a 15-15 record. Mississippi State is seeded sixth, returning to the SEC tournament for the first time since 2007. Alabama is the No. 7 seed.
This year’s tournament is also notable for what teams didn’t qualify. LSU won the national title in 2009 and has won the past three conference tournaments, but wasn’t among the top eight teams in the 12-team league. The Tigers finished tied for last in the Western Division with Mississippi, which hadn’t missed a trip to Hoover since 2002.
David Brandt/The Associated Press