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April 21, 2011

SEC Lookahead -- Last Five Series

South Carolina soared through the first half of the SEC season with a 12-3 record, defeating two teams that were ranked No. 1 in three-game series and holding a one-game lead (and the tiebreakers) in the standings. A quirk in the schedule had the Gamecocks playing every SEC East opponent in the first five weeks, and this year's league has the SEC West extremely down.

Translation - the Gamecocks are in the driver's seat for their first SEC regular-season championship since 2002 and their first division title since 2003. With each remaining conference opponent, they can continue pressing the pedal to the floor.

It won't be that easy, though. It's long been a fact that the SEC is the most competitive conference in college baseball, and three of the Gamecocks' remaining five series are on the road. USC has been struggling with injuries and lately, while it hasn't been a team that has hit the ball well all season.

But the opportunity is clearly there. USC, Florida and Vanderbilt are the class of the league and the Gamecocks beat each, really making a one-game lead in the standings a two-game lead due to the tiebreakers.

Looking at the rest of the SEC schedule:

MISSISSIPPI STATE (23-14, 6-9)

The Bulldogs loved the hire of alumnus John Cohen when it happened three years ago, but after back-to-back losing seasons (including a disastrous 6-24 SEC mark last year), fans are starting to lose patience. MSU began pretty well this year, losing a couple of games to Belmont and Sacred Heart, but entered SEC play with a respectable record.

Then that happened.

Outside of a sweep of Auburn, MSU has been regularly popped on conference weekends. The Bulldogs lost two each to Vanderbilt and Florida, which is no crime considering the status of those two teams. They also lost two to Arkansas and were swept by Georgia.

Still, MSU is always dangerous on its home field, with a capacity of 15,000 and outstanding tradition and support. The Bulldogs are 18-6 at Dudy Noble Field this season (two losses were to Florida) and 5-8 away from home.

The Bulldogs only have two hitters above .300, but one is Jarrod Parks, who's batting a blistering .402 and leads the team with 28 RBIs. Jonathan Ogden is only hitting .273 but has a team-high six home runs and 27 RBIs. The table-setter, Nick Vickerson, hits .267 but has walked 23 times and been beaned twice, which gave him room to accumulate 21 stolen bases in 23 attempts.

Where to exploit MSU is its starting pitching. The Bulldogs' starters haven't made a habit of sticking around in games, outside of ace Chris Stratton. Stratton is a mere 4-4 with a 4.66 ERA, but has struck out 55 batters, while his weekend mates Devin Jones and Nick Routt are a rather ho-hum 2-6 combined, with ERAs each above 4.00.

Kendall Graveman has been a prize in relief, with a 4-0 record and a 3.03 ERA, and closer Caleb Reed has six saves while striking out 36 to only nine walks. But if the Gamecocks can knock Stratton and his starters around early, there would be no reason to fear Reed.

AUBURN (20-16, 7-8)

The record is not indicative. Auburn may not be a world-beater, but it's a classic John Pawlowski team - tears the cover off the ball and plays aggressive.

Some of the Tigers' losses are curious - Radford, Bethune-Cookman, Jacksonville State, Troy, South Alabama - and some aren't - Virginia, twice to Arizona State. The Tigers were swept by Mississippi State and by Vanderbilt, but swept Kentucky.

Casey McElroy is back and as usual, terrorizing pitching staffs. The Tigers' big bopper hits .360 and has six homers and 36 RBIs. Cullen Wacker, Dan Gamache and Justin Hargett are all over .300, with Wes Gilmer and Tony Caldwell just behind.

Auburn is patient at the plate, walking a lot and keeping the ball on the ground. There may not be a better team in the league, top-to-bottom, at bunting. Where to get the Tigers is their pitching.

With a team ERA of 4.90, the league's worst, the Tigers are vulnerable from the hill. Pawlowski can't find a stable rotation, and the candidates - Jon Luke Jacobs (1-3), Corey Luckie (1-1), Derek Varnadore (4-1), Will Irvin (4-2), Zach Blatt (2-2) - each eat innings but aren't particularly effective.

Having this series at home is definitely beneficial, as is the series history. For whatever reason, USC has owned Auburn lately, not losing a regular-season series to the Tigers since 1997.

OLE MISS (23-15, 8-7)

On the road as well, this series is far from easy.

The Rebels' worst losses are one midweek game to Western Kentucky, and a 2-1 series to LSU (on the road). Ole Miss is far from the Ole Miss led by Drew Pomeranz last year, but it's far from a bad club.

With six players hitting between .306 and .348 and the next two hitters on the list holding 18 RBIs each, Ole Miss is a solid team that can hit very well. The Rebels have four quality pitchers with nine starts each and two right-handers with a combined nine saves.

Where do they suffer? Defense. Ole Miss has 48 errors and is fielding a mere .968. Hit a hard shot at an infielder, pretty good chance he'll boot it. Otherwise, take the chance to score when you get it.

ARKANSAS (27-9, 8-7)

By (overall) record, the best of the remaining opponents, and very opportunistic that the series is at home.

With only a team average of .274, the Razorbacks don't seem to be that dangerous, but included in that are guys like Dominic Ficociell, who is batting .346 with 31 RBIs, and Kyle Robinson, at .328. James McCann is just behind at .299.

Like Auburn, the Razorbacks have four quality starters, with D.J. Baxendale leading the crew with a 5-1 record and 1.62 ERA, plus the fact he's only walked eight guys all year. Like Ole Miss, Arkansas doesn't field very well (.966) but the middle of its order can challenge anyone.

ALABAMA (25-15, 8-7)

If the season ended today, Alabama would be SEC West champ and the No. 2 seed in the SEC tournament.

As it also stands today, the Crimson Tide are the worst-hitting team in the SEC.

Like several of the remaining teams, Alabama's losses aren't bad - outside of a three-game stretch of Southeastern Louisiana, South Alabama and UCF, the Tide did rather well. But then came last weekend, where Alabama dropped both ends of a doubleheader to Tennessee.

Taylor Dugas, one of the most dangerous hitters in the league, is back, hitting .347 with a surprising four homers. That's more than anyone else on the team and indicative of the Tide's power - they only have 10 homers on the season.

Nathan Kilcrease has made the transition to starter and is 5-2 with a 2.62 ERA. Tucker Hawley and Adam Morgan aren't bad behind him, and Jonathan Smart has seven saves.

What will be key here is the timing. Alabama is the last series, on the road, before the Gamecocks head to Hoover for the SEC tournament (barring a complete meltdown, they'll at least get a spot). Each team may be playing for seeding, or if all goes well for USC in the four series before it, the Gamecocks may be playing for a regular-season title.

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