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May 13, 2011

Spicy SEC Baseball Weekend On Tap

Regardless of the sport, every conference matchup in the SEC is a unforgiving battle. No quarter is given, none asked.

With ultra-tight divisional races, this weekend promises to be one of the wildest and spiciest in recent memory, starting, of course, with the South Carolina-Arkansas matchup at Carolina Stadium. First pitch in Game 1 is Friday at 8 p.m.

Add Florida-Vanderbilt, Alabama-Auburn and Miss. State-Ole Miss into the mixing bowl and you have the ingredients for a firecracker weekend.

In fact, the match has already been lit. Miss. State rallied past rival Ole Miss, 7-6, in Oxford Thursday night with a three-run eighth inning, moving to within a half-game of division co-leaders Alabama and Arkansas, both of whom are .500 in conference play (12-12).

The conference records are somewhat better in the East with Vanderbilt (19-5) ahead of USC (18-6) and Florida (18-6) by one game and Georgia (14-10) by five games.

So, with USC and Arkansas locked into tight races, the series in Columbia is critically important to both teams. Even though USC has already qualified for the SEC Tournament in Hoover, the Gamecocks are still fighting for a higher tournament seeding and, more importantly, trying to earn a top eight national seed.

How important is this series for Arkansas? The Razorbacks could fall from a first-place tie to fifth place and possible out of the SEC Tourney within a span of three days.

"Once you get beyond the top three at the top, you have a bunch of good teams, but not great teams," Kendall Rogers of Perfect Game USA said. "When you have a lot of average to above average teams like that, you tend to get a jumbled mess."

Friday night's attractive mound matchup between D.J. Baxendale (7-1, 1.58 ERA, 57.0 IP) of Arkansas and USC's Michael Roth (10-1, 1.23 ERA, 87.2 IP) is one of the premier pitching battles nationally.

First team to three runs wins? Possibly.

"It will be one of the top matchups, but also a different matchup," Rogers said. "Neither guy will be throwing 96 out there. It will be fun. It should be a low-scoring affair. Roth is probably the Pitcher of the Year in the SEC and a first-team All-America. He has been remarkably consistent. I can't remember him having a bad outing this year."

Both hurlers share something in common - they pitched mainly out of the bullpen in 2010 before turning into Friday night studs. Baxendale, who has been named to the 22-man roster of the USA Baseball Collegiate National team, finished with seven saves as the Razorbacks' closer last season, while Roth was a situational left-handed reliever until, of course, the College World Series when he started twice with exceptional results.

"That is a great matchup, certainly one of the better ones in the country this weekend," Aaron Fitt of Baseball America told Gamecock Central. "Roth has been one of the nation's biggest surprises. We all thought he would be capable as a starter because he showed that in Omaha last year, but for him to become a leading contender for First Team All-America this deep into the season, no one saw that coming. If they say they did, they're lying."

In less than a year, Roth has turned himself from a specialist into one of the top pitchers in all of college baseball.

"I can't remember a transformation quite that striking," Fitt said. "He was a left-handed specialist. For him to put himself in the driver's seat for SEC Pitcher of the Year honors a year later, that's stunning. We've seen rags to riches stories before, but to me that is as good as it gets."

Baxendale threw a complete game seven-hitter against Florida last weekend. He displayed exemplary control with one walk and seven strikeouts.

"Baxendale is a little more of a power guy than Roth," Fitt said. "He has a pretty good sinker and tries to keep the ball down."

Both Rogers and Fitt pick USC to win the series. Arkansas has dropped all four of their conference toad series this year by 2-1 margins, putting them at 4-8 on the road against SEC competition.

"South Carolina needs to get back on track to show people that the Ole Miss series was an aberration," Rogers said. "I think they will likely do that. Arkansas lost two of three at Kentucky. South Carolina has been very consistent except for that one hiccup last week."

USC concludes the regular season with a road trip to Tuscaloosa to face Alabama starting Thursday.

While the Gamecocks and Razorbacks are battling in Columbia, Florida and Vanderbilt go head to head in Nashville. Series wins (2-1) by the Gamecocks and Gators would create a three-way tie atop the SEC East standings heading into the final weekend of the regular season.

Friday night's game in Music City features two of the best pro prospects from the SEC hooking up on the mound - Hudson Randall (8-2, 2.05 ERA) of Florida against Sonny Gray (9-3, 1.94 ERA) of Vanderbilt.

"For my money, those are the two most talented teams in college baseball," Fitt said about Florida and Vanderbilt. "It will be a fascinating series. They are loaded with high profile professional caliber guys. They have the two deepest pitching staffs in college baseball, and two of the deepest I've seen in a long time.

"But when it comes to building a winner, South Carolina shows toughness goes a long way too. South Carolina is talented as well, but to a large degree South Carolina's success is due to the intangibles."

Fitt gives Vanderbilt a slight edge on the mound and predicts the Commodores will ultimately prevail in the series. Florida will try to bounce back from last weekend's series setback at Arkansas that dropped them into the second-place tie with USC.

Rogers also sees Vanderbilt winning the series and then going on to win the SEC regular season title.

"Florida has a ton of talent and good coaching, but at times they look a little disinterested," Rogers said. "Maybe they're thinking 'let's wait for the post-season. Florida looks like a team that wants to turn on the switch, but at times they refuse to do it. Right now, I would say Vanderbilt is a little bit better offensively."

As well as the top three teams in the SEC East have played this season, don't sleep on Georgia. The vastly improved Bulldogs have the misfortune of competing in the best division in all of college baseball. They are lurking five games back in the standings and are looking to catch one or more of the teams in front of them in order to achieve a higher seeding for the conference tournament.

Right now, Georgia would be the No. 5 seed and face No. 4 Florida in an intriguing opening round contest on May 25 in Hoover.

But, like everything else in the SEC these days because both divisional races are so close, that's TBD.

SEC SCHEDULE (Thu. 5/12-Sun. 5/15):
Arkansas at South Carolina
Alabama at Auburn
Florida at Vanderbilt
Georgia at Kentucky
Tennessee at LSU
Miss. State at Ole Miss (MSU leads 1-0)

DIVISION STANDINGS (As of Fri. 5/13):
EAST: Vanderbilt 19-5, USC 18-6, Florida 18-6, Georgia 14-10, Kentucky 5-19, Tennessee 5-19.

WEST: Alabama 12-12, Arkansas 12-12, Miss. State 12-13, Auburn 11-13, Ole Miss 11-14, LSU 8-16.

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