When the 2013 SEC schedules were released, five conference series immediately jumped out: Vanderbilt at South Carolina; South Carolina at LSU; Kentucky at LSU; Mississippi State at Arkansas; and Florida at Vanderbilt.
We've had three of those series so far, and the teams have mostly performed at the level we expected before the season began, with Arkansas underperforming some offensively, and Florida being the true exception (significant injuries have crushed the Gators). Otherwise, we presumed these teams would be elite, and that's what they've been.
In the next two weeks, we'll cross off the last two of those five series: Vandy-South Carolina next weekend and South Carolina-LSU beginning Friday night. To get ready for Gamecocks-Tigers -- the best series this week, with due respect to a couple of others highlighted below -- let's compare each of the four units (starting rotation, bullpen, infield, outfield) and see who has the edge.
No. 2 LSU: So. RHP Aaron Nola; Jr. RHP Ryan Eades; So. LHP Cody Glenn
No. 10 South Carolina: Sr. LHP Nolan Belcher; So. LHP Jordan Montgomery; Fr. LHP Jack Wynkoop
Here's what you need to know about LSU's rotation: Eades is a very good pitcher who will be a first-round draft pick in June and will receive more than $1 million to play professionally. He's 6-foot-3, throws hard and possesses a biting breaking ball that has gotten more consistent in the past year. In 63 1/3 innings this season, Eades has a 2.56 ERA and 59 strikeouts. "He's always had the physical tools," LSU coach Paul Mainieri says. "The body and the arm -- that's what they look like in the big leagues."
But that guy is not LSU's best starting pitcher this season.
Nola earned the Friday night job before the season, and has done this: 71 innings, 2.15 ERA, 48 hits, 82 strikeouts, 12 walks. He gets sinks on his fastball and runs it up to 95 mph. He has good feel for his changeup and curveball and is a great athlete who throws a bunch of strikes. "We always expected he'd be very good," Mainieri says.
Glenn is aggressive and adept at changing speeds -- which he's used to post a 3.13 ERA in 54 2/3 innings -- but gets overlooked by the first two guys in the rotation. He will receive more recognition next season when he presumably jumps into the Saturday role after Eades begins his pro career.
South Carolina has had some bad luck, and coach Chad Holbrook has shuffled the deck behind Belcher -- who has a 1.70 ERA, 61 strikeouts and five walks in 74 innings -- in hopes of finding some consistency. Montgomery missed more than a month with a stress reaction in his elbow and has had three starts since, with only one of those -- last week against Kentucky -- coming without pitch count restrictions. That also means Montgomery should be ready to settle in completely, and he and Belcher are talented enough to match up with LSU's top two arms.
The Gamecocks' wild card is Wynkoop, who has had his inconsistencies this season, yet there's no devaluing a 3.12 ERA and seven walks in 40 1/3 innings of SEC-caliber ball for a freshman. Last Sunday against Kentucky may have been Wynkoop's breakout: eight innings, zero earned runs, zero walks. Those are the performances Holbrook had anticipated from Wynkoop. "He has a chance to be a first- or second-round pick in three years," Holbrook says.
It's close, but the Gamecocks have a few questions, while LSU can make a case for having one of the best rotations in the country.
LSU's best three: Sr. LHP Chris Cotton; Sr. RHP Joey Bourgeois; Fr. LHP Hunter Devall
South Carolina's best three: Sr. LHP Tyler Webb; Sr. LHP Adam Westmoreland; Fr. LHP Vince Fiori
Let's compare these guys back to front. Devall has a 2.70 ERA in 16 2/3 innings in his first trek through college baseball. His spot could have gone to senior Brent Bonvillian (1.55 ERA), but Bonvillian's 16 walks in 29 innings are too high for my taste. Fiori's 15 strikeouts and four walks in 16 2/3 innings are all identical to Devall, but his ERA (3.78) is more than one full run higher, so we'll give LSU's guy the nod.
Bourgeois has been terrific for the Tigers, with a 1.57 ERA, 25 strikeouts and 5 walks in 23 innings. His "problem," for our purposes here, is that Westmoreland has been ridiculously valuable for the Gamecocks. His 44 2/3 innings are second on the team despite not making one start (16 relief appearances). In those innings, he has allowed 33 hits, struck out 44 and walked six. Westmoreland is like a discount coupon -- Holbrook asks for one quality inning, and Westmoreland gives him three. You can't beat that.
So this essentially comes down to the closers, Cotton and Webb. Cotton has a 1.67 ERA with 30 strikeouts and two walks in 27 innings. Those are unreal numbers when they're not being compared with Webb's. Get this: 28 innings, 16 hits, 42 strikeouts, 7 walks, .165 batting average against, 0.64 ERA. If you put any weight in the save statistic, Webb has 12 to Cotton's nine.
It's plausible Mainieri has more depth, but Holbrook's best dudes take games and hack innings off the back end as if they're stray branches. I'll take the Gamecocks here and feel good about it.
Edge: South Carolina
LSU: Sr. 1B Mason Katz; Jr. 2B JaCoby Jones; Fr. SS Alex Bregman; Jr. 3B Christian Ibarra; Jr. C Ty Ross
South Carolina: Sr. 1B LB Dantzler; Fr. 2B Max Schrock; So. SS Joey Pankake; Sr. 3B Chase Vergason; So. C Grayson Greiner
You can't do more than Katz has done for the Tigers. He's hitting .390/.478/.727 with 13 homers. We talk a lot about a pitcher's ability to "command" the strike zone, but that skill applies to hitters, too, and Katz's 25 walks to only 26 strikeouts are incredibly impressive considering his power output. Jones brings walks (24) and some speed to the lineup (12 stolen bases in 14 attempts), but his 32 strikeouts are too much for a player whose skill set should be getting on base and creating terror for opposing pitchers once he gets there.
Bregman is a tremendous player, and his all-around game may make his season more impressive than Katz's. He hits for average (.412); hits for power (11 doubles, 7 triples, 5 homers, .638 slugging percentage); gets on base (.460 OBP); and controls the bat (19 walks to 14 strikeouts). Oh, and he's a freshman playing an elite defensive position. Yeah, Mainieri will take a few more of those if you're selling. Ibarra has as many walks as K's (22 each) and is slugging .518, and Ross has three home runs and 15 walks, although he's a below-average hitter overall.
For the Gamecocks, Dantzler has been Katz Lite, hitting .340/.449/.673 with 12 homers and 12 doubles. He's also similar to Katz in that he's a power guy with bat control; he's walked 28 times and struck out 32. Pankake's numbers can't match his shortstop counterpart here, but .314/.383/.500 with eight homers is a very nice season.
Schrock has a .393 on-base percentage and 10 more walks than strikeouts (27 to 17); he's something of a pest. Vergason's .391 OBP is a healthy figure -- even if it's easy to lose perspective in the college game, because some guys' numbers reach silly levels -- although you'd like your man at the hot corner to produce a little more pop. Greiner is lauded for his defense and leadership behind the plate. There's more offense in him, but Holbrook will surely take a .307/.381/.425 line from his catcher.
I'll take South Carolina at catcher and second base, but LSU has an advantage at the other three spots, which is praise for the Tigers and not an indictment of the Gamecocks (you can't ask more out of Dantzler, for instance). Ultimately, the Katz-Bregman combo is far too much to ignore.
LSU: Sr. LF Raph Rhymes; Fr. CF Mark Laird; rotating hole
South Carolina: Jr. LF Graham Saiko; So. CF Tanner English; So. RF Connor Bright
Rhymes has been steady for the Tigers, hitting .338/.417/.438. If this were pro ball, we'd probably say his bat doesn't profile for a corner outfield position, but it's not, and Mainieri will tell you how important Rhymes is to everything the Tigers do. LSU has mixed its outfield rotation around a bit, with Laird usually playing right but moving to center when Mainieri wants to get Sean McMullen into the lineup. Laird is hitting .286/.363/.311, while McMullen has posted a .298/.417/.429 line in 19 starts and has probably earned himself three more starts this weekend against the Gamecocks.
Andrew Stevenson has gotten some time in center, presumably for his defense. He's hitting .175/.288/.228 -- essentially a non-factor at the plate. LSU doesn't suffer offensively, because its infield is so good, but if there's a flaw on the No. 2 team in the country, this is it.
So, yeah, the bar for South Carolina to clear here is a little higher than the average curb. Bright has an ugly to strikeout-to-walk ration (21-to-1) but otherwise has hit .331 with a .500 slugging percentage. English has a .430 OBP and hunts balls in center, and Graham "American" Saiko has 10 stolen bases, although his .269/.381/.331 line leaves you feeling cold.
Rhymes is probably the best individual player out of this group, but it's sort of a depressing debate after how good the arms and infielders are. Let's just move on.
Edge: South Carolina, begrudgingly
Weekend pick: At Alex Box Stadium, with LSU's rotation, I'll take the Tigers winning two of three, with South Carolina beating Eades in the middle game of the series. What about you?
A quick look at the other top series this weekend:
NC State tests winning streak against UNC
No. 1 North Carolina dropped Tuesday's game to UNC-Wilmington 9-8, which snapped a 14-game winning streak, before bouncing back Wednesday and beating Charlotte 10-2 and becoming the first team in the country to reach 40 wins (with three losses).
They go to Raleigh this weekend for what has become a much-hyped ACC series with No. 11 NC State. The Wolfpack are the hottest team in the country, winning 15 straight and suddenly sitting atop the Atlantic Division standings at 14-7 (33-10 overall).
We've said it all year: NC State is a very good club, with plenty of talent to make a run to Omaha. And, again, when you have Carlos Rodon leading your starting rotation, you have reason to feel that way.
Stanford's shot at Pac-12 title
The No. 22 Cardinal visit Eugene, Ore., this weekend to play the No. 7 Ducks, and it's a big series for Stanford if it wants a real shot at the Pac-12 regular-season title.
Stanford is 2½ games behind Oregon and still has Arizona State, Cal, Oregon State and UCLA remaining on its conference slate.
To have a productive weekend, of course, the Cardinal have to get the first one on Friday night with Mark Appel on the hill. Appel has been what we expected -- one of the nation's best pitchers, with a 1.54 ERA, 84 strikeouts and 12 walks in 70 1/3 innings.
The battle of three-game winning streaks
No. 12 Mississippi State goes to Nashville this weekend to play No. 4 Vanderbilt, and both clubs are riding three-game winning streaks. Three questions for the series:
What else does Vanderbilt lefty Kevin Ziomek (2.20 ERA, 75 K's, 73 2/3 innings) have in store for us?
Will Bulldog masher Hunter Renfroe (13 homers, .815 SLG) continue his assault on a weekend that figures to include many pro evaluators taking a peek at the probable first-round pick?
Vandy is almost a lock for a national seed; can MSU add a shiny series victory to its postseason résumé?
Will Georgia Tech stop its slide?
Not long ago, the Yellow Jackets looked like not only one of the ACC's best teams, but a potential national seed in the NCAA tournament.
But Georgia Tech has lost four straight games, including six of its past 10, and has slipped to No. 19 in the USA Today coaches' poll. The Jackets are 7½ games behind the Tar Heels in the Coastal Division standings, a deficit unlikely to be made up, so the final month or so for them is about building momentum into the ACC tournament and polishing off a solid postseason résumé.
They get an opportunity this weekend at Clemson, a club that has been unspectacular this season but has hung around. At 28-13 (13-8 ACC), the Tigers are one game behind NC State in the Atlantic and are putting together a nice season.
Prospect Watch: Marco Gonzales, LHP, Gonzaga
The series isn't much -- BYU at Gonzaga -- but Gonzales has been one of the country's more intriguing and underrated arms all season.
He's a command-and-feel lefty with decent size at 6-1 and 185 pounds. His numbers are indicative of his stuff to a degree -- 2.57 ERA, 63 strikeouts, 15 walks, 70 innings; they are very good, but a tick below elite.
While Gonzales doesn't offer the upside of Indiana State left-hander Sean Manaea, he does offer a solid mix and a pretty high floor. At worst, you're getting a No. 5 starter or a valuable left-handed reliever. With about six weeks until the MLB draft, Gonzales looks like a lock to go in the first round.
Today in Omaha: High of 66 degrees, 48 percent humidity, 51 days to CWS Game 1.