SEC Tournament Preview (Bracket 1)

The SEC Tournament starts up on Wednesday with Auburn and Alabama facing off in the first game of the tournament at 9:30 am. Ole Miss and South Carolina will play immediately following the Auburn and Alabama showdown. All four teams are solid contenders to advance through regionals, while Ole Miss, South Carolina, and Auburn could all become regional hosts bids with great weekends. You can check out our Bracket 2 preview by clicking here.

#2 Auburn

The Auburn Tigers enter the SEC Tournament as the SEC Western Division Champion with a 39-17 overall record and a 20-10 record in SEC play. They are currently on a six game winning streak as they swept Ole Miss, defeated Jacksonville State midweek, and took the final two games of a series against Tennessee. TCBB most recent regional projections had the Tigers as a host for the upcoming 2010 NCAA Tournament. (FULL ARTICLE). Auburn will open the tournament playing against in-state rival Alabama. Coach Pawlowski is excited “Anytime you get these two teams together in any sport, its intriguing for players, fans.  He also knows that the Crimson Tide are dangerous as he said “Bama is very dangerous in a lot of different ways.  We know that we’ll have our hands full with them,  it will be an exciting atmosphere with them.”

The Tigers offense has a team batting average of .354 and 114 homers which was the best in the SEC conference in 2010. They are led by Hunter Morris and Brian Fletcher at the plate. Morris led the team with a .398 batting average while hitting 20 homers and driving in 67 runs. Fletcher on the other hand hit .361 with 20 homers and 70 RBI. Auburn head coach John Pawlowski has been happy with his squad at the plate saying “We can do little things, short game, to move guys over…Guys have really bought into that idea and concept.  Our maturity has really helped this club as we’ve progressed thru the season.”  What really gave the Auburn Tigers a spark in Conference play was the return of Trent Mummey.  Playing in only the team’s final 28 games due to a high ankle sprain, Mummey belted 15 HR and 45 RBI while hitting .380.  The only thing that’s concerning about this is that the common talking point is that Hoover is a pitchers’ ballpark, and that going for the long ball isn’t the best strategy.  I get the feeling though with this many weapons in the lineup, Pawlowski will still figure out a way to put up runs in droves.

The main question mark I have with the Tigers is the fact they have a team ERA of 4.86 which was good enough for sixth best in the conference. The pitching staff has gotten better according to Pawlowski who stated “Our pitching staff has gotten better.  We had a lot of question marks coming into the year, but I think some of our guys have really developed and solidified roles on this team.” The Tigers top starting pitcher this season has been Grant Dayton who has a 8-2 record with a 4.61 ERA in 14 appearances (13 starts). Cole Nelson (6-3, 4.94 ERA) and Cory Luckie (6-3, 6.13 ERA) round out the rotation.

#7 Alabama

The Alabama Crimson Tide enter the SEC Tournament with a 34-21 overall record while being .500 in the SEC at 15-15. They are on a five game winning streak as they picked up a road sweep over Tennessee over the weekend after taking two out of three against Ole Miss in Tuscaloosa. They will open the tourney against the Auburn Tigers. Coach Gaspard says the following about the Tigers “One thing that jumps out is the power numbers and how they swing the bats extremely well.  One thing that gets overlooked is how well they pitch.  3 quality starters, guys in pen pitched well.  Not only do they swing the bats but their power numbers are there.”

The Alabama offense finished the season with a .298 average which was ninth best in the conference. They have been led at the plate by Taylor Dugas as he is hitting .404 with a homer and 32 RBI. He has also been a terror on the basepaths as he has 17 stolen bases in 21 attempts. Clay Jones is the top power hitter with a team high 15 homers while hitting .333 and driving in 56 runs.

The pitching staff for Alabama has a staff ERA of 3.88 which is third best in the SEC. They are led by Jimmy Nelson who made 14 starts this year with a 7-2 record while having a 4.02 ERA. Nathan Kilcrease is the top reliever for Bama as he is 5-2 with a 2.39 ERA in 30 appearances. He is holding opponents to a .197 batting average against him.

#3 South Carolina

Ray Tanner’s team didn’t have a high home run total on their way to a 43-13 overall record and 2nd best record of 21-9 in SEC play, with the team leader being leadoff hitter Whit Merrifield with 12.  Homeruns could be taken out of the equation somewhat in Regions Park though, being 340 to the corners.  Leading the South Carolina staff is Blake Cooper, who at 10-1 dominated Ole Miss hitters with 10 K’s, only surrendering 4 hits.  He won the game in the late innings as the Ole Miss bullpen faltered, but will be held out of Game 1 as Coach Tanner said,”With SEC tournament changing our daily schedule yet again, we found it important for Cooper and Dyson to feel as good as they could feel, not only for SEC tournament, but beyond.”  LHP Nolan Belcher (3-0, 2.03 ERA) will get the start against Ole Miss, which is smart for the rest factor, and plus if South Carolina can somehow get a Game 1 win, they’ll have Cooper and Dyson rested and ready to go for the next two contests.  Part of the rest factor is Tanner’s respect for Pomeranz and not wanting to possibly waste his ace in the opening round.  When asked of his opinion recently of Pomeranz by a Major League Scouting Director, Tanner said that if the scouting director had a chance to take him, that “you better get him.”

South Carolina needs to manufacture runs like they did during the season, as they were first in the conference in sacrifice bunts, but this number means nothing if you struggle against left handed pitching.  South Carolina only hit .286 against lefties this season, which was 11th in the conference.  They will face Pomeranz in Game 1, and if they are able to get by Ole Miss, they could possibly face Auburn LHP Grant Dayton mixed with the potent Auburn offense.

Here’s who needs to step up for South Carolina at the plate:

RF Whit Merrifield:  The leadoff hitter/homerun leader for South Carolina needs to get on base.  Pomeranz has been known to walk quite a few batters at times, so he needs to be patient at the plate and get on base better than his current .408 OBP rate.  If he gets on base, Bradley Jr. is efficient enough behind him to get on as well and start a productive first inning for the Gamecocks.

3B Adrian Morales: The #5 hitter simply disappeared against Florida with 1 hit, going a combined 3-21 over his last two SEC  weekends.  If Merrifield and Bradley Jr. do their jobs getting on base in the 1-2 slots, Morales has to come through with timely hitting in order for the Gamecocks to have a chance in the postseason.

#6 Ole Miss

Ole Miss enters the SEC Tournament at an overall record of 36-20, but are reeling after losing 7 of their last 9 SEC matchups and finished 16-14 in SEC play.  As the Rebels have done all year, they will rely on SEC Pitcher of the Year Drew Pomeranz (7-2, 2.39 ERA, 13.26 K/9) to come up with a victory to open the series.  Ole Miss has an outside shot to host a regional, and with the home field advantage with the rabid fans at Swayze Field, the home field advantage is crucial.  Even though #6 seed in the 2009 ACC Tournament Virginia was able to take the title, but was still shipped out to Irvine before advancing past Ole Miss and on to Omaha.  You never know though with how highly regarded the SEC is this year, they may be able to get a host spot with a SEC Tournament title.  It’s unlikely considering their recent swoon, but here’s what the Rebels have to rely on in order to make that happen.

Pitching

Pomeranz can tend to walk quite a few batters at times, but he has the determination to get out of jams time and time again.  South Carolina gives him a little bit of room for error in this regard as they just don’t have the offense that normally capitalizes on walks, so he should be in good shape for a great outing in Game 1 even if he isn’t precise.  Aside from Pomeranz, Coach Bianco hasn’t expressed who will be starting after that.  Ole Miss didn’t give up an earned run in the 5-0 loss when Pomeranz previously faced South Carolina, mainly coming from blunders on defense.  Bianco wavering on his Game 2 starter means he might not have all the confidence in the world in Aaron Barrett( 7-3, 4.03), who had been dominant much of the year but lost key games to Auburn and Alabama down the stretch.  He needs to regain his previous form if Ole Miss has any shot at a regional, because an early exit from him would eat up the bullpen.  Their fate really relies on him having a solid outing.  All SEC Reliever Brett Huber(2-0, 2.72)has been dominant in relief with 10 saves.

Batting

DH Matt Snyder is still battling his nagging shoulder injury, but showed the toughness last weekend against Auburn as he was the lone bright spot for the Rebels, going 7-9 over the series sweep.  Snyder has a penchant for big game heroics, as he belted 2 HR’s against LSU’s Anthony Ranaudo earlier in the season to knock the heralded pitcher out of the game early.  He’s hitting .358, 10 HR, 33 RBI in only 35 games while battling back from injury, and needs to continue to be clutch for the Rebels.  Bianco said of Snyder’s patience on Monday that,”Besides being talented, he’s able to flush bad at bats and bad pitches and get back into it.”  Ole Miss is going to need that, as he’s far and away their most consistent hitter.

Aside from Snyder, the 1-2 hitters of Ferguson and Mort need to step up their play after combining for 2 hits last weekend.  Bianco has been playing with the top of the lineup the last few weekends, moving players in and out trying to find something that works, and no one is coming through for him.  Look for Taylor Hashman to replace Ferguson at the top of the order if he continues to struggle.