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CBD Column: Five Questions for the SEC

College Baseball Daily throughout the fall will be putting together some of the storylines to follow this fall and into the 2012 season. The first installment is the SEC which has won the last three national championships with LSU winning in 2009 and South Carolina in the 2010 and 2011 seasons.

Can South Carolina complete the Three-Peat?

South Carolina returns one of the strongest pitching staff in the country led by Michael Roth (14-3, 1.06 ERA) and their other two weekend pitchers in Forrest Koumas (6-1, 2.96 ERA) and Colby Holmes (7-3, 3.69 ERA). They also bring back All-American closer Matt Price who went 7-3 while picking up 20 saves and accumulating an ERA of 1.83.

The biggest losses are relievers John Taylor and Jose Mata. Both of these righthanders were key in bridging games from the starters to the closer in Matt Price. Taylor was especially important pitching in an ungodly 50 games with a 8-1 record and an ERA of 1.14. Mata appeared in 23 games with a 1.76 ERA. The loss that will not be as important is Jackie Bradley Jr. who missed a large portion of the 2011 season with injuries.

Besides the key losses in the bullpen, South Carolina is set to make another deep run in 2012 and possibly compete for their third straight national championship.

Will the Gators finally break through?

Florida has brought in a top ten recruiting class in both 2009 and 2010 as they are now sophomores and juniors that went to the CWS Championship series last year. The Gators ended up being swept by SEC Eastern Division rival South Carolina to end their season in disappointing fashion.

The good news for the Gators is the fact they return their entire starting rotation from last season in Hudson Randall (11-3, 2.17 ERA), Brian Johnson (8-3, 3.62 ERA), and Karsten Whitson (8-1, 2.40 ERA). It is expected that the Gators will continue with these three as their weekend starters. Last season, they had four relievers pick up multiple saves. The leading bullpen guy returning is Austin Maddox who led the team with five saves and an ERA of 0.67 ERA.

Mike Zunino will look to return to his sophomore form as he was named 2011 SEC Player of the Year after hitting .371 with 19 homers and 67 RBI in a breakout season. Zunino made an interesting decision to not play for Team USA this summer and only appeared in eleven games with Yarmouth-Dennis Red Sox before heading home for the summer. Brian Johnson (.307 BA, 5 HR, 29 RBI) and Preston Tucker (.308 BA, 15 HR) will be the other two potent bats in the lineup.

The SEC and potentially NCAA titles will come down to a matchup between Florida and South Carolina this season. Both squads are absolutely loaded with talent but the Gators have more but haven’t been able to break the spell of the Gamecocks in the last couple of years.

Can LSU return to the CWS?

The 2009 National Champions LSU Tigers have struggled the last two seasons making the NCAA Tournament in 2010 and missing it in 2011. Last season was particularly tough for the Tigers as they started the season 16-1 before going 20-19 over their final 39 games of the year to finish the year 36-20 while being left out of the NCAA Tournament.

Kevin Gausman came in as the most highly regarded freshman pitcher on the Tigers staff. He ended up having an up and down season with LSU going 5-6 with a 3.51 ERA. Ben Alsup wasn’t much different then Gausman going 6-5 with a 4.66 ERA. He spent the summer with the USA Collegiate National Team making two starts allowing two runs in 8.2 innings including giving up a long homer from Buffalo’s Tom Murphy at Fenway Park. (Video of appearance available here).

Help is on the way though as Ryan Eades will likely join the starting lineup after an outstanding summer in the Cape Cod Baseball League. He was named the pitcher of the year in the Cape by going 3-0 with a 0.84 ERA in seven appearances (six starts). He was named the CCBL Western Division starting pitcher where he pitched a perfect inning.

The biggest loss for the Tigers will be top hitter Mikie Mahtook who was taken by the Tampa Bay Ray with the 31st overall pick in the 2011 MLB Draft. Mahtook was a middle of the lineup hitter for LSU who hit .383 with 14 HR and 56 RBI.

Can Vanderbilt fill the holes?

Vanderbilt made the College World Series for the first time in school history in 2011 behind a team full of upperclassmen.

They ended up losing their entire starting rotation in Sonny Gray, Grayson Garvin, and Taylor Hill. Things aren’t terrible though for the Vanderbilt pitching staff as Tyler Beede, who was a first round selection by the Blue Jays, decided to head to Nashville to continue his baseball career. He was considered one of the top high school arms in the country last season and could make an immediate impact in the Commodores weekend rotation. Sophomore LHP Kevin Ziomek ,who served as a bullpen guy last year making 27 appearances (five starts) while going 3-0 with a 1.59 ERA is expected to take another weekend spot.

The biggest losses for the Commodores will be at the plate though losing first baseman Aaron Westlake and Jason Esposito to the MLB Draft. Both of them were strong middle of the lineup hitters for the Commodores with Westlake hitting .344 with 18 homers while Esposito hit .340 with nine homers. The leading returning hitter is Conrad Gregor who hit a team high .353 with three homers and 32 RBI as a freshman.

Will Trevor Gott and Taylor Rogers lead the Kentucky staff in 2012?

Both Kentucky RHP Trevor Gott and LHP Taylor Rogers had outstanding summers in the Cape Cod Baseball League making the league’s All-Star Game at Fenway Park with Rogers receiving the start.

Rogers finished the summer with a 2-3 record with a 1.76 ERA in six starts compiling 30 innings pitched. He walked four hitters while striking out 25. This was a major step for him as he struggled during the collegiate season going 3-7 with a 5.14 ERA in 14 appearances (13 starts)

Gott worked out of the bullpen in the Cape League picking up 12 saves while having an ERA of 1.29. He pitched in a total of 21 innings while striking out 26 while allowing four walks. He was named the top reliever in the CCBL after the season was over. Gott was average during the college season going 2-4 with a 3.62 ERA in 27.1 innings. He did struggle with his control though walking 16 batters while striking out 34.

If both players continue their strong summer in the Cape over to the college season in 2012, Kentucky will be able to get back into the mix for the NCAA and SEC Tournament.

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