Florida has the power. Vanderbilt has the pitching. South Carolina has the swagger. The three teams just finished one of the most entertaining regular-season races in recent Southeastern Conference history, finishing with 22-8 records for a three-way tie. Now the powerhouse programs are the favorites to win this week’s SEC Tournament that beings Wednesday at Regions Park in Hoover, Ala.
“All three teams had a great year, and you kind of knew it would come down to the end,” Vanderbilt coach Tim Corbin said. “That was a great finish. I just think it speaks volumes about the league.”
South Carolina (44-12) earned the No. 1 overall seed in a tiebreaker and the defending national champions certainly have a reasonable claim as the team to beat. The Gamecocks took the season series from both Florida and Vanderbilt while weathering multiple injuries, including one that’s kept star outfielder Jackie Bradley Jr. out of the lineup for much of the past month. But South Carolina coach Ray Tanner has masterfully mixed and matched lineups to keep his team among the nation’s elite. The Gamecocks have leaned on their outstanding pitching staff, led by Michael Roth, who comes into the tournament with a 10-3 record and a 1.28 ERA.
“We’re not the most talented team in the world, but we’ve got guys who play the game the right way,” Tanner said.
Florida (41-15) is led by arguably the league’s most potent offense. Catcher Mike Zunino was named the SEC Player of the Year by the league’s coaches on Tuesday after batting .383 with a league-leading 15 homers, anchoring a lineup that leads the SEC with 52 homers. That power advantage could be zapped by the spacious dimensions of Regions Park. It’s always known as pitcher-friendly, and that reputation could grow even greater thanks to the NCAA’s mandate of less powerful metal bats that have caused offense to plummet across the nation. (May 25, 2011, Page 7)