Although the SEC Baseball Tournament got underway on Tuesday, the real action starts today, as the top seeds play their first games. While division champions LSU and Vanderbilt are seemingly on a collision course, the other teams left standing have different ideas.
The tournament takes in a double-elimination format until the semifinals, when it will become single-elimination until a champion is crowned on Sunday. The entire event is taking place at Hoover Metropolitan Stadium in Alabama.
As always, the margin for error in these type of tournaments is small, which makes for a tremendous atmosphere and plenty of pressure-packed innings. With that in mind, let's take a closer look at the top contenders hoping to capture the SEC title.
The difference between LSU and Vanderbilt is microscopic. Both teams are extremely strong and clearly capable of winning the championship. The reason the Tigers get the edge is pitching depth, which is crucial in tournament play.
All three of the team's full-time starting pitchers have an ERA of 2.70 or better. Ace Aaron Nola led the way with a 10-0 record and 1.99 ERA in 13 starts. The bullpen is equally impressive. Closer Chris Cotton had a 1.62 ERA, 12 saves and struck out more than a batter per inning.
The offensive attack is led by Mason Katz and Alex Bregman, who both hit .388 in the regular season. In all, the Tigers have five players hitting at least .325. It illustrates how few weaknesses there are on the roster, and there is no doubt that LSU is the team to beat.
Checking in right behind LSU is top-seeded Vanderbilt. The Commodores went 26-3 in SEC play and are the owners of the conference's top offense. A major reason for that success is infielder Tony Kemp, who hit .408 with 27 stolen bases.
Which team will win the SEC Tournament?
Having a player like Kemp, who puts immediate pressure on the opposing pitcher to start the game, is a huge advantage for Vandy. The other key piece of the offense is Connor Harrell. He smashed 11 home runs and must be the team's main run producer with men on base.
The key for the pitching staff will be the third starter. Kevin Ziomek and Tyler Beede combined to make one of the conference's top one-two punches, but Philip Pfeifer hasn't been as reliable. If he gets the call, he must step up and provide solid innings for the team to win it all.
3. South Carolina
The top two teams are a step above the rest, but South Carolina leads the second group of contenders. What makes the Gamecocks dangerous is their power. They led the conference with 46 home runs. The team was led by LB Dantzler, who had 14 homers, and Joey Pankake, who added 10.
That type of game-changing power can work in two ways. The Gamecocks could get hot at the plate and have a legitimate chance to win the title, or the bats could go cold and the team will make an early exit. Momentum will be key over the next few days.
South Carolina has used a rotation by committee throughout the season, but it has the two things every staff needs: an ace and a top-notch reliever. Nolan Belcher and Tyler Webb fill those roles. They give the Gamecocks a chance to go the distance if the top two teams falter.