It's an all-SEC affair in the Gainesville Super Regional this weekend as Florida and Mississippi State do battle in the NCAA Baseball championship with a spot in the College World Series on the line. And despite all of the talk about the conference's depth, there is a distinct divide in the SEC.
There is the SEC West, where .500 was good enough for Arkansas to win the division, and then there is the SEC East, where three teams were good enough to earn national seeds (the Gators are the No. 2 overall seed).
The three SEC East teams that earned national seeds finished in a three-way tie for the conference regular season title. In the conference tournament, it was all Gators as they grabbed the conference crowd and with it, the number two national seed. Not that such success is a surprise. Florida made it to the College World Series a year ago and were in every preseason top three, even No.1 in a couple rankings. The Gators were supposed to be one of the top teams in the country and to this point they have lived up to every bit of the hype.
The Gators are a team stacked with talent and this season, experience. Last season they were good, but they were young. Two of the starters in their weekend rotation were freshmen and several of their top hitters were also rookies. While they may have dominated their Regional and Super Regional to get to the College World Series, they were roasted in Omaha. Their inexperienced finally bit them.
Now inexperience isn't an issue. They have experience. They've won in conference, they've won in Regionals, they've won in Super Regionals and they've been to Omaha. All that talent they had a year ago is still there, too, and it's awfully good talent.
No team in the country can match the Gators on the mound. Two of their starters have ERA's under 2.50 and their top two relievers are at 2.25 ERA's or better. Florida is so good that their ace from a year ago is now out of the weekend rotation. When Brian Johnson suffered a concussion at the SEC Tournament and missed last weekend's Regional it didn't matter because the Gators could just slide another pitcher out there.
Having an explosive offense to back a top-notch pitching staff doesn't hurt either. Mike Zunino hits .371 with 16 homers and Preston Tucker went yard 13 times, one of six Gators to hit over .300. Florida averaged more than 10 runs a game this season, just an unfair offense to have in support of the nation's best pitching staff.
That is what Mississippi St. will have to contend with this season. They've already lost three of four to the Gators this season and don't have the best of starting rotations. They also don't have the most powerful of offense so it is no surprise that they finished below .500 in SEC play. The Bulldogs did sweep through their Regional though, including wins over highly touted Georgia Tech and Southern Miss so they didn't get a free pass to the Super Regionals. As one of the weaker teams to make the Super Regionals though and having to go up against arguably the best team in the country, things don't look good for Mississippi St.
Friday, 12 pm ET (ESPN2): Hudson Randall (9-3, 2.38 ERA) vs. Evan Mitchell (6-1, 3.47 ERA) - A freshman All-American a year ago, a lot was asked of Randall this season and he delivered. His one bad start did come against the Bulldogs though, when he was touched for six runs before being pulled in the third inning. Mitchell did prove he could get outs against the Gators earlier this season, but being a freshman in the postseason is another animal.
Saturday, 12 pm ET (ESPN): Karsten Whitson (8-0, 2.42 ERA) vs. Nick Routt (3-3, 3.78 ERA)- As far as freshman go, Whitson was about as hyped up as one could be. A first-round pick who passed on the pros for college, Whitson has eye-popping stuff. The same can't be said for Routt, but he's done a good job of keeping the Bulldogs in games and against the Gators that would be more than enough from the southpaw.
Sunday, 1 pm ET (ESPN): TBA vs. Luis Pollorena (7-5, 3.97)- If all is well, Brian Johnson will start for the Gators on Sunday, but he's recovering from a concussion so he might not be able to go. If not, Alex Panteliodis will get the nod and as the Gators' ace a year ago, he'll be more than ready to take the ball. Pollorena doesn't look the part of pitcher at just 5'6'' and without the great pure stuff will probably struggle against Florida.
What To Watch For
The Gators have one of the best bullpens around, but a key cog down there is Austin Maddox, who is out with an ankle injury. It shouldn't be too much of an issue for Florida because they have so many other guys, but finding a chink in the armor for the Bulldogs to exploit takes some digging.