Commentary

SEC keeps pace with Pac-12

Originally Published: June 17, 2012
By Mitch Sherman | ESPN.com

OMAHA, Neb. -- Three years ago, in the baseball season that ended with Arkansas' most recent College World Series appearance before Saturday, the Razorbacks started Southeastern Conference play with eight consecutive victories.

"I'd never done that before," coach Dave Van Horn said, recalling the feat with something of a disbelieving tone.

To end that conference season, Arkansas lost eight straight in the SEC.

The league humbles you.

[+] EnlargeCasey Turgeon
AP Photo/Eric FrancisSouth Carolina, in search of a third straight national title, beat No. 1-seeded Florida on Saturday.

Three straight national championships and nine since 1990 have earned the SEC its distinction as the top baseball conference in the country.

The league that passed the throne? The Pac-12, of course, which has won 26 national titles (including 15 since 1968), finished as runner-up 15 times and won 241 CWS games -- all nation-best figures.

This year, both leagues are in vintage form.

The SEC on Saturday joined the Pac-12 with a pair of first-round CWS winners. South Carolina beat No. 1-seeded Florida 7-3 in the nightcap at TD Ameritrade Park, extending its record NCAA-postseason winning streak to 22 games in search of a third straight national title.

And Arkansas pounded Kent State 8-1 in the early game to set up a Monday meeting at 9 p.m. ET with the Gamecocks for control of Bracket 2. In Bracket 1, the No. 2-seeded Bruins meet Arizona at 9 p.m. ET Sunday in a de facto Pac-12 title game. The clubs shared the league title at 20-10.

More important, the winners Sunday and Monday night get the inside track to the championship series, and an extended break before playing Thursday.

In fashion as decisive as their members' victories Friday and Saturday, the SEC and the Pac-12 rule the game this season.

[+] EnlargeMichael Roth
Matt Ryerson-US PresswireMichael Roth says the competition makes South Carolina stronger.

"We're playing great teams week in and week out," said South Carolina senior Michael Roth, unbeaten for his career in seven postseason pitching decisions. "We had three teams in [the CWS] last year, three teams this year, so I don't think that's any mistake."

South Carolina's latest win over the Gators came in a rematch of the championship series from a year ago. The Gamecocks swept Florida in two games last June.

Saturday night presented another test of wills, with aces Roth of South Carolina and Brian Johnson of Florida matched.

Johnson had the edge early before an energized crowd of 25,291. He struck out LB Dantzler with the bases loaded in the first inning and Adam Matthews for a key second out in the third.

The Gators got to Roth for two runs on Preston Tucker's third-inning double. South Carolina mounted a rally in the fourth but couldn't score.

Then everything collapsed on Johnson. He loaded the bases in the fifth with none out, and designated hitter Erik Payne ripped a three-run triple to right-center field. Dantzler doubled over the head of Florida center fielder Daniel Pigott to chase Johnson, and South Carolina made it 5-2 on a single by Chase Vergason off reliever Greg Larson.

Reliever Tyler Webb escaped a hairy jam in the seventh, and Evan Marzilli, the South Carolina center fielder, made a spectacular catch of a line drive to open the eighth, robbing Pigott of extra bases. The Gamecocks added two runs in the ninth, courtesy of Florida's sloppy defense.

That's SEC baseball: lethal and unforgiving.

"There's a reason why they have such a winning streak in the postseason," Florida coach Kevin O'Sullivan said. "They've got a momentum thing going right now, and obviously we weren't able to stop it in the fifth. That was probably the difference in the ballgame."

South Carolina won two of three at Arkansas in May, just another weekend in the SEC.

"It's such a grind," Van Horn said. "I guess by the time you get to postseason, you've seen it all. You've seen every style of pitching. You just play. You just kind of become numb to everything."

The Razorbacks finished 16-14 in league play but got well in a hurry in the postseason. They won the Houston regional as the No. 2 seed of four teams, then took the final two of three from Big 12 champion Baylor in Waco, Texas.

The rigors of April and May prepared Arkansas for what's to come Monday night. For that matter, the SEC readied the Hogs for Kent State, too.

"Whoever we face, we know it's going to be a tough game," Arkansas pitcher DJ Baxendale said. "And we're just going to attack it like we normally do."

In the Pac-12, the action is just as heated.

The Wildcats remember well their two losses two months ago after a series-opening home victory over UCLA.

"We didn't play good baseball," Arizona left fielder Johnny Field said. "They definitely outplayed us in every aspect the last two days."

Teammate Joey Rickard said it helps to face a familiar foe in Omaha.

"We know what they have," said Rickard, the Wildcats' leadoff-hitting center fielder. "It doesn't surprise us that we're playing them here. They're a very good team. We go out, slow the game down and play our baseball, we'll be fine."

[+] EnlargeAndy Lopez
AP Photo/Eric FrancisArizona coach Andy Lopez played at UCLA. The Wildcats play the Bruins on Sunday.

Arizona coach Andy Lopez played at UCLA. He captained the Bruins in 1975 as a shortstop and counts several friends in Westwood, including UCLA coach John Savage and athletic director Dan Guerrero. Lopez's wife, Linda, graduated from UCLA.

The Bruins and Wildcats actually shared a charter flight to Omaha. Hard to see that happening in the SEC. Apparently, they're a little more friendly out west.

"It kind of sounds selfish," Lopez said, "but it's kind of fun to play a Pac-12 school in the World Series. We look forward to the challenge."

Van Horn watched the Pac-12 teams play Friday in Omaha. While he remains partial to the SEC, the coach said, UCLA and Arizona would match up well.

"A couple years ago, when the bats were more lively," Van Horn said, "they were more West Coast baseball, a lot of bunting and slapping and taking. The SEC was hammering it. Now, it's close to the same, when you look at our style."

We'll find out soon which league has the edge.

ALSO SEE