A Series Win on the Road?!
I will be the first to admit when I'm wrong, and the Aggies certainly made sure that I would be very wrong in my series prediction for this weekend's matchup with Vanderbilt. I took the Commodores to sweep the Aggies at home in Nashville, but A&M got the series started with a Friday win - their first Friday win in an SEC series this season - and finished it off on Sunday with a fairly comfortable victory.
A&M Head Coach Rob Childress rolled the dice on Friday, and it paid off in a very big way. Struggling closer Jason Jester was moved into the role of Friday starter, and then senior came through with a strong performance. Jester worked 4 innings and allowed 3 runs - 2 earned - on 6 hits and 2 walks and struck out 4 batters. Vanderbilt got just 1 base runner in the first two innings, and got their first run on the board in the 3rd after a double, single, and sacrifice bunt. Jester worked around a leadoff double in the 4th inning, and was lifted in favor of Parker Ray after loading the bases in the 5th. Ray was absolutely tremendous in relief, starting with striking out the side when he came in to the game in the 5th after his own error on a sacrifice bunt allowed a run to score. Ray would work all 5 of the remaining innings against the 'Dores, giving up just 1 run on 2 hits without walking a batter and striking out a career-high 10.
The A&M bats finally showed up on Friday against Vandy ace Tyler Beede, logging 9 hits over 5 innings against what many scouts consider to be one of the better pitching prospects in college baseball. The Aggies had scored just 6 combined runs in their first 4 Friday games within SEC play coming into this weekend, but exploded for 10 runs against a very good Vanderbilt pitching staff. A&M jumped out of the gate early with 4 runs in the 2nd inning to give Jester a bit of breathing room. Freshman Nick Banks stole the show on Friday night, going 4-5 with a double, an RBI and 2 runs scored. Blake Allemand also had success hitting at the top of the lineup, going 2-4 with a walk, a triple, and 2 RBI. Freshman Ryne Birk - in just his 24th at bat this season - smacked a 3-run triple in the 7th inning to extend the Aggies' lead and allow Parker Ray to cruise to victory. A&M actually had 3 triples in Friday's contest (Allemand, Birk, Bratsen) after coming into the weekend with only 5 total on the season.
A&M got off to another fast start on Saturday, scoring 2 runs in the first and another in the second, but Daniel Mengden's struggles continued and the 'Dores were able to take back the momentum with 2 runs in the 2nd and 3 in the 3rd. Mengden only lasted 3 innings, allowing 6 runs on 8 hits with 2 walks and just 3 strikeouts. A&M cut the Vanderbilt lead to 6-5 with an RBI from Ronnie Gideon in the 6th, but the 'Dores would add a pair of insurance runs in the 8th to hold on and even the series. Cole Lankford had a big day on Saturday, going 2-4 with 3 RBI and a run, but Ronnie Gideon (2-3, RBI) was the only other A&M hitter with more than one hit.
The Aggies badly needed sophomore Grayson Long to return to his form from earlier in the season after struggling the last few weeks, and Long delivered in a big way on Sunday. Long was able to scatter 11 Vanderbilt hits over 7.1 innings of work into just 2 runs. He only walked one batter in the contest and struck out 4 as well. Yet again, the Aggies jumped out to an early lead with 2 runs in the 1st inning, with a sacrifice fly by Lankford and a home run by Jonathan Moroney in his only start of the weekend. A&M would also add a pair of runs in each of the 4th and 7th innings, which would be more than enough to take the series from a very talented Vandy team. Krey Bratsen and Troy Stein both had big games at the plate, with Bratsen going 3-3 with a walk, 2 RBI and 2 runs, and Stein collecting 2 hits in 4 at bats with a pair of runs. Tyler Stubblefield was also excellent in an inning and a third of relief, striking out 3 of the 4 batters he faced and helping the Aggies hold on for an incredibly important series win.
The SEC is a Mess
Let's just take a look at the current SEC Standings to give you an idea of what a jumbled mess the conference is right now.
|Team||SEC Record||Overall Record||RPI|
|Team||SEC Record||Overall Record||RPI|
That's right, the team currently sitting in last place in the SEC West is in the Top 50 of the RPI. If the season ended today, that Auburn team would barely make the SEC Tournament. The league has absolutely cannibalized itself so far in conference play, and I expect that we'll see that continue through the rest of the season.
The SEC got 9 teams into the postseason last season, and I would not be surprised if they get that many again this year. Some national analysts think it's possible for the league to actually get 10 teams into the tournament; I would be a bit surprised if that were to happen, but certainly not shocked.
I think you have 5 teams that are virtual tournament locks - Florida, South Carolina, Alabama, LSU, and Ole Miss - and another 2 teams - Vanderbilt and Kentucky - who are likely to make it into the field. That leaves somewhere between one and three spots for these 6 teams - Mississippi State, Georgia, Tennessee, Texas A&M, Arkansas and Auburn. I suppose you can't entirely write off Missouri, either, but they have a very large hill to climb.
How does A&M make the Tournament?
If you'd asked me before this series win over Vanderbilt, my answer to this question probably would have been "pray." After the massive series win on the road, A&M has put itself back in the conversation to where that question isn't so far-fetched. The Aggies have 19 games remaining on the schedule - 15 in conference, 4 non-conference - and currently sit with an overall record of 22-15 and 7-8 in league play.
In order to feel very safe about making it into an NCAA regional, I would want the Ags to head into the SEC Tournament with a conference record of 16-14. I definitely think it's possible for a 15-15 record - coupled with a win or 2 in the SEC Tournament - to get an SEC team into the postseason, and it may even be possible for a 14-16 record to get the job done. Looking back to last season, the Aggies finished with a 13-16 record in SEC play and then notched tournament wins over Florida and Vanderbilt to make the postseason field as (somehow) a 2-seed.
Here's a look at the remaining schedule for the Aggies, as well as what I believe A&M needs to do to make me feel comfortable about making the postseason.
|Opponent (Home/Away)||Record||RPI||A&M Needs To...|
|Abilene Christian (H)||12-20||249||Win|
|Kentucky (H)||23-13||15||Win 2/3|
|Mississippi State (A)||22-15||42||Win 1/3|
|Texas State (H)||19-16||99||Win|
|LSU (H)||27-9||22||Win 2/3|
|Arkansas (A)||22-15||71||Win 2/3|
|Sam Houston State (H)||25-11||55||Win|
|Ole Miss (H)||29-9||5||Win 1/3|
*Not a must-win, but it would be a very big RPI bump.
Essentially, A&M has to avoid getting swept in any of the 5 remaining SEC series. If they do get swept in any series, the Aggies would need to rebound with a sweep of their own. There is also minimal margin of error in midweek games, although the contest at Rice is a loss that wouldn't kill the Aggies' RPI if that were to happen. If A&M were to finish the season as listed above, that would come out to a 15-15 record in SEC play and a 34-23 overall record. At that point, I would think that winning a game in Hoover would probably solidify a postseason spot for the Aggies.
Obviously, this is all much easier said than done. We're asking this A&M team to win 2 series against teams in the RPI Top 25, and avoid being swept by the pair of Mississippi teams - both of whom can be very dangerous. Having said that, though, the Aggies suddenly have a 4-3 record against RPI Top 15 teams, so this team does appear to at least be capable of winning those sorts of games.
The Aggies welcome Abilene Christian to Olsen Field on Wednesday, and this is absolutely a game that A&M cannot afford to slip up in. The Wildcats (yes, I had to look up their mascot because I couldn't remember) have lost 7 games in a row, being swept by Sam Houston State and Lamar and getting blasted 19-2 by Texas Tech. I would expect that Coach Childress will turn back to Tyler Stubblefield after bumping him from the rotation against Vandy.
Another group of Wildcats will head to Aggieland this weekend, this time of the Kentucky variety. The 'Cats are sporting the same 7-8 record in SEC play as the Aggies, and will be badly wanting to rebound from a concerning series loss at home against Missouri. Kentucky have a midweek game on the road against Louisville, whom they beat 8-3 at home earlier this season. While the UK pitching staff has struggled a bit in 2014, featuring a team ERA of 3.32 and only one weekend starter with an ERA under 2, the Wildcats' bats have carried the load. Kentucky is averaging an impressive 8.6 runs per game and have a team batting average of .314. This will certainly be a big challenge for the A&M pitching staff to attempt to replicate last weekend's success. We'll have a full preview of this series on Friday.