SEC Softball Tournament Kicks Off (A Preview)
Auburn needs to turn up the flame under its bats during the SEC Tournament (photo: Auburn media file)
With almost every SEC softball team likely to be selected for the NCAA Tournament, the SEC Tournament isn’t the end goal, but that doesn’t diminish its importance. Just ask Georgia, the odd team out. Since Vanderbilt doesn’t have a team, the 13th ranked team gets lost at home hoping for a miracle to join the NCAA Tournament while the rest of the SEC field tries to improve their seeding. Wins in the conference tournament can mean better seeds or even claiming a regional host spot.
Last season, the SEC hosted an astounding eight regionals, a true testament to how good the conference has become. The elevation of Auburn, in particular, did wonders in turning the SEC from a conference with one elite team a season to one that has almost two guaranteed semi-finalists. At one point this season, every SEC team was ranked in the top 40, an amazing feat considering how well many mid-major teams do in college softball.
Auburn’s series win against Alabama, a first ever in Tuscaloosa, locked down the number-two seed. Either a second or third seed would have been fine, as it would accomplish the same feat: avoiding Florida until the finals. For the second straight year, Florida will enter the SEC tournament ranked the number-one team in college softball. Like Auburn, Florida has seen a bit of a transition from a pure power team to an ace pitching team. Unlike Auburn, however, the Gator bats stayed hot, which is why Florida has been unbeatable.
To get to Florida, Auburn must navigate a gauntlet of very good teams. Auburn plays the winner of the South Carolina vs Kentucky matchup, which takes place on the SEC Network at 4:00 PM Central.
Breakdown of the match-ups after the jump:
The Gamecocks have a fairly bad record overall, but they have played the top half of the SEC and some very good out-of-conference teams. They were swept this season at home by Florida and outscored 29–1 by the Gators. They have just two series wins, Georgia and LSU, both of which wins came in the last two weeks of the season. Carolina has won five of its last seven games, meaning it is playing its best ball of the season.
Kentucky, on the other hand, has had a terrific season to back up a resurgent 2016 campaign that saw them go deep in the NCAA Tournament. The Wildcats won three series against unranked Arkansas, Missouri, and No. 11 Texas A&M. They ended the season losing a series to Mississippi State.
Auburn lost game three against South Carolina two weeks ago after winning the series by shutting out the Gamecocks in games one and two. Auburn was searching for identity fresh off of the Makayla Martin/Haley Fagan arrests. The Tigers were shut out in game 3 as three errors (one by Fagan’s replacement) spelled doom. While Auburn didn’t play Kentucky, a comparison of common opponents show the ‘Cats were 7–8 vs 11–4 for the Tigers.
Elsewhere in the bracket, Tennessee waits for the winner of the LSU vs Missouri game. LSU is expected to advance. Auburn fans will want to watch this game and that following against the Vols. The LSU Tigers lost to Auburn in last year’s SEC Championship game, and the Vols fell to the Tigers in the 2015 finals.
Alabama takes on Arkansas today in the first game of the tournament with Texas A&M awaiting the winner. Alabama sits in the fifth seed, but it is a much better team than its ranking and is expected to meet Florida in the semifinals. Therefore, if Auburn were to advance to the finals, it will face its third different finals opponent in three years.
A first round bye is critical for the teams in the top half of the league because that means each team’s ace will be fresh for an opponent that likely just pitched its No.1 or 2 starter. The advantage is amplified for the top teams because they typically have two or three good pitchers while those in the bottom of the league have only one. This is why there are so few upsets in the SEC Tournament.
In Auburn’s case, it has options. Auburn could roll with Makayla Martin, its usual Saturday starter, in game one with full confidence. This would save Kaylee Carlson for a semifinal game. Conversely, the Tigers could start Carlson in game one and sit her early, saving her arm for game two against a better opponent.
Regardless, Auburn has to turn up the flame after a lackluster hitting season. There has been a palpable change in tactics this year as pitching has overcome hitting as the Tigers’ strength. Home runs, in particular, took a drastic step back. Auburn hit 89 in 2016 after hitting 99 in 2015. This season, the Tigers managed only 46 homers. Statistics also show a drop in team batting average of almost 30 points and of almost 250 less runs scored. The good news is, it’s a lot easier for hitting to get hot than pitching.
Other questions, such as Kasey Cooper’s health, remain.
Auburn will play Thursday at 4:00 PM Central. The game is slated for the SEC Network. Make sure to follow me on Twitter as I live tweet the contest.