By Zac Ellis
NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Tim Corbin has seen a lot of SEC baseball in 15 seasons as head coach at Vanderbilt. But as Corbin surveys the conference’s current landscape, he can’t help but notice an unusual sense of parity.
“I think the way the conference is playing, it’s very even,” Corbin said. “I just see a lot of evenness with all teams. I think you could throw them up in the air and forget where people are sitting in the standings. There’s a very even distribution of players, how you’re playing, and so on.”
As of Thursday, the SEC standings could be better described as a logjam. Kentucky leads the SEC East at 8-4, with Arkansas, Auburn and Mississippi State tied atop the West at 8-4. But 10 of the conference’s 14 teams boast records between 8-4 and 6-6 in league play.
This week the SEC fielded eight different teams in the top 25 of various national polls. That crop of contenders has delivered an SEC baseball season in which any team can seemingly win – or lose – at any time. That is true for teams at the bottom of the league, as well; this past weekend, Tennessee (3-9) took two of three games at then-No. 7 Florida, while Texas A&M (5-7) clinched a road series with two wins over then-No. 6 LSU.
Vanderbilt, meanwhile, turned heads with a series win over No. 12 South Carolina in Columbia. Now the Commodores welcome SEC rival Florida for a three-game series at Hawkins Field, a key matchup at a point in the season in which every game matters.
“You play in the SEC [and] it’s week-in, week-out playing good teams like this,” right-handed pitcher Kyle Wright said. “This is just another chance for us to test our abilities.”
The Commodores looked the part of SEC contenders against South Carolina. Vanderbilt won the series by taking the first two games, including a 5-3 thriller in 13 innings on Friday. In that game, Julian Infante helped clinch the series with a two-run homer in the 13th to give Vanderbilt its first lead. The series against the Gamecocks helped push Vanderbilt back to 6-6 in SEC play, and Corbin said he hopes beating a top-15 team on the road lights a fire under his roster.
“To come out of Columbia, S.C. with two games is certainly a big deal,” Corbin said. “You hope it bring some confidence going into this weekend. But it’s behind us now, and we’ve got to move forward.”
Beating Florida would be another step forward, especially as the Commodores and Gators sit tied at 6-6 in the SEC East. Vanderbilt is likely to repeat last week’s pitching lineup with Patrick Raby on the bump on Thursday and Wright on Friday. The Dores will contend with a Florida pitching staff that features Alex Faedo (Thursday) and Brady Singer (Friday). The sophomore Singer has been particularly effective this season; he has allowed no more than two earned runs in any of his eight starts and averages 7.0 innings pitched per start.
The Dores also begin the series against Florida (8 p.m. Thursday on ESPNU) hoping to reverse some history. Florida head coach Kevin O'Sullivan has won six of his nine all-time series against Vanderbilt, including two of four in Nashville. Still, numbers – or team records – might say one thing. But in the SEC in 2017, it’s anyone’s game on any given night.
“We’re even [at 6-6] right now in this conference,” Corbin said. “It’s just all about trying to move in a forward trajectory.”