While it is not an official playoff, the Gators and Gamecocks will begin their de facto three game playoff tonight in Columbia, with the series winner taking the SEC Championship. The last time Florida (38-12, 20-7, No. 4) won the SEC in 2005, their season ended in the College World Series Championship Series. The last time South Carolina (42-11, 20-7, No. 6) won the SEC was in 2002, when they also got to the Championship Series. Next week's SEC Tournament is a double elimination crap shoot. This week's games are true measure of who is the best team in the SEC.
Both teams have better than average offense. They each hit around .300, slug .500 and get on base 40 percent of the time. The Cocks do a much better job of managing at-bats, however, as they walk more and strike out much less than the Gators.
Offense takes a back seat to pitching, which is the strength of each team. The Gamecocks lead the SEC with a 3.55 ERA, compared to the Gators' 3.98 ERA. The power of South Carolina's pitchers is also evident, as they are in the top-ten nationally in ERA, strikeouts per game and hits allowed per game. Florida's success is in not allowing extra base runners (2nd nationally in walks allowed) and pitching to their 8th ranked defense.
This contrast will be on display Thursday night when senior Cocks pitcher Blake Cooper (10-0, 3.01) faces sophomore Alex Panteliodis (8-2, 3.34). Cooper is a power pitcher with 79 strikeouts and is allowing a .217 batting average. Panteliodis has 53 strikeouts and allows batters to hit .234, but has only 15 walks to Cooper's 28. The Gators have done a fantastic job this season of giving their pitchers manageable goals of limiting walks and pitching to their defense. That style wins as many games as power pitching.
Friday night's game will have the same power pitcher vs. ground ball pitcher matchup, when SC redshirt junior Sam Dyson (5-4, 3.79) faces UF freshman Hudson Randall (6-3, 2.96). For Saturday's finale, the Gators have southpaw freshman Brian Johnson (5-2, 3.53) against the always tough TBA.
The big thing for Florida this weekend will be for UF to get production through the entire lineup. Preston Tucker and Austin Maddox have been the power plants, but they won't be enough. If UF can get Mike Zunino and Josh Adams on base, it turns the order over for Matt den Dekker and Nolan Fontana. The lineup also needs to work South Carolina. Cooper leads the SEC with 89 innings pitched and Dyson is 10th with 76 IP, plus three complete games. Before you brush that aside, consider that power pitchers throw more pitches than ground ball pitchers. It would be to Florida's benefit to maybe take a few pitches and not give the Gamecocks free outs.
The Thursday and Friday night games are at 7pm in Columbia. Saturday's game is at 4pm.