Georgia starts trek to elusive crown
HOOVER, Ala. (AP) — After nearly sweeping the Southeastern Conference’s individual awards, top-seeded Georgia is hoping to claim a bigger prize overall: its first league tournament title.
The Bulldogs (35-19-1), who had three second-place finishes in the 1980s, open the double-elimination tournament today against No. 8 Mississippi (34-22) at Regions Park.
Georgia’s David Perno, the SEC coach of the year, said trying to win the event for the first time is added motivation, along with faring well enough to bolster its case for one of the eight national seeds.
“You can’t talk about winning it,” Perno said. “The first thing you’ve got to try to do is get through your bracket. That’s your first goal.”
The other games today include No. 2 LSU vs. No. 7 South Carolina; No. 3 Florida vs. No. 6 Vanderbilt, and No. 4 Kentucky vs. No. 5 Alabama.
Led by slugger Gordon Beckham and closer Joshua Fields — named the league’s player and pitcher of the year, respectively, on Tuesday — the Bulldogs secured the top seed before the final regular-season series.
Auburn’s Hunter Morris was the freshman of the year, avoiding an awards sweep by Georgia.
The Bulldogs stumbled against Alabama this season, giving up 33 runs in the two series defeats.
Georgia starter Trevor Holder has an ailing shoulder and might sit out the tournament unless he’s able to go in relief on the weekend, Perno said.
However, the Bulldogs will make no excuses while depending upon their bullpen and other starting pitchers during the tournament.
And for the Georgia coach, the formula for success is simple for his team.
“From our standpoint, it’s just getting back to the things that won the SEC championship, and that’s quality starting pitching, solid middle relief and one of the best closers in the country,” Perno said. “That’s first and foremost. I like where we were are offensively.”
Second-seeded LSU (39-16-1) and No. 5 Alabama (32-24) might be the hottest teams entering the tournament, which concludes Sunday.
The Tigers have won their last 16 games overall and a dozen in a row against SEC teams heading into today’s matchup with No. 7 South Carolina.
The Tigers just re-entered the Top 10 for the first time since March 13, 2006, thanks to the hot streak.
“I’ve coached 26 years now in college baseball and this team as much as any team I’ve coached would define the word ’team,’ because everybody has contributed,” second-year LSU coach Paul Mainieri said. “There’s no real great superstars, and everybody has done their part.
“The confidence for our team has continued to grow with each passing day.”
Neither Georgia nor LSU made the eight-team field last season.
The Tide, meanwhile, has won five SEC series in a row, including the finale against the top-rated Georgia.
Alabama has won seven SEC Tournament titles, but starter Miers Quigley’s status is uncertain with back problems heading into the tournament this week.
That leads the tournament crown possibly open for any team to take.
“It is pretty wide-open,” said Alex Avila, who leads the Tide with 16 home runs. “Anybody could beat anybody. We feel we’re the hottest team going into this thing, besides LSU. Right now, we’re going into this believing we can win the whole tournament, but it’s going to be a dogfight.”
The format has been tweaked for Saturday’s games.
The bracket will be re-seeded to avoid the possibility of having teams play each other three times during the league’s postseason tournament.
“I look forward to playing another team in another bracket if you get that far,” Vandy coach Tim Corbin said. “I like the fact that you won’t run into a team three times.
“I like the format and everyone was unanimous in voting for it.”