SEC baseball tournament could yield elusive LSU-Vanderbilt matchup

Traveling as a devout scribe for Baseball America, Aaron Fitt’s itinerary calls for an escape from the humid climes to take in the Big Ten Conference tournament at the Minneapolis Twins’ home ballpark,Target Field.

Yet the college baseball writer’s interest clearly would be piqued by a possible final in the SEC tournament Sunday in Hoover, Ala.: No. 1 Vanderbilt vs. No. 2 LSU.

“Oh boy, it would be fantastic,” Fitt said. “It’s maybe the two best teams in all of college baseball.”

North Carolina, Virginia and Cal State Fullerton might take umbrage at that statement, but for now Fitt might be stating the obvious.

In a season when the top-ranked Commodores (48-7, 26-3) set a record for conference victories and the Tigers (48-8, 23-7) set a mark for regular-season wins, the SEC schedule kept the tournament’s top two seeds from meeting.

The Eastern and Western Division champions reside on opposite sides of a draw that sets up for a penultimate conclusion, an outcome that requires a minimum of three victories to arrange the coveted tilt. On Monday, though, neither LSU coach Paul Mainieri or Vandy’s Tim Corbin sounded keen on offering in-depth or nuanced analysis of a potential meeting at Regions Park.

“No, I don’t,” Corbin said when asked if he had thoughts on an LSU-Vandy final. “If we play them, we play them. They’ve got a lot of work to do. We’ve got a lot of work to do.”

Mainieri offered the same respectful pragmatism in trying to convey respect about the Commodores’ feat while sidestepping any comments that might be construed as looking too far ahead.

“We had a tremendous year, and Vanderbilt trumped us,” Mainieri said. “All we can do is tip our hat. We didn’t have an opportunity to play them during the season. It was the luck of the draw, and we play the teams that are on our schedule.”

Mainieri’s caveats, though, don’t temper the enthusiasm of his players about what a series would have meant for both programs.

“We’d love to see them,” first baseman Mason Katz said. “What they’ve done is remarkable, and we’d love to get our shot. It was unfortunate this was the year we didn’t get to play them.”

For his part, Mainieri concedes it would be foolhardy to try to censor his players from any outside speculation about facing the Commodores.

“I don’t try and make my kids stick their heads in the sand,” he said. “This is how the whole situation is. ... All we can do is play our game Wednesday against Auburn or Alabama.”

There’s also the small matter of stakes involved in a Vandy-LSU final, which Fitt said frankly are small.

“The fact is the SEC tournament isn’t very important to either team,” he said. “There’s nothing on the line. They’re both going to be national seeds. You play the games that are in front of you. But it would still be fun.”

In lieu of scouting reports from the mouths of Mainieri and Corbin during a teleconference Monday, their coaching colleagues were left to break down — code for speculate — on what a meeting between Vandy and LSU might hold. Those assessments were rather bland, but it’s not as if the Commodores or Tigers offer much in the way of contrasts for opposing skippers to parse. And don’t ask them to pick who would win in a three-game series.

“That’s a loaded question,” Florida coach Kevin O’Sullivan said.

Skimming columns of statistics, Vandy and LSU are ranked first or second in every major offensive category and hold the same distinction in nine metrics for pitching.

Corbin features a pair of aces in junior left-hander Kevin Ziomek (10-2, 1.99 ERA) and sophomore Tyler Beede (13-0, 1.73). Mainieri counters with sophomore lefty Aaron Nola (10-0. 1.99) and junior Ryan Eades (8-1, 2.70). Out of the bullpen, the Commodores sport Brian Miller (14 saves, 1.60 ERA), while the shaggy-haired Chris Cotton (12 saves, 1.62 ERA) handles the duty for the Tigers.

“They’re really well-balanced. They’ve both got some pitching depth,” Kentucky coach Gary Henderson said. “They’ve got real options in the bullpen — not just young freshmen that aren’t ready that you’re running out there. They concentrate and compete at a really high level.”

Offensively, both clubs are potent but slightly diverse.

Vanderbilt is more apt to apply pressure on the basepaths, leading the SEC in steals and sacrifices, while LSU relies on the heart of its order in the form of Katz (.388 average, 14 homers, 64 RBIs), shortstop Alex Bregman (.388, five homers, 49 RBIs) and right fielder Raph Rhymes (.349, four homers, 42 RBIs) to bludgeon foes.

Yet several foes have at least put up sturdy resistance before ultimately succumbing in weekend series.

Alabama, which enters as the No. 7 seed, stole a 5-4 victory in 10 innings last Friday in the second game of a weekend series, holding Ziomek to a no-decision in the process. A day later, they chased Beede with five runs in the top of the fourth inning before losing a 14-10 slugfest.

“Both those guys are really good, but we’ve had the same approach all year,” Alabama coach Mitch Gaspard said. “We really try to center up the fastball. Obviously guys with big arms like Ziomek and Beede are going to try and beat you up with fastballs, and you’ve got to be on time.”

South Carolina, the No. 4 seed, dealt LSU its lone home series loss of the season in April. Over three games, the Tigers averaged only 2.33 runs, batted 15 points below their season average at .297 and slugged a modest .356.

Oddly, and in potential testament to LSU’s dominance, Holbrook framed the outcome as much a matter of fate as skill.

“There’s no perfect remedy to get those guys out,” Holbrook said. “We were blessed with some good fortune. The balls they hit hard, some of them happened to be right at us. They hit some balls on the nose, and a few outfielders ran them down in the gaps. It was just one of those weekends, to be honest with you, the ball bounced our way.”

Outside of those blips, Vandy and LSU sauntered to division titles, leaving hypothetical matchups as the lone way of comparison — perhaps at least until Sunday.

“It’s a shame they didn’t get to face off in the regular season,” Fitt said. “It’s a matchup with big-time national appeal, no question about it — if that matchup materializes.”