In its Southeastern Conference tournament opener, South Carolina will play an exhausted Mississippi State team on Wednesday night, as the Bulldogs beat Missouri 2-1 in 17 innings on Tuesday – in a game that crept into the wee hours of Wednesday morning.
Missouri-Mississippi State was a single-elimination game. With Day 1 of the tournament complete, it will now revert to a double-elimination format.
USC will go with Nolan Belcher on Wednesday night, in the day’s fourth and final game. He has been the Gamecocks’ most consistent starter all season and will be pitching on one fewer day of rest than normal, because he started Thursday at Mississippi State.
Belcher this season has a 2.17 earned-run average with 83 strikeouts and 13 walks. USC lost his start at Mississippi State, 5-4, after allowing four runs in the eighth inning. Belcher was solid that night – 6 1/3 innings, nine hits, one run (earned), three walks and four strikeouts.
The Gamecocks closed the regular season by going 1-2 at Mississippi State and almost certainly locked up an NCAA tournament Regional host site because Arkansas went 1-2 against Auburn on the final weekend. Probably the only way USC can cough up the host site at this point is by going 0-2 in the conference tournament and Arkansas getting to at least the championship game.
The Razorbacks had a strong year – 35-19, 18-11 SEC. The Gamecocks went 39-16 and 17-12, and were swept by Arkansas. (Mississippi State went 16-14 against the league and is now 41-16 overall.) But Arkansas’ Regional hosting resume and Ratings Percentage Index are hurt by two losses in February and early March, to Western Illinois and Pacific.
So Arkansas is No. 49 in the RPI, according to WarrenNolan.com, while USC is No. 12. Western Illinois checks in at No. 259, Pacific at No. 246.
USC is the No. 4 seed in the SEC tournament and received a bye out of Day 1. Arkansas is the No. 3 seed and plays Mississippi on Wednesday morning. The top four seeds got byes, but even for them, winning the tournament means winning five games in five days.
Mississippi State is already plenty taxed, after Tuesday’s marathon gem against Missouri. The Bulldogs used six pitchers, but they all threw between 29 and 46 pitches, so perhaps some of them will be able to throw Wednesday.
But before moving on to the fourth game between the Gamecocks and Bulldogs in the past seven days, let’s just consider how remarkable Missouri-Mississippi State was …
** Its 17 innings matched the longest game in SEC tournament history. In 1994, Auburn beat Arkansas 3-1 in 17 innings. The longest game between two SEC teams remains Auburn’s 7-6 win over Florida in 20 innings in 1972. And the longest with one SEC team remains Kentucky’s 7-6 loss to Kent State in 21 innings in last year’s NCAA tournament Regional in Gary, Ind.
** The game checked in at four hours, 39 minutes and ended at 12:24 a.m. local time.
** The teams combined for 119 at-bats, 27 hits, nine walks, 29 strikeouts, 27 men left on base (17 by the Bulldogs) and 467 pitches. Home plate umpire Mark Chapman earned his paycheck. You might remember Chapman being on the receiving end of Ray Tanner’s Earl Weaver impression last season, on a day when USC completed a sweep of Mississippi State.
** A couple pretty remarkable numbers: There was just one combined error and two combined extra-base hits (a double by each team).
** Also, neither team scored from the bottom of the fifth inning until the bottom of the 17th, when a two-out, two-strike single to center field scored a runner from second base – a lead-off walk that came back to bite Missouri.
** Missouri used just three pitchers. Its starter, Keaton Steele, went seven innings and threw 105 pitches. The next man in, starter Rob Zastryzny, threw nine innings and 124 pitches. You’d be hard pressed to find many college or professional baseball games this year in which two guys threw 100-plus pitches.