After a weekend sweep of Missouri – who wouldn’t be a competitive team in the Southland Conference much less the SEC – the Diamond Hogs have won six of their last seven as they head to Hoover for this week’s SEC Tournament.
It is amazing, but every year Dave Van Horn seems to have his team playing their best when it really starts to matter. While this is not one of Van Horn’s elite teams, baseball fans know anything can happen in a four-team regional or 3-game super regional.
We have not written much in this space about this team, because quite frankly they were an uninspiring bunch throughout the first half of the season. With an RPI in the upper 90s in early April, coupled with their inability to score runs, the Hogs were unwatchable at times. Not even Jobu could have helped this team.
Bats, they are sick. I cannot hit curveball. Straightball I hit it very much. Curveball, bats are afraid. I ask Jobu to come, take fear from bats. I offer him cigar, rum. He will come. – Pedro Cerano (Major League, 1989)
But then in mid-April, this team really started to find enough offense to be dangerous. The pitching has been there the whole year with Trey Killian (3-8, 2.34), Jalen Beeks (5-4, 2.11), and Chris Oliver (7-4, 2.63) leading the way. But a couple of things really started to click offensively.
First baseman Eric Fisher (.262, 8HRs, 39RBIs) caught fire and started launching home runs. His power surge coincided with the insertion of redshirt freshman Blake Baxendale (.290, 1HR, 21 RBIs) into the lineup as DH. Bax and Fisher gave the Hogs some pop in the middle of the batting order…something they didn’t have to start the year.
When Baxendale went down with a hamstring injury at Ole Miss, freshman outfielder Clark Eagan stepped into the DH role and has been raking it for a 12-24 clip (.500) including 2HRs in his last seven games.
Shortstop Michael Bernal (.266, 2HRs, 18 RBIs) has raised his average some 45-points during the last five weeks, providing a huge spark at the bottom of the order. Bernal gives the Hogs a ‘second leadoff man’, and that has really helped to trigger some big rallies in the last three weeks.
Bernal has been a great story, and while he has been a bit erratic in the field (15 errors leads the team), he has made some incredible plays defensively and been the main reason the Hogs lead the SEC in double plays (52). He’s going to be a star – an All-SEC caliber player – before he leaves.
Going into the SEC tournament, we suspect that Beeks will continue to rest his tired arm to get ready for Regional play. We would also be surprised to see Baxendale back any time soon. Hamstring pulls high up like his can take a long time to recover from.
The Diamond Hogs open the SEC Tournament vs. Texas A&M on Tuesday afternoon. If the they can continue their hot hitting ways (76-257, .296 last seven games), this could be a very fun team to watch down the stretch. A far cry from where they were in early April.