SEC West shines as Arkansas, Auburn and Ole Miss advance on Monday

 Chris Lee   in Baseball

Three SEC West teams are heading to super regionals after Monday wins. 

Tim Elko photo courtesy of Ole Miss.

Third-seeded Rebels blast Arizona, win Coral Gables regional

A week before, Ole Miss (35-22) was hardly sure it would be in the NCAA tournament. Monday, the Rebels had their best offensive performance of the year in a 22-8 demolition of Arizona to take the Coral Gables regional.

If anyone was going to carry the Rebels, it was Tim Elko--and that's what he did. The senior reached base 12 times in three games, drove in seven runs (including the only two in Ole Miss's 2-1 win over Miami) and smashed three home runs on Monday, deservedly earning MVP.

Another key was Hunter Elliott, who pitched so well at season's end. The freshman carried that over to Coral Gables in a five-inning, one-run performance vs. Miami. Dylan DeLucia (six innings, four runs, 12 strikeouts) also pitched well enough in the Rebels' first win over Miami on Friday. 

It's been a tumultuous season for Ole Miss coach Mike Bianco, who courted the job at his alma mater (LSU) and didn't get it coming off a 2021 that didn't meet expectations. Bianco has been on the hot seat most of the year as the Rebels underperformed, and that undercurrent of fan unhappiness has been over the Rebels' inability to get to Omaha--something Bianco's done just once since taking the job starting with the 2001 season despite what's now 18 NCAA tournament appearances. It'll be interesting to see if perception changes should Bianco be able to guide the Rebels past Southern Miss next weekend. 

Auburn mashes its way to Corvallis

Auburn was a questionable regional host, but made the committee look good with its work against one of the more balanced regionals in the field. The Tigers blew through Southeastern Louisiana, Florida State and UCLA--beating each once--by a combined 51-18 margin. 

The Tigers were so dominant that they placed nine players on the all-tournament team, including MVP Brody Moore.

Offensive balance was key for Auburn; the Tigers didn't always have it as Sonny DiChiara (our 2022 SEC Player of the Year) and Blake Rambusch often seemed to carry the offensive load. That wasn't the case for the Tigers in the regional, where everyone pitched in. The most spectacular performance of the weekend belonged to Cole Foster, who slugged three home runs and drove in nine in the opener. Nate LaRue also had a pair of home runs in that game. 

The other issue for the Tigers was finding quality starting pitching outside Joseph Gonzalez. They got it from Mason Barnett, who pitched 5 1/3 innings of shutout, one-hit, 10-strikeout baseball against UCLA. 

It's unrealistic to expect the Tigers to carry that level of performance to Oregon State--the No. 3 seed in the tournament--which knocked off Vanderbilt by a 7-6 score on Monday. The ball won't carry as well in the cooler air of Corvallis, and Auburn will also have to throw strikes to a patient, dangerous and exceptionally balanced OSU lineup. But Auburn played its best ball of the season in the regional, providing some hope the Tigers can pull an upset and get to Omaha. 

Arkansas out-slugs, then out-pitches, Oklahoma State

Perhaps no regional had more wild momentum swings than the one in Stillwater, where Arkansas emerged a victor after a 7-3 win over host Oklahoma State on Monday. Hagen Smith--normally a starter--nailed down a save with two scoreless innings to finish against the heart of one of the country's most dangerous offenses.

The key for the Razorbacks was offense. Arkansas probably underachieved a bit there in the regular season, but mashed a good OSU pitching staff for 37 runs in three games. Catcher Michael Turner--the regional MVP--was 8-of-18 with five runs scored and 11 RBIs.

Another big storyline was for the Razorbacks was the re-emergence of Peyton Stovall. The freshman had been benched much of the year but responded with an 8-for-16 showing in Stillwater. 

Arkansas also has a reputation as an outstanding defensive club and that certainly showed up in Stillwater, including a pair of terrific plays by Cayden Wallace.

The Razorbacks head to Chapel Hill, N.C., to face North Carolina in what should be a toss-up of a series.