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Premium Pitching On Full Display At SEC Tournament

HOOVER, Ala. — The premium pitching started early Thursday at the SEC Tournament, with Texas A&M lefthander John Doxakis throwing eight hitless innings against Mississippi in the day’s first game. Ole Miss lefthander Doug Nikhazy nearly matched him, holding A&M to three hits in eight scoreless innings, and the Rebels won, 1-0.

The standout performances on the mound continued all day, a crescendo of upper-90s fastballs and biting breaking balls. Blue-chip freshmen righthander Landon Marceaux (Louisiana State) and Cole Wilcox (Georgia) shone on the big stage of Hoover Metropolitan Stadium, matching up well against Auburn lefthander Jack Owen and Arkansas righthander Isaiah Campbell, two of the conference’s most consistent pitchers.

It all built to the nightcap, when Mississippi State lefthander Ethan Small and Vanderbilt righthander Drake Fellows provided a fitting finale. Fellows and Small squared off in a classic pitchers’ duel that the Commodores won, 1-0, and provided the large scouting contingent in attendance plenty to consider as they evaluate when in the first few rounds of next month’s draft to select Fellows and Small.

In total, there were 13 runs scored on 43 hits and 27 walks in Hoover on Thursday. It was a day for pitching in a conference that is known for its power arms.

Vanderbilt senior first baseman Julian Infante has seen a lot of premium arms during his four years in the SEC. He delivered the only run in the nightcap with a two-out hit in the second inning that Fellows and the Commodores’ bullpen was able to make stand up. He said he enjoyed the challenge of facing so many premium pitchers.

“We were talking about in the dugout about how everyone in the field is so talented and it’s really great,” he said. “Being here four years, I think it’s always constant that you’re getting attacked.”

The Commodores certainly had their work cut out for them Thursday night against Small, who this week was named the SEC pitcher of the year. He was at the top of his game, mixing his whole arsenal effectively and striking out 11 batters in seven innings while scattering three hits and two walks. Outfielder J.J. Bleday, who a day before had become the first player in 16 years to produce a five-hit day at the SEC Tournament, was flummoxed, going 0-for-2 with a walk and two strikeouts against Small.

Though he came out on the losing end, it was just the kind of start Small was looking for before going into the NCAA Tournament next week.

“The biggest thing I wanted to accomplish was getting my pitch count back up,” he said. “We had the fog delay and last week really wasn’t what I wanted. I wanted to get the pitch count up so I can work later in the game next week.”

Small is now 8-2, 1.80 with 150 strikeouts and 24 walks in 90 innings this season. He has been dominant all season long, as he was Thursday night, impressing the Vanderbilt staff.

“To me, as a pitching coach I almost look it as an eight-pitch mix,” Vanderbilt pitching coach Scott Brown said. “His ability to command the fastball up, his ability to command the fastball in and out, throw in a breaking ball, deceptive leg lifts, quick, slow—just a remarkable pitcher. The ability to go to a lot of different stuff at a lot of different times, command the zone.”

But Fellows was able to match Small. The righthander struck out eight batters in six innings and scattered five hits and a walk. He located his fastball well and had his slider working very well, producing several swings and misses with the pitch.

Fellows was most happy to be able to help his offense on a night that they weren’t able to provide their typical production.

“They’ve been helping me out all year, scoring all these runs pretty early and me going on cruise control,” he said. “But it was nice to help them out for once.”

Fellows improved to 11-0, 4.05 with 108 strikeouts and 36 walks in 91 innings.

Fellows has made some important strides over the course of the season after struggling with his control early in the year. Brown said the junior has worked hard to clean up some mechanical issues over the last few months.

“He’s a guy that’s really had to hone in on his mechanics throughout the year,” Brown said. “They seem to have come into play here the last couple weeks a little bit better. Little bit of a setback at South Carolina a couple weeks ago, but I think it was a quick fix. The biggest thing is commanding the backside arm swing.”

When Fellows is locked in, as he was Thursday, he can command his fastball to both sides of the plate and bust righthanded hitters in on the hands. That is important to keep them from cheating out over the plate and improves the effectiveness of his slider.

Combine that with Fellows’ competitiveness, and he can produce a start like he did against Mississippi State and match up well with anyone in the country.

“What makes him good is he doesn’t break,” coach Tim Corbin said. “He might bend a little, but he doesn’t break. He is a strong-willed kid that just is not going to give in. And he’s got good stuff, too. We’re lucky to have him.”

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The SEC’s dominance on the mound is particularly apparent with the likes of Campbell, Doxakis, Fellows and Small dealing. They are all juniors who will all be off the board by early in Day 2 of the draft at the latest and have established themselves as true Friday starters.

But what Marceaux and Wilcox did Thursday, when they combined to hold opponents to three runs (none earned) in 13 innings, was just as telling. Both came to college with plenty of fanfare having pitched on the dominant 2017 USA Baseball 18U national team and could have signed out of high school for hefty bonuses. Instead, they opted to come pitch in the SEC, and both struggled out of the gate this spring. Marceaux was knocked out of the LSU rotation early in the season, and Wilcox opened the spring in the bullpen.

But both have improved over the course of the year and are playing big roles, as expected, for their teams down the stretch. For either team to make it to the College World Series, they will need their blue-chip freshman righthander to play a big role in the NCAA Tournament.

The performance of Nikhazy and Owens was also indictive of the SEC’s pitching depth. Both are their team’s No. 2 starters but have shut down opponents all spring just like they did Thursday.

In a league with so many high draft picks fronting rotations, those kinds of developments are often overshadowed. But to Brown, who has spent seven years as Vanderbilt’s pitching coach, that’s a big part of what makes the SEC pitching so good.

“I had this conversation with Walker Buehler, we’re just talking about the amount of guys in this league that at the end of the year start to come on,” Brown said. “Maybe Cole Wilcox, for example, isn’t in the rotation all year, but you knew he was a big arm. All of a sudden, he’s emerging.

“The talent rises to the top."

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