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Bulldogs begin SEC tourney play today vs. Vandy

UGA coach Dave Perno's team enters the SEC Tournament with a mediocre record of 31-24 overall and 14-15 in conference play.

UGA coach Dave Perno's team enters the SEC Tournament with a mediocre record of 31-24 overall and 14-15 in conference play.

HOOVER, Ala. — Georgia will start sophomore left-hander Alex Wood tonight in the opener of the SEC Tournament against Vanderbilt, which will send junior right-hander Drew VerHagen to the mound.

Georgia (31-24, 14-15 SEC) is the No. 8 seed while Vanderbilt is the No. 5 seed after going 16-14 in league play and 29-25 overall. Wood is a team-best 7-2 with a 2.58 ERA in 14 starts, while VerHagen is 5-2 with a team-leading 3.63 ERA in 22 appearances including six starts. The Georgia-Vanderbilt game at Regions Park and will start 30 minutes after the conclusion of the Florida-Auburn contest, which is slated to begin at 5:30 p.m.

Bulldog head coach David Perno, whose team enters the tourney with its lowest seed in nearly a decade, knows Vanderbilt is playing very well, and UGA has its work cut out if it wants to advance to Wednesday’s second round against No. 2 seed and defending national champions South Carolina.

“We knew last week that we could be anywhere from a No. 5 to a No. 10 seed because we’re all bunched together as far as our SEC records,” Perno said Monday. “We’ve played well of late; we’ve just been a little short in the run category. We’re throwing strikes and taking care of the baseball. We feel good with Alex going (today) and he’s been as good as anybody we’ve played.”

Perno then added: “We knew a few weeks ago that this would be an important tournament again for us, just like last year. Alex and Michael Palazzone will go in the first two games. We scaled back their workload in between outings for a few weeks now knowing they would go the first two here and both should be good to go.”

Last year at the SEC Tournament, the Bulldogs advanced to the semifinals, going 3-2 to propel them to another NCAA Regional bid. Georgia made it to the NCAA Corvallis Regional final before falling to the host Beavers of Oregon State. Incidentally, Oregon State then headed to Nashville to face Vanderbilt in a Super Regional, and the Commodores won it.

This year, Vanderbilt won the regular-season series against Georgia, 2-1, in Nashville. Georgia won Game 1 as five pitchers combined for a seven-hit shutout, and junior Curt Powell accounted for the game’s only run — a solo home run to lead off the fourth inning. Wood started that game and tossed 4 1/3 innings when the game was halted due a rain delay that lasted more than an hour. Meanwhile, VerHagen made two relief appearances in the series, going 3 2/3 scoreless innings in game one and then got the win in game three, pitching 2 2/3 innings and allowing one run on four hits with three walks.

Georgia is making its 20th appearance at the SEC Tournament, and it owns a record of 28-38. In his last start this past Thursday against Alabama in Tuscaloosa, Wood earned his seventh win, going seven innings and surrendering one unearned run on six hits with no walks and eight strikeouts. Palazzone pitched a complete game in a 4-0 loss to the Crimson Tide last Friday.

AUBURN DRAWS TOUGH FLORIDA TEAM IN SEC TOURNEY OPENER: The No. 10-seeded Auburn baseball team will see a very familiar opponent in the opening round of the tournament today as it will face No. 3 Florida at 4:30 p.m. Auburn and Florida concluded the regular season against each other at Plainsman Park with Florida winning the first two games of the series and Auburn the last.

Today’s matchup will be the first meeting at the conference tournament between Auburn and Florida since the 2000 Tournament, a 7-2 Florida win. Florida 40-16, 18-12 SEC) has won five of the seven previous meetings between the two programs, with Auburn’s last win coming in the second round of the 1998 tournament.

This will be Auburn’s third straight SEC Tournament appearance and 21st overall. Auburn (30-26, 13-17 SEC) is 29-39 overall at the SEC Tournament, winning it three times, the last coming in 1998.

The other teams on Auburn’s half of the bracket are second-seeded and SEC East Champion South Carolina (39-15, 18-11 SEC), fifth-seeded Vanderbilt and eighth-seeded Georgia. Auburn went a combined 2-10 against its half of the bracket during the regular season.

ALL EYES ON NO. 1 LSU: It didn’t take long for LSU to jump back on top of the SEC.

The Tigers are the No. 1 seed in this week’s SEC Tournament — just one year after missing the field entirely — and hope to win an expanded version of the event.

Though LSU (42-14 overall, 19-11 SEC) will almost certainly earn one of the top eight national seeds in the NCAA Tournament field no matter its performance this week, coach Paul Mainieri said his team’s return to the SEC postseason after a disappointing 2011 is reason to celebrate.

“Going to Hoover is not anything you ever take for granted,” Mainieri said.

The SEC Tournament field has expanded to 10 teams from the usual eight, a move made in advance of the league’s expansion to 14 teams next season. But the coaches hope there’s another added benefit — more teams making the NCAA Tournament.

The SEC has won three straight national titles and is regarded as one of the best overall leagues in college baseball. But that depth has sometimes been a detriment for teams on the NCAA bubble because programs that didn’t finish in the top eight didn’t make it to Hoover. Though teams that have missed the SEC Tournament have occasionally made the NCAA tournament in the past, it’s been rare.

LSU and Mississippi were left out of the NCAA Tournament field last season after missing the SEC Tournament, despite having RPI numbers that would normally garner NCAA consideration.

“Having 10 teams is definitely the way to go,” Mississippi State coach John Cohen said. “If you look at the nine and 10 seeds, they can get on a roll and into the NCAA Tournament. It’s about giving opportunities to go deep into the postseason and certainly we have more teams capable than any other league in America … Long term, it makes so much sense for every program in this league.”

LSU didn’t need an expanded tournament to make the field this year. The Tigers have one of the league’s best pitchers in right-hander Kevin Gausman, who has a 9-1 record, 2.86 ERA and 118 strikeouts. They also have Raph Rhymes, who leads the SEC with a .469 batting average after flirting with .500 through much of the regular season.

The Tigers won the SEC’s regular-season championship by taking two of three games from South Carolina last weekend.

Ole Miss and Auburn are the two teams that get to take advantage of the SEC’s tournament expanded format. Rebels’ coach Mike Bianco hopes his team will have a good week after an inconsistent regular season. With only two games separating the league’s 5th place and 9th place teams in the SEC regular-season standings, every win in the tournament could be important when it comes to the NCAA Tournament selection process.