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SEC teams playing more long ball with league play beginning

March 11, 2015

Home runs are on the rise early on in the Southeastern Conference and Florida coach Kevin O’Sullivan believes that should lead to more exciting games around the league.

“It used to be a three-run deficit felt like a huge hole,” O’Sullivan said. “Now you feel like with a couple good swings, you can get back into the game. Every game, you better play all nine innings.”

The SEC’s 30-game league schedule begins on Friday.

The Gators, who open against Tennessee, are among the favorites to win the SEC this season. They’re also among many league teams that have seen a spike in power numbers after college baseball introduced a new ball this season with lower seams.

Florida had 16 homers through 17 games as of Tuesday. The Gators had just 26 homers in 63 games all of last season.

“Players are getting rewarded for taking a good swing,” O’Sullivan said. “We’re bunting less, especially with guys who can really hit the ball. I don’t know if it’s been a drastic change, but it’s certainly been a positive one.”

Texas A&M — perhaps the league’s most surprising team — has also joined the homer barrage. The Aggies hit 20 homers through their first 17 games, nearly matching the 25 they hit all of last season.

Texas A&M was an also-ran during its first two seasons in the SEC, with a combined 27-32 league record, but coach Rob Childress hopes a veteran team can help the program take a big step forward.

“We have such great senior leadership,” Childress said. “I’m sure they understand where we are and where we’re trying to go and the things we have to do to get there, and getting through the 30-game grind of the SEC schedule is a challenge in itself.”

Florida, which is the No. 1 ranked team in the country according to d1baseball.com, and Texas A&M, ranked No. 6, will have plenty of competition for the SEC crown: LSU (4), Vanderbilt (5) and South Carolina (7) are also among the nation’s top teams.

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A few things to watch as Southeastern Conference play opens on Friday:

FLORIDA’S GETTING HEALTHY: Florida’s off to a good start with a 15-2 record through Tuesday’s games. The Gators should be getting even better in the near future: O’Sullivan said he hopes power-hitting first baseman Peter Alonso can return to the lineup soon after suffering a foot injury in the preseason. The Gators’ Harrison Bader — who leads the team with six homers — is also dealing with an ankle injury that’s caused him to miss a few games.

CHAMPS’ TOUGH WEEKEND: Vanderbilt, the defending national champion, lost two out of three games last weekend during a tournament in Los Angeles. The Commodores beat UCLA before losing to Southern California and Texas Christian. Vanderbilt should still be a formidable foe in league play — the Commodores had a .324 team batting average through Tuesday’s games.

IMPRESSIVE VOLUNTEER: Sophomore right-hander Kyle Serrano, son of Tennessee coach Dave Serrano, has been nearly unhittable so far this season with a 1.69 ERA. Opponents are batting just .115 against him. He’s part of a Volunteers’ pitching staff that has a 1.63 ERA through Tuesday’s games.

GREAT PERFORMANCES: Florida right-hander Logan Shore didn’t allow a run during non-conference play, throwing 19 1/3 scoreless innings. Texas A&M lefty A.J. Minter isn’t far behind — he’s given up one earned run in 21 innings for 0.43 ERA. ... Alabama sophomore Casey Hughston leads the SEC with a .500 batting average (30 of 60) through 15 games. He also leads the Tide with 21 RBIs.

STRUGGLING OLE MISS: The Rebels hoped to build on their breakthrough season in 2014, when they advanced to the College World Series for the first time since 1972. But it’s been a struggle so far this spring: Ole Miss had an 8-7 record through Tuesday’s games and ranked 13th out of 14 teams in batting average (.256) and last in ERA (3.88).

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AP Sports Writers Eric Olson and Steve Megargee contributed to this story.

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Follow David Brandt on Twitter: www.twitter.com/davidbrandtAP

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