- Associated Press - Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Now more than ever, the key to success in the Southeastern Conference is pitching.

The league has the lowest ERA in the country, and aces abound as postseason play approaches next month.

LSU’s Aaron Nola (7-1, 0.88 ERA), Arkansas’ Jalen Beeks (5-3, 1.49) and Mississippi’s Chris Ellis (5-0, 1.72) are among those dominating almost every time they take the mound.

That’s not necessarily surprising. The SEC has a long history of successful pitchers who go on to Major League Baseball prominence, including current stars like David Price, Lance Lynn, Cliff Lee, Tim Hudson and Mike Minor.

But the difference this season is depth. The league had a 2.72 ERA at the halfway point this season, down from 3.14 at the same time a year ago.

“Some guys throw hard. Some guys can work the corners. But they’re all getting it done,” Ole Miss coach Mike Bianco said.

Nola may be the league’s best. The 6-foot-1 junior right-hander has given up just seven earned runs over 71 2-3 innings and struck out 91 batters. Opponents are hitting .159 against him.

He’s expected to be a first-round draft pick in June.

“It’s pretty much all focus for me,” Nola said. “Every time I’m on the mound I have to get my mind right. I start making mistakes when I lose concentration. When runners get in scoring position, I try to slow things down.”

Nola is part of a pitching staff for LSU (31-10-1, 10-7-1 SEC) that has a 2.31 ERA, which ranks fourth in the SEC behind South Carolina (2.05), Ole Miss (2.25) and Arkansas (2.29).

The Gamecocks threw their 12th shutout of the season in an 8-0 victory over Davidson on Tuesday.

The shift to pitching’s dominance can be traced to four years ago when the NCAA mandated changes to the sport’s metal bats, which made them much less powerful. The high-scoring slugfests that were once ubiquitous disappeared almost overnight, and coaches were forced to build rosters around pitching, speed and defense.

“Every change in the game over the past four or five years has favored pitching and defense,” Mississippi State coach John Cohen said. “So you’ve got to adjust.”

Hitters might finally get some help next season when the NCAA debuts a new baseball with lower seams that is similar to the one used in the pros. A raised-seam ball is now used in college games.

But at least for the rest of 2014, pitching is undeniably king.

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