Diamond Hogs travel to Missouri for key early series

Arkansas baseball coach Dave Van Horn / ArkansasRazorbacks.com

Arkansas’ 2016 baseball season was dismal. The Razorbacks finished the season 26-29, losing an unsightly 13-consecutive games. It was the only losing season Dave Van Horn experienced at Arkansas. In fact it’s the only season his Hogs didn’t reach an NCAA Regional in 14 seasons at Arkansas.

I only mention that to contrast how well the Razorbacks have played through the early part of this season. Last year is dead and buried, but Van Horn’s Razorbacks are thriving in 2017.

Going into this weekend’s series at Missouri, the Razorbacks are one of the hottest teams in college baseball. The Razorbacks are 18-4 overall and 3-0 in the SEC, and have won 10 of their last 11 games, including sweeping last year’s SEC champion Mississippi State in their opening conference series.

Following their highly successful 11-game homestand, the Hogs carry momentum across the border to Columbia, Mo., with a six-game winning streak, but the No. 18 Tigers, who finished last season in the cellar of the SEC East, have experienced a revival of their own this season.

Missouri boasts the SEC’s best record at 20-1, including an incredible 20-game winning streak after falling, 6-2, to Eastern Michigan in their season opener. The Tigers stunned Alabama last weekend, sweeping the Crimson Tide.

Friday’s opening game has been moved to noon because of expected heavy rain in the area in the evening. It can be viewed on the Internet at SEC Network Plus at WatchESPN.com. Saturday’s 2 p.m. game is scheduled to broadcast on the SEC Network primary TV platform. Sunday’s 1 p.m. finale will be streamed on SEC Network Plus.
Eyes across the SEC will be on this series to see which resurgent program will come out on top in this early season series, which could prove to be more important than anyone imagined coming into the season.

It is still too early to tell whether the Razorbacks and the Tigers will truly contend in their divisional races and for the overall championship. That, of course, will play out over the course of the season. However, the winner of this weekend’s series can take confidence that their early season turnaround from the lows of last season does carry some weight.

Going into this weekend, No. 8 South Carolina joins No. 18 Missouri at 3-0 atop the Eastern Division with No. 25 Kentucky just a half game back after a 9-6 loss to No. 14 Ole Miss Thursday night.

In the West, the Razorbacks are knotted with No. 4 LSU and No. 24 Auburn with 3-0 marks. Ole Miss is a half game back at 3-1.

This early in the season conference records can be a bit deceiving. No. 12 Florida is expected to be one of the best squads in the SEC, but is 0-3 after being swept by Auburn last weekend. We’ll know more about the Gators after they host LSU this weekend.

Van Horn plans to pitch right-hander Blaine Knight against Missouri’s ace Tanner Houck, a 6-5 righty who throws in the low 90s.

On Saturday, right-hander Trevor Stephan will be on the mound for the Razorbacks, while first-year Missouri coach Steve Bieser will counter with left-hander Michael Plassmeyer.

Andy Toelken has been Missouri’s No. 3 starter, but the Hogs have yet to fid their Sunday go-to guy. Van Horn said he wouldn’t hold any pitching options back for the third game of a series. Missouri has a tam ERA of 2.83, which is second in the SEC. Arkansas’ is fourth at 2.98.

The Razorbacks have shown a surprising amount of pop up and down their batting lineup this season, leading the SEC in home runs with 32, 10 more than Kentucky at No. 2.

Grant Koch leads the Hogs and is second in the SEC with seven home runs. Carson Shaddy and Dominic Fletcher have five apiece, Luke Bonefield 4. Jason Arledge and Chad Spanberger 3 each, and Jake Biggers and Jordan McFarland each have two.

However, Arkansas’ overall batting average is just ninth in the SEC at .280. Missouri is third at .313.

There is a lot of baseball left to be played and nothing will be settled after this weekend, but whichever teams wins this series will give itself a leg up on righting their ship after terribly disappointing seasons a year ago.

NCAA experience could pay off for Hogs next season

Photo: Walt Beazley / ArkansasRazorbacks.com

You never truly know how a team will react when a victory that was within their grasps gets snatched away.

Sometimes it breaks a team apart, while other times it galvanizes the squad’s will and spurs it on to greater things.

We don’t know how the outcome of the Razorbacks’ 72-65 loss last Sunday to North Carolina in the second round of the NCAA Tournament will affect the Hogs that return for next season.

It might prove pivotal, or it might just be another loss to forget about.

With a solid five-point lead around the four-minute mark, the Razorbacks had the top-seeded Tar Heels staggering, but the Hogs blinked and let North Carolina find its equilibrium.

The veteran Tar Heels found their composure and went to work while the Razorbacks became a bit tentative and unsure of themselves.

The result was North Carolina using its experience and toughness to close out the game on a 12-0 run that left the Razorbacks and all their fans wondering what might have been.

It was a tough loss for the Razorbacks and the fact that questionable officiating played a part in the outcome only makes matters worse.

Some have said the stage was just too big for a Razorback team with very limited NCAA Tournament experience. Others have said North Carolina just did what experienced teams do against upstart opponents with less talent. I can see the truth I both statements.

However, what’s important is whether the Razorbacks can use that loss to motivate them for next season.

That’s just what Arkansas’ 1993 team did after being ousted from the Sweet 16 by eventual national champion North Carolina. The 1993-94 Hogs used that loss to the Tar Heels to fuel their preparation for what would become Arkansas’ lone basketball national title.

That Razorback squad knew how close they were to reaching their goal. and that next season, the Hogs were not going to be denied.

This year’s Razorbacks were so close to advancing to the Sweet 16. The players and coaches know it. They had to be able to almost feel it.

No doubt, the Razorbacks lose key components with seniors Moses Kingsley, Dusty Hannahs and Manny Watkins matriculating out of the program. Their leadership and talent will be missed.

However if all five juniors return for their senior season determined to use the experience they to improve, next season does look promising.

The Razorbacks were playing their best basketball of the season down the stretch. If the Hogs pick up where they left off, Arkansas basketball will be back on track.

The Hogs were a play or two away from dancing their way into the Sweet 16. That should be a foundation on which the returning players and coach Mike Anderson and his staff can capitalize.