Diamond Hogs hang on for 2nd SEC series win at Missouri

Arkansas junior Luke Bonfield / Photo: ArkansasRazorbacks.com

It’s hard to know exactly how important the Arkansas Razorbacks’ 9-8 baseball victory over the Missouri Tigers Sunday at Columbia, Mo., will be for the season, but for today, it looks big.

The victory, by the slightest of margins, gave the Razorbacks their second SEC series victory and moved them to 20-5 on the season and 5-1 in SEC play. That’s good enough for a tie for first in the SEC West with Auburn (20-6, 5-1), and leaves them a game ahead of LSU (18-7, 4-2), which dropped two games to Florida last weekend.

The Razorbacks and Auburn are tied with Kentucky (18-7, 5-1) and South Carolina (17-6, 5-1) for first in the overall SEC race. It’s early still with eight more SEC series to play. Nothing is decided, and we still don’t know how good the Hogs will or won’t be this season.

However, it’s so much better to have won two SEC series at this point than just one, if only for confidence sake.

Certainly the cynical can argue that the Razorbacks did everything they could do to lose Sunday’s game after taking a 7-3 lead with a three-run second inning and a four-run fifth, but often the difference between a good and a great season is gutting out a victory when a game turns on a team. And games do turn swiftly on Sundays in the SEC when pitching staffs begin to tire.

Plus Missouri has proven to be a good baseball team this season, winning 20 consecutive games before the Hogs belted them, 9-2, in the series opener Friday.

The Tigers bounced back to return the favor Saturday, doing the Razorbacks in with three sixth-inning homers to break open a 3-2 game. The Tigers then cruised to a 7-2 victory.

After blowouts in the first two games of the series, it’s almost poetic the rubber match was so close.

It’s fun to win big, but digging in and pulling off a close road win in the final game of a series builds confidence and possibly character. Confidence is something this Razorbacks squad still needs with the memory of last seasons’ collapse still close in the rearview mirror.

The Hogs play host to Grambling State at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday in Baum Stadium, but travel to Tuscaloosa, Ala., for a three-game series with the Crimson Tide. First pitch on Friday is 6 p.m. and can be streamed on SEC Network Plus. Saturday’s game is at 7 p.m., and Sunday’s is at 3 p.m. Both will be televised by the SEC Network.

The Razorbacks still lead the SEC in home runs with 36, that’s a dozen more than second place Mississippi State with 24. Vanderbilt and Kentucky have 23.

Razorback Grant Koch is tied with LSU’s Greg Deichmann and Mississippi State Brent Rooker for the home run lead with eight. Dominic Fletcher and Carson Shaddy are tied for sixth in the SEC with six homers. Alabama is the only other squad with more than one hitter in the league’s top-10 home-run list. The Crimson Tide’s Chandler Taylor is tied for fourth with 7, and his teammates Cody Henry is tied for eighth with 5.

The Razorbacks are 10th in doubles with 37 and tied for ninth in triples with Florida, Alabama, and Kentucky with three. The Razorbacks are seventh in hits with 238 and fourth in RBIs with 162 and runs scored with 181.

The Hogs raised their batting average from .280 to .283, which is eighth in the SEC. However, Arkansas is second in slugging percentage .463 behind Kentucky at .495. The Hogs on-base percentage is eighth at .379.

Arkansas is fourth in fielding percentage at .977, and eighth in ERA at 3.32.

Toughness, Defense Leaves Gamecocks Standing

It’s not a surprise that a Southeastern Conference team will be playing in Saturday’s Final Four, but it is a surprise that Frank Martin’s South Carolina Gamecocks are the last squad standing.

The Gamecocks (26-10) will face Gonzaga (36-1) on Saturday in the Final Four, while North Carolina (31-7) meets Oregon (33-5) in the other semifinal. The winners will play for the national title on April 3.

Once the NCAA Tournament brackets were announced, I thought Florida and Kentucky had legitimate shots at making the Final Four, the Gators maybe even more so than the Wildcats because the South Regional was so loaded.

I felt North Carolina and UCLA made the South a difficult row for the Wildcats or any team to hoe on the road to Phoenix.

North Carolina’s experience Sunday gave the Tar Heels just enough of an advantage to deny Kentucky’s one-and-done stars a trip to the Final Four in their lone season as a Wildcat.

UNC’s 75-73 victory was a thriller of a game that had all the merits of a NCAA title game, just a week and a day too early.

If the Arkansas Razorbacks had been placed in any other regional but the South, I would have given the Hogs a better shot than South Carolina at making the Final Four. Shows how much I know.

The Gamecocks looked a bit spent in the final weeks of the regular season, and their play in the SEC Tournament gave no warning of the run they were about to make through the East Region.

However, the NCAA Tournament is a different animal than a league race or a conference tournament. The Gamecocks’ defensive intensity and overall toughness took the East Region and the entire country by surprise. The Gamecocks smothered opponents with their effort and tenacity.

South Carolina is a talented team, but their dedication to team defense and their dogged work ethic pushed them past the field in their regional. South Carolina knocked off Marquette, Duke and Baylor before winning the rubber match on Sunday against league rival Florida.

Mike White’s Gators should also be congratulated for battling their way through the East to give the SEC three teams in the Elite Eight. I felt the Gators quickness on top of their fine defense gave them a shot at a run in the Big Dance despite the competition. I favored them over South Carolina on Sunday, probably because I viewed the game through Razorback glasses. The Hogs beat South Carolina at Columbia, but lost to the Gators in Walton Arena and at Gainesville.

However, I should have known better than to compare teams in that manner. Basketball often boils down to matchups, and in the NCAA Tournament to heart, confidence and momentum.

All three of those were on the Gamecocks’ side Sunday. South Carolina played tougher than the Gators and that yielded a 77-70 Gamecocks victory. Their defense put the clamps on Florida like no other team in the East Regional managed to do. It was beautiful in a gritty sort of way.

I hope the Razorbacks took notice.

Team defense was a struggle for the Razorbacks through two-thirds of the season as the players became acclimated to each other. Guys like Moses Kingsley and Manny Watkins played solid individual defense all season, but the team’s defensive play didn’t really come together until the last month of the season.

But when it did, the Razorbacks were tough. The Hogs gave North Carolina all an experienced and talented Tar Heels team wanted. Two or three plays go a different way, and we could have been watching Kentucky and Arkansas in the South Regional Finals last Sunday.

While Kingsley, Watkins and Dusty Hannahs depart, the Razorbacks return a solid and now experienced core of players who can set the tone for next season. I personally hope the Hogs take notes from the Gamecocks and that tone is set around true toughness and defense.

The Razorbacks will be talented next season, but like South Carolina this year, they won’t be among the nation’s elite. However, if they play with the tenacity, urgency, and aggressiveness that have been the hallmark of Anderson’s best teams at Alabama-Birmingham and Missouri, the Hogs could be a surprising team next year, one that could make a serious NCAA Tournament run.

With that experienced core, the Razorbacks should be able to start the season more together than last with the result hopefully yielding a better seed in the NCAA Tournament.

Obviously good fortune and maybe even outright luck play a role in some team’s Final Four journey, but it’s amazing how fortunate and lucky teams that pride themselves on defense and approach the game with mental and physical toughness always seem to be.

South Carolina drew up a pretty good road map to the Final Four. The Hogs would do well to follow it next year.