The LSU Tigers haven’t played up to their lofty expectations in SEC play yet this baseball season, but make no mistake Paul Mainieri’s squad has top-10 caliber talent, and it shouldn’t surprise anyone when they pull it all together this season.
The No. 19 Tigers (20-10, 5-4 SEC) visit Fayetteville this weekend for a three-game series with the surging No. 14 Arkansas Razorbacks (24-6, 7-2 SEC) at Baum Stadium.
With six more SEC series remaining on the their schedules, it’s not do-or-die for either program, but the winner’s season goals will be that much more in hand come Sunday evening.
Friday’s first pitch is at 6:30 p.m., Saturday’s is at 6 p.m. and Sunday’s is at 1 p.m. None of the games are televised, but they will be streamed online at SEC Network-Plus.
Few other fan bases in America would quibble this early in the season with a record like LSU’s, but the Tigers aren’t just any program. Tiger fans expect SEC sweeps not losing tight series, even if it is to the likes of No. 10 Florida (20-9, 5-4 SEC) and Texas A&M (20-10, 3-6 SEC).
While it is plain silly, some message-board talk has even suggested it’s time for Mainieri to take a hike. That’s how fanatical LSU fans are and how seriously they take their baseball.
Hog fans are more grounded and realistic. While it was a downer last spring as the Razorbacks season grounded out with a 13-game, season-ending losing streak, few if any seriously questioned whether Dave Van Horn would right the Razorback ship.
That confidence has been bolstered by the play of the Razorbacks this season. The Hogs are off to a strong start, winning their first three SEC series for the first time since 2011, and the Razorbacks are hunting their fourth against the Tigers.
Arkansas has won 12 of its last 14 games going in to tonight’s game. The atmosphere should be absolutely electric at Baum Stadium all weekend.
This Razorback squad is a highly confident and their play has them tied with No. 8 Auburn (23-8, 7-2 SEC) for first in the Western Division, two games ahead of the Tigers. Arkansas, Auburn and No. 15 Kentucky (21-9, 7-2 SEC) are knotted for the overall SEC lead. The Wildcats have a two-game lead over No. 11 South Carolina (20-9, 6-4 SEC).
While the Hogs opened the season with a sweep of Mississippi State (20-11, 6-3), Arkansas lost the second game of the Missouri and Alabama series only to bounce back each Sunday for victories. The 9-8 decision in the final game at Columbia, Mo., was as tight as can be. The 8-5 win last Sunday at Tuscaloosa, Ala., was closer than the score indicates with the game tied 5-5 going into the ninth inning. That game was a seesaw battle, but the Razorbacks made the clutch plays to bring home a series victory.
Winning those close games should hold the Razorbacks steady against the Tigers, who can flex their muscles at any time. However, don’t expect the Razorbacks to lose their heads if they fall behind. The Razorbacks have proven to be clutch performers throughout the season.
The Razorbacks will be facing junior right-handed pitcher Alex Lange, who is 2-0 against Arkansas the past two seasons. He is 3-3 on the season and has an ERA of 3.73.
Wiry Blaine Knight is the Razorbacks Friday night starter, and he has had a strong season thus far for the Hogs. The sophomore right-hander is 3-0 with a 2.23 ERA, which is 10th in the SEC.
Arkansas righty Trevor Stephan (4-2, 2.92 ERA) is scheduled to pitch Saturday against LSU’s Jared Poche (6-1, 1.15 ERA). Neither program has announced who will pitch Sunday.
One difference in this year’s series is that it’s the Razorbacks lead the SEC in home runs instead of the Tigers, who usually boast a powerful lineup.
The Razorbacks have belted 41 home runs to lead the league, followed by Mississippi State and the Bulldogs star hitter Brent Rooker. He leads the SEC with 12 home runs. Vanderbilt is third with 29 round-trippers, while LSU registers in with 28 for fourth place.
The Hogs boast three of the top seven home-run hitters in league play in Grant Koch at No. 4 with 8 homers, Fayetteville grad Carson Shaddy tied at fifth with 7, and Dominic Fletcher tied at sixth with six. LSU’s Greg Deichmann is third in the SEC in home runs with 9, just behind Vanderbilt’s Jeren Kendal with 10
The Tigers are a dangerous team, though, with the SEC’s second-leading batting average at .300. In contrast, the Razorbacks are stuck in the middle of the SEC pack with a .290 batting average.
The Hogs and Tigers are neck in neck at seventh and eighth in the SEC in ERA, with Arkansas holding at slight edge at 3.32 to LSU’s 3.43.
LSU has the league’s second best fielding percentage at .979, just behind Florida’s .981. South Carolina is also at .979, while the Hogs are fourth at .977. LSU has just 23 errors on the season, while Arkansas has 25.
Statistically the series shapes up to be about as close as it could be.
It’s unrealistic to believe that LSU would be intimidated by a big crowd at Baum Stadium. If there is any program in America that’s used to a big stage, it’s LSU.
However, a raucous Baum Stadium crowd should keep the Hogs energy up after being on the road for the last two conference series.
This is a big weekend for the Hogs who have slowly gained respect this season. If the Razorbacks win the LSU series, they will garner even more attention nationally.
It’s still early, but the more the Hogs win, especially against nationally recognized programs like LSU, the closer they get to securing a host role for an NCAA Regional.