Diamond Hogs face Auburn in key SEC West series

Arkansas freshman Evan Lee / ArkansasRazorbacks.com

The Arkansas Razorbacks might feel like the Rodney Dangerfield of SEC baseball based on the Baseball America poll. The Hogs aren’t getting as much respect for their play this season as some of their SEC brethren.

Dave Van Horn’s Hogs have been on top or tied at the top of the SEC standings since the first weekend of the conference season, winning four of five series. Along with their 11-4 SEC record, the Razorbacks have more wins, 31, and fewer losses, 8, than any team in the SEC.

What: Arkansas baseball vs. Auburn
When: Friday, Saturday, Sunday (April 21-23)
Where: Samford Stadium – Auburn, Alabama
TV: Friday and Saturday – SEC Network-Plus Stream. Sunday – SEC Network

And yet, Baseball America ranks the Hogs No. 16 in the nation with No. 15 Florida, No. 14 Kentucky, No. 11 Mississippi State, No. 10 Auburn and No. 9 LSU all ahead of them.

O.K., I get LSU. Even though the Tigers (26-12, 9-6 SEC) are two games behind the Razorbacks in the SEC standings, LSU did win its series against Arkansas two weeks ago when the Razorbacks got complacent with a big lead in the late innings and blew Game 2 of the series. LSU then shut out the Hogs, 2-0, in Game 3 for the series win.

However, the Razorbacks swept Mississippi State (25-14, 10-5). Shouldn’t Arkansas at least be ahead of the Bulldogs? The Razorbacks are three games ahead of Florida (25-12, 8-7) and South Carolina (23-13, 8-7) in the overall SEC race, and a game ahead of Kentucky (26-12, 10-5), which leads the East.

Really, this gripe is a bit tongue in cheek.

With only three games separating the Hogs and the five SEC squads ranked ahead of them in the national polls, it’s hard to say which team is actually the best of the bunch.

After last season’s anomaly when the Razorbacks finished with their first losing record under Van Horn, little was expected of the Hogs, and accordingly they weren’t ranked going into the season. The teams ahead of Arkansas all were.

While the Razorbacks have had a blisteringly good season so far, poll voters are playing the waiting game with the Hogs. They are still wondering if the Hogs are for real.

It’s doubtful Van Horn is too worried about the national rankings at this point, but if he can push some motivational buttons with the information, he wouldn’t be the first coach to do it going into this weekend’s series, which is a crucial one.

The Razorbacks can make their case for respect at Auburn this weekend. Friday’s first pitch is at 6 p.m., Saturday’s at 1 p.m. and Sunday’s at 3 p.m. SEC Network-Plus will stream Friday and Saturday’s games. The SEC Network will televise Sunday’s game.

The No. 10 Tigers (28-11, 10-5) are an excellent ballclub in all phases of the game. The Hogs will not have to face Auburn’s ace Casey Mize, who might be the best pitcher in the SEC Friday. Auburn coach Butch Thompson announced Thursday that Mize is doubtful for the series because of a fatigued arm. Mize leads the league with a 1.23 ERA and in strikeouts with 82. He has been ruled out of the game because of injury. Right-hander Keagan Thompson will be on the mound for Auburn tonight.

Mize pitched six shutout innings and improved to 6-1 on the season in his appearance last Friday against Tennessee in a 3-2 victory. He had not allowed a run in his last 16 innings. Daniel Davis threw eight scoreless innings against the Vols to seal the series victory with an 8-1 decision last Sunday. Davis is set to pitch Saturday.

The Razorbacks, who have won six in a row since dropping the series to LSU, have been on a hitting tear off late, raising their overall batting average to .298 on the season, which is second to Kentucky (.308) in the league. However, in SEC play, Arkansas’ batting average leads the way at .300, followed by Mississippi State at .284.

The Razorbacks have relied on their hitting through the first half of the schedule, and it has served them well. A question that faces them, though, is if they are versatile enough to manufacture runs if necessary?

The Hogs also need to batten down the hatches in the field against the Tigers. Errors and mistakes cost the Hogs the LSU series and turned the second game of last week’s Georgia game into a 10-inning thriller.

Blaine Knight is having an excellent year for the Razorbacks on the mound with a 1.89 ERA, which is sixth in the SEC and a 6-1 record. Trevor Stephan has an ERA of 2.96 with a 4-2 record. He has pitched well of late, but fielding errors behind him has made it tough for him at times.

This could be a separation weekend for the league at the top. Not only will the Arkansas-Auburn series give the winner a leg up in the Western Division, but the LSU-Kentucky and South Carolina-Florida series will also have implications in the Eastern Division overall SEC race. Mississippi State hosts Alabama. With a sweep, the Bulldogs could find themselves tied or alone at the top of the West going into next week.

If the Razorbacks return home with a series victory over Auburn, the Hogs will move up in the national polls and keep pressure on the rest of the SEC.

Arkansas has won their way into great shape at the moment to host a NCAA Regional, and if they keep winning series, they will join the conversation about a national seed, which would put them in line to host a Super Regional. That’s the type of respect that counts.

But as Van Horn will no doubt remind his team, the next game is all the Hogs need to worry about.