Diamond Hogs seek to bounce back against Tennessee

Arkansas sophomore Jake Reindl / ArkansasRazorbacks.com

Through the first five weeks of the SEC baseball season, the No. 15 Arkansas Razorbacks either led the conference or were tied for the league lead.

The Hogs’ grip on the top spot in the league race loosened the past two weeks with the Razorbacks (34-12, 13-8 SEC) losing four of six games in series with Auburn and Ole Miss.

Going into this week’s series at Tennessee, the Hogs are still in the running to win the conference, but as convoluted as the league race is, the Razorbacks have to think of themselves as in the middle of the pack at this juncture.

Arkansas is one game behind No. 9 Auburn (32-14, 14-7) and No. 13 Mississippi State (30-16, 14-7) in the SEC West, and one game behind the Tigers, Bulldogs and Eastern Division leader No. 5 Kentucky (31-14, 14-7) for the overall lead.

However, the Razorbacks are in a four-way tie for second — or seventh depending on how you look at it — with No. 7 Florida (32-13, 13-8), No. 17 Texas A&M (33-13, 13-8), and No. 11 LSU (30-13, 13-8).

So with nine games left on their SEC slate, the Razorbacks could end up anywhere from first to seventh or perhaps lower depending on how the next three weeks play out.

Conventional wisdom in league play is if a team wins two out of three each week, it should be in the hunt for the title when all is said and done, but since the Razorbacks have lost three of their last four series, Arkansas needs to make up some ground over the next three weeks if it hopes to have shot at what likely will be a shared title this season.

At 23-18 overall and 6-14 in SEC play, the Vols are suffering through a tough season, but even at their best this season, the Hogs have had a difficult time earning a sweep. Arkansas’ only two conference sweeps came against Mississippi State on the first weekend of the league schedule and against Georgia on the fifth.

Arkansas played terrific baseball through their first five series. The Hogs appeared to have a series victory in their hands with a seven-run lead on LSU in eighth inning of Game 2, but walks and errors saw the lead evaporate.

The Hogs have been in a slump of sorts the last two weeks. Starting pitching has been spotty, and Arkansas’ team batting average, which was .299 going into the LSU series as dipped to .287 the last three weeks.

If the Razorbacks are to finish the season strong, the Hogs have rebound on the mound and at the plate.

A good outing by right-handed Blaine Knight (6-3, 3.48 ERA) against the Vols would help the Razorbacks get off to a good start.

Knight’s ERA was 1.98 coming out of the Georgia sweep, but it has swollen to 3.48 after he was knocked out early in a 15-2 loss at Auburn on April 21 and in a 4-1 loss to Ole Miss last Friday.

However, the Razorbacks could give him some help by getting back into the groove at the plate. This group of Hogs appeared to be one of the best hitting lineups Arkansas coach Dave Van Horn had fielded in his 14 seasons as the Razorbacks skipper. But, Auburn and Ole Miss’ pitching kept the Hogs tied up and confounded the last two weekends.

Despite their recent struggles, the Hogs continue to lead the SEC with 58 home runs on the offensive end and 452 batters struck out on the mound.

Van Horn said earlier in the week that he felt his team had gotten a bit tired over the course of the season. Van Horn said he believed they would bounce back after a week’s rest. He gave his players off from the end of last Friday’s victory over Ole Miss in the bottom half of a doubleheader until Tuesday off. It was a luxury afforded by the lack of a midseason game this week.

Van Horn hopes that his rested band of Razorbacks will return to their midseason form when Hog pitchers were mowing opponents down, and Razorback hitters were peppering the ball around the yard and often outside the park.

Rain is expected in the Knoxville, Tenn. area on Thursday, but the first pitch is scheduled for 6 p.m. in the game that will be televised by the SEC Network. Friday’s game is set for 5 p.m. It will not be televised but will be streamed on the SEC Network-Plus. The SEC Network is schedule to televise Saturday’s noon series finale.