Diamond Hogs need series win against Vandy to keep pace in SEC race

Arkansas junior Trevor Stephan / ArkansasRazorbacks.com

The No. 16 Arkansas Razorbacks baseball team needs a series win.

Dave Van Horn’s Hogs (35-13, 14-9 SEC) opened the SEC season blazing, winning four of their first five league series, and they probably should have won all five, considering errors played a crucial role in LSU’s victory on April 8.

The Razorbacks haven’t won a series since April 15 when they completed a sweep of Georgia. Auburn and Ole Miss defeated the Hogs two games to one in April before Arkansas split its series last week at Tennessee. A Friday rainout cost the series one game.

Arkansas either led the SEC or was tied for the league lead through the first five weekends of the season, but the last three weeks, the Razorbacks have fallen into third place in the SEC West and in the overall race.

No. 9 Mississippi State (32-17, 16-8) and No. 5 Florida (35-14, 16-8) lead the Western and Eastern divisions respectively and are tied for the overall lead.

No. 11 LSU (32-17, 15-9) and No. 8 Kentucky (33-16, 15-9) are in second place overall and in the West and East respectively, a half game ahead of Arkansas. The Razorbacks are a half game ahead of No. 14 Auburn (32-18, 14-10) and No. 19 Texas A&M (34-15, 14-10).

Arkansas’ hosts the resurgent Vanderbilt Commodores (29-19, 12-11) this weekend.
Friday and Saturday’s games are scheduled for 6 p.m. starts at Baum Stadium, while first pitch on Sunday is at 1 p.m. The SEC Network is televising Friday’s game and streaming Saturday and Sunday’s contests on SEC Network-Plus.

The race for the SEC regular-season crown and the Western Division title are too close to call. In the overall SEC race, seven teams are within two games of each other with just two series (six games) left to play. In the West, five teams are within two games of each other.

While more will be known after this weekend’s games, the race for the divisional titles and the SEC crown could go down to the very last out.

While those titles are important, what the Hogs are playing for the next two weekends is the right to host an NCAA Regional at Baum Stadium.

If the Razorbacks can win the next two series, they will still be in the hunt for hosting a regional going into the SEC Baseball Tournament, held May 23-28 at Hoover, Ala.

With seven teams ranked between fifth and 19th in the nation this week, college baseball analysts are guessing the SEC could host four to possibly even six of the 16 regional sites for the first round of the NCAA Baseball Tournament.

The Razorbacks, who have not hosted a regional since 2010, want to be among that number. Winning the Vanderbilt series will be crucial for meeting that goal.

Vanderbilt’s record isn’t as glossy as some in the league, but the Commodores are playing their best baseball of the season behind the solid pitching of Patrick Raby (8-3, 2.29 ERA) and Chandler Day (7-1, 3.54 ERA).

Vanderbilt has specialized in winning close, low-scoring affairs, unlike the Razorbacks, who are just 10-11 in games in which they have scored five or fewer runs.

The Hogs’ batting average has dipped from a high .299 in mid April to .286 going into this weekend. While that might not seem like much of a drop, .013 can be the difference in a close game.

After being named SEC and National Baseball Writer’s Association Pitcher of the Week for throwing one-hitter in Arkansas’ 2-0 victory over Tennessee last Saturday, Trevor Stephan (5-3, 3.24 ERA) will pitch for the Razorbacks in the opener.

Blaine Knight (6-3, 3.63) who pitched worked Friday and Saturday last wee at Tennessee because of Friday’s rainout, will pitch to Vandy Saturday night. Knight was having an All-SEC season through five series, but has been roughed up a pit over the last three weeks. Van Horn said he’s unsure who will pitch on Sunday.

A Week of Good Decisions

The decisions three Razorbacks from two different sports made this week speak highly of the character of young men and caliber of coaches the University of Arkansas employs.

Rawleigh Williams III’s decision to give up football after suffering two neck injuries in three years is sad one, but one that will no doubt have a happy ending with him WALKING away from the game.

Williams is probably physically capable of returning to football after a stinger injury two weeks ago but doing so after “dodging two bullets” as he put it when announcing his decision on Monday in essay posted on ArkasnasRazorbacks.com is too risky with his future mobility at stake.

Williams and his family evidently decided early last week that it would be best for Rawleigh to leave football behind and concentrate on completing his Finance degree. Arkansas head football coach Bret Bielema had likely come to that same conclusion before visiting with the Williams family the day after the injury.

Although the Razorbacks have talent remaining in the backfield, the loss of Williams is a blow to Arkansas’ program. Williams led the SEC in rushing after the regular season in 2016. He would not only have been one of the best running backs in the SEC this fall but also one of the best players in the league, period.

Bielema had put all that on the backburner by the time he addressed the media following the practice in which Williams was hurt. His concern was for the young man’s future, not football. That speaks well of the Hogs’ head coach.

On Tuesday, the decisions of two of Arkansas head basketball coach Mike Anderson’s players lifted the spirits of Hog fans.

Seniors-to-be Jaylen Barford and Daryl Macon announced Tuesday that they would return for their senior seasons after exploring their opportunities in the NBA.

Both entered their names in the draft to learn about their standing, but after not being invited to the NBA Combine, they made the wise decision to return to complete “unfinished business,” according to essays also published on ArkansasRazorbacks.com.

Other Razorbacks in similar situations have made less enlightened decisions. The two may have been able to catch on with a team overseas or even possibly have made an NBA developmental roster but then again maybe not.

A second year of major-college basketball and college in general will better prepare both for whatever future awaits them on or off the hardwood.

Both guards were only scratching the surface of their potential down the stretch of last season when the Razorbacks matured into a team that took eventual national champion North Carolina down to the wire in the second round of the NCAA Tournament.

While the Razorbacks lost three key seniors in Dusty Hannahs, Moses Kingsley, and Manny Watkins, Barford and Macon can pick up their improvement where it left off. Though the team will definitely be different, there is every chance that it could be better than last year with Macon and Barford leading the way.

What does their decision say about Anderson and his staff?

It says Macon and Barford trust them as men and coaches.

Under Arkansas’ two previous basketball coaches Stan Heath and John Pelphrey, players who could have benefited from more college playing time exited the program early because of their lack of trust and faith in the coaching staff.

That is no longer the case with Anderson at the helm. His players trust and respect him.

It is always going to be a struggle for Arkansas to compete at the highest level in the SEC. Hog fans have learned that over the last 25 years. However, as long as coaches like Anderson and Bielema continue to operate not only for the good of the program but also the individual players, fans will always have a reason to take pride in their Razorbacks.