Arkansas senior Dominic Taccolini / ArkansasRazorbacks.com
For late-season drama, there’s no better place to look than the SEC Western Division baseball race this week, and the Arkansas Razorbacks are in the thick of it.
Only three games separate the top four teams with No. 10 LSU (36-17, 18-9) leading the way with No. 11 Mississippi State (34-19, 17-10) a game back. No. 16 Arkansas (37-14, 16-10) sits a game and half games back, and No. 22 Texas A&M (38-18, 15-12) is three games out.
The SEC East is a two-way race. No 5 Florida (38-14, 19-8) leads No. 8 Kentucky (37-16, 18-9) by a single game. Vanderbilt (31-21, 13-13) is six games out of first place for third in the East.
The league’s computerized schedule maker looks like a genius with Mississippi State hosting LSU, Texas A&M hosting Arkansas, and Florida hosting Kentucky on the final weekend of the regular season.
So, much can be gained this weekend.
“It’s that way a lot of times going into the last weekend,” Arkansas coach Dave Van Horn said. “It doesn’t surprise me. The league is pretty balanced any team can beat any other. “
All league series will be played Thursday through Saturday. Classes are out for the semester, and the early start gives the teams an extra day for rest or preparation with the SEC Baseball Tournament opening Tuesday at Hoover, Ala.
First pitch for Arkansas’ Thursday and Friday games at College Station, Texas, are at 6:30 p.m. The SEC Network-Plus will stream both. The SEC Network is scheduled to televise Saturday’s 11 a.m. series finale.
The squads are competing for conference pecking order, national recognition, host spots in the NCAA Baseball Tournament and a ton of pride.
The Hogs, who led or were tied for the SEC lead through the first five weeks of the regular season, must sweep the Aggies to have any shot at winning the SEC West title.
Should the Razorbacks sweep Texas A&M, they would also need Mississippi State to win two of three over LSU. In that scenario, Arkansas would win the West title by a half game.
Finishing in the top two spots of the West proffers a first-round bye for each squad in next week’s SEC Tournament. At stake for all four teams is the opportunity to be one of the 16 hosts for an NCAA Regional.
Most pundits believe SEC teams will host four or possibly five of the 16 regionals. That makes this weekend particularly important.
Van Horn is taking an even-keeled approach to the series despite the implications. He wants his squad eager to play, but not anxious.
“I’d like to be a little closer to first,” Van Horn said. “A&M is right there with us. Basically, we’re tied Which ever one of us wins two out of three will finish ahead of the other. We can’t get caught up in it. We just have to go down there and play. Try to win Thursday and move on from there.”
As for the Razorbacks chances at hosting an NCAA Regional, Van Horn said too many factors remain in play to say yea or nay.
“If we win a couple of games this weekend, that will help us,” Van Horn said. “If we don’t, we’ll have to do really we’ll in the [SEC] Tournament.
“It’s hard to say. It’ll be where we finish in the standings. Will we finish ahead of Mississippi State or a half game behind them? We beat them three times. It could come down to other things — RPI or how we do in the [SEC] tournament. On one end of it, we don’t have control. The only thing we control is winning and losing. Then, we just see what happens.”
While the stakes are high, Van Horn pointed out both Arkansas and A&M have had strong seasons.
“Both teams are in the same boat,” Van Horn said. “We’re both qualified for the tournament. Both teams have a shot to be in a regional no matter what happens. We’re just going to see who plays the best.”
While Van Horn would rather be playing in the friendly confines of Baum Stadium, Olsen Field at Blue Bell Park is also a fine setting for baseball.
“It is a beautiful park and plays a lot like ours, except the wind blows out more when it’s out of the south,” Van Horn said.
Though the Aggies are a game and a half behind the Hogs in the standings, A&M presents a daunting hurdle because of its excellent pitching staff.
“They have a really good pitching staff and a really good bullpen,” Van Horn said. “That’s probably the advantage they have over us is a little more experience in that pen.”
The Razorbacks’ top starters Trevor Stephan (5-3, 3.21 ERA) and Blaine Knight (6-4, 3.50 ERA) are talented enough to go toe-to-toe with just about any pitching duo in the SEC, but Arkansas has yet to find a go-to Day 3 pitcher going into the finale series of the regular season.
Dominic Taccolini, who hails from Sugar Land, Texas, which is near College Station, pitched well last Saturday in a victory over Vanderbilt. It was his first action in a month, and he’s struggled with soreness in his forearm all season.
If Taccolini is able to pitch, and if the Razorbacks don’t have to call upon his services in the first two games, the Hogs will have a much better chance of pulling off what stands to be gut-check game on Saturday.
Van Horn said Stephan, from Magnolia, Texas, will start Thursday and Knight will go on Friday, but that is about as far as he can elaborate on Arkansas’ pitching strategy.
“For some teams if they are not in the top four and can’t move up, they might save a pitcher for Tuesday [the first round of the SEC Tournament],” Van Horn said. “We don’t have that luxury, at least going into the series. We have to see how many we can win. Really, we just have to play Thursday and then figure it out from there.”
Visiting East Texas isn’t a bad destination for the Razorbacks, which recruit the area heavily.
“It’s a big deal for the kids to play near home for their families and friends,” Van Horn said. “We’ve recruited a lot of kids from that area and signed some that will be here in just a few months. So we’ll see a lot of them. We’ll try to get kids we’re recruiting to come to the game and hopefully we’ll play well in front of them.”
Along with Taccolini and Stephan, Razorbacks Jax Biggers, Eric Cole, Kevin Kopps, Anthony Dahl, Sammy Blair, Jaxon Williams, Zack Plunkett, Jordan Rodriguez and Cannon Chadwick all hail from the Lone Star State.
Van Horn acknowledged that the Hogs and the Aggies butt heads over nearly every player Arkansas recruits from Texas. When A&M joined the league, Van Horn said he had to adjust the Razorbacks recruiting strategy.
Prior to A&M joining the league, Van Horn and his staff used the strength of SEC baseball aw a major selling point Arkansas could use against all Texas schools. That’s no longer the case.
“When they got in the league, we knew that we were going to have to get into another region for recruiting, and we’ve done that by jumping in to Illinois,” Van Horn said. “It’s a battle to get [players] out of Texas. You have to go down there and see them early to get them thinking about Arkansas, and that’s what we’ve done.”
Biggers, of Missouri City, Texas, played a season at Cisco (Texas) Junior College before joining the Hogs. He has been a key fixture for Arkansas at shortstop and at the plate this season as a sophomore.
Biggers leads Arkansas in batting average at .325 with 23 RBI. Defensively, he has 123 assists and 59 putouts against just 4 errors for a .978 fielding percentage.
“I think he’s had a great season for a player that played one year of junior college and moved up to the Division I level,” Van Horn said. “To come in here and handle that position, playing everyday. That’s big. He’s come in and swung the bat well for us and made a lot of big plays. He’s averaging over .300 easy and has done it throughout the season.
“We probably couldn’t ask much more from him. He’s a baseball player. If you have talent and show up everyday into it, you’re going to have a good season, and that’s what he’s had.”
Aggie head coach Rob Childress served as Van Horn’s pitching coach at Nebraska from 1998-2003 before Van Horn took over the Razorback program. Childress left Nebraska in 2005 for A&M’s head coaching job. The two are good friends, but there has been silence this week.
“We haven’t talked this week,” Van Horn said. “When we go down there, we don’t really see them. We talk probably once a month, otherwise. Sometimes it’s more in the summer. Their daughter goes to Nebraska. Sometimes when they go to see here, they will stop and stay with us.”