Western Division race heats up for Hogs with Aggies in town

Courtesy, ArkansasRazorbacks.com

With just two regular-season series left to play, the SEC Western Division is only getting tighter and tighter.

The No. 5 Ole Miss Rebels (37-13, 14-11 SEC) kept the pressure on the No. 6 Arkansas Razorbacks (33-15, 14-10 SEC) Thursday night with a 5-4 victory over No. 18 Auburn (35-15, 13-12 SEC) at Oxford, Miss., leaving the Hogs just a half game ahead of the Rebels going into Arkansas’ series with No. 21 Texas A&M (34-14, 12-12 SEC), which opens tonight at 6.

Tonight’s game will be televised by the SEC Network, while ESPN2 will do the honors at 1 p.m. Saturday, and at noon on Sunday. WatchEspn.com will stream all three games.

On one hand, all four of those squads have done enough to earn post-season bids, but the stakes this weekend remain very high, particularly for the Razorbacks, who have positioned themselves to be a National Seed if they can maintain their position in the West. Along with No. 1 Florida (39-11, 18-6 SEC), which is running away from the rest of the SEC with a three-game lead over No. 12 Georgia (34-14, 15-9 SEC) in the East, the Razorback and Ole Miss both remain in the National Seed picture. But that could change.

Analysts speculate the Razorbacks, who are No. 5 in the NCAA’s RPI, need to go 4-2 in their final six games to be in good shape for receiving one of eight National Seed, going into postseason play. National Seeds not only host a NCAA Regional, but also host a Super Regional in they advance past the first week of play in the NCAA Baseball Tournament.

While the Hogs have been in the top 10 of the NCAA’s RPI and the national polls all season, they can’t win too much the next two weekends if they want to maintain their place among this season’s elite.

While one might point to next week’s series at Georgia being more pivotal because of the Bulldogs’ RPI, ranking, and record, if the Razorbacks don’t take care of business against a strong Aggies squad this weekend, Arkansas’ chances at a National Seed might already be out the window.

The Razorbacks are the SEC’s best hitting team with a .306 average. Arkansas leads the league in home runs with 74 and have scored 343 runs this season. The Razorbacks hit even better at home with ,.337 batting average in Baum Stadium.

The Aggies’ counter with Friday starter Mitchell Kilkenny (8-2, 2.20 ERA), who has the league’s best ERA. He’s be pitted against Razorback ace Blaine Knight (7-0, 2.77 ERA). In Saturday’s 1 p.m. game Arkansas’ Kacey Murphy (5-4, 2.57) will throw against fellow southpaw John Doxakis (6-2, 3.04 ERA). In Sunday’s noon contest, Arkansas is expected to put Isaiah Campbell (3-5, 4.76 ERA) on the mound against Stephen Kolek (5-4, 3.78 ERA).

Arkansas coach Dave Van Horn said stud closer Matt Cronin, who has been out since April 20 because of mono, will be available to pitch Sunday if he is needed. Cronin was one of the best closers in the nation before his illness. His return is key for the Razorbacks’ quest to return to the College World Series. His presence automatically takes pressure off Arkansas’ starters, if he can get back to his midseason form.

After receiving less production offensively and particularly defensively at first base from the duo of Jordan McFarland and Jared Gates of late, Van Horn said the Hogs will start out with junior Hunter Wilson on the right corner today. Wilson has started six games this season and is hitting .265 with 9 hits and six runs scored.

While no team wants to be searching for answers at any position this late in the season, it is a testament to the strength and depth of the Razorbacks’ program that Van Horn doesn’t have to abide with poor play a first base.

Whether Wilson nails down the spot for the rest of the year or if Van Horn is using him to light a fire under Gates and McFarland, the fact that Van Horn has enough confidence to go with Wilson in a very important games says a lot about the team and their coach.

This ought to be an outstanding weekend for baseball in Fayetteville with warm, mostly sunny weather; however, fans heading out to the ballpark on Saturday should expect more traffic congestion than usual with graduation being held on campus. You should probably allow yourself a little more time to get to the ballpark.