The ideal situation for any college baseball series is, of course, to sweep. That’s always the goal.
However, when playing in a league like the SEC, which still boasts eight to nine teams in the top 25 depending on which poll you consult, such a lofty aspiration often proves unrealistic.
So, Rule No. 1 becomes win two out of three, and if you can’t manage that, at least win one.
The No. 10 Arkansas Razorbacks (26-10, 9-6) found themselves struggling with that goal, and those rules last Sunday in Nashville when they fell to 0-2 in the series with the No. 6 Vanderbilt Commodores (27-9, 9-6 SEC).
The Hogs lost a close one, 3-2, to Vandy last Friday despite a fine pitching performance by ace Isaiah Campbell (6-1, 2.45 ERA). Another well-timed hit or two, and the Razorbacks would have wonin that one, but it wasn’t meant to be.
Saturday, though, was ugly all around. The 12-2 score told the tale.
Arkansas’ pitching went south early and never really surfaced, but in terms of run support, it was way too little, way too late as the Razorbacks only eked out two runs in the eighth inning.
From the outside looking in, the weekend didn’t appear to be salvageable for the Razorbacks. It seemed that Vandy had the Hogs outclassed and that the Razorbacks might just go away quietly.
But that wasn’t the case.
Arkansas head coach Dave Van Horn shook up his lineup, and the Hogs came to play on a day which neither team’s pitching staff will want to remember.
The Razorbacks belted 22 hits in the contest, which allowed them to plate enough runs in a 14-12 victory that saw them score five runs in the ninth inning.
The Hogs trailed 11-9 in the see-saw contest, going into the ninth. The Razorbacks could have easily faded, but they rallied starting with a one-out single by Casey Martin, who scored on Matt Goodheart’s triple to left field.
Goodheart tied the game on Dominic Fletcher’s RBI single, and the pressure finally got to Vandy with Jack Kenley taking a walk and Jacob Nesbit swatting a two-out double to drive in Fletcher for a 12-11 Arkansas lead.
A pitching change for the Commodores didn’t halt the Arkansas rally as catcher Casey Opitz, who went four for four on the day, put the ball in play with a single. A Vanderbilt fielding error allowed Kenley and Nesbit to score for a somewhat comfortable 14-11 Razorback lead going into the bottom of the ninth.
Vandy did threaten late scoring a run, but the Hogs closed out the game and salvaged the weekend.
It was a gritty, meaningful victory that kept the Hogs in the thick of the SEC West and overall conference races.
No. 3 Mississippi State and No. 4 Georgia lead the SEC with 10-5 records. No. 11 Texas A&M is alone in second by a half game with an odd 9-5-1 mark.
No. 6 Vanderbilt, No. 10 Arkansas, No. 12 LSU, and No. 18 Ole Miss are all tied at 9-6, just a game off both breeds of Bulldogs’ pace.
No. 24 Auburn is just two games back at 8-7 and Missouri is hanging around at 7-7-1. Florida is scuffling right now at 6-9, but the Gators have the talent to turn their season around with five more SEC series to play.
At the turn of the SEC regular season, it truly is too tough to call.
The Razorbacks aren’t playing great baseball at this juncture. The Hogs are stranding a lot of runners, and other than Campbell and closer Matt Cronin, Van Horn doesn’t really know what he’s going to get day to day out of his pitching staff against the powerhouse SEC lineups the Hogs face week after week.
That fact emphasizes how important that victory over Vandy last Sunday was. It left the Razorbacks in very good shape for the second half of the SEC season if the Hogs can put it all together.
The Razorbacks are going to have to play better to hold their ground in the SEC much less challenge for the division or league title. Van Horn and the team knows that better than anyone.
Though the Razorbacks are leaving runs on the table, they hit will enough that if Van Horn can figure out his pitching quandary behind Campbell, Arkansas should be a major threat going into the NCAA Baseball Tournament.
Van Horn made a move that has been coming with freshman Connor Noland, who up until this week has been the Razorbacks’ second-day starter. Noland is starting against Arkansas-Pine Bluff (6-27) at 6:30 tonight. at Baum-Walker Stadium.
Tonight’s start takes him out of the starting rotation for the Razorbacks’ series with Mississippi State this weekend also at Baum-Walker.
Noland has a promising future with the Razorbacks, and this move will only give him more mound time. It should allow him to gain more experience, which is what he needs to be more effective against high-caliber competition. Noland only threw 15 pitches in his start at Vandy before being relieved.
Pitching coach Matt Hobbs can better groom and guide him in contests where he might have the opportunity to throw more innings and work through some issues.
In one sense, it might be troubling to fans that Arkansas is still struggling with its starting rotation this deep into the season.
On the other hand, the Razorbacks are still ranked 10th in the nation and do have time to work it out before the postseason. All things considered, the Razorbacks are in a good position in both the overall and the Western Division races, despite having not put everything together.
The Hogs will host the Bulldogs Thursday through Saturday for what likely will be for the lead in the West.
First pitch Thursday is 8 p.m. in a televised game by ESPNU. Friday’s contest is scheduled for 6:30 p.m. and Saturday’s finale is at 2 p.m. Both can be streamed on the ESPN app.
There is some state pride on the line tonight against UAPB. The Hogs certainly don’t want to make the Lions’ season like they did for UALR with a 17-7 loss to the Trojans a few weeks back.
However, the main event begins Thursday with the Bulldogs. It’s a late start, but Baum-Walker should be rocking when the No. 3 team in the nation invades Fayetteville.
Every week is big in the SEC, but the Mississippi State series looms large for the Razorbacks. The winner of the series gains ground that the other squad will be hard pressed to make up.
It’s going to be interesting to watch the Razorbacks’ pitching plan unfold, and to see if the Hogs can produce the timely hitting that scores runs instead of leaving runners on base.