With three weeks left in the regular season, the Arkansas Razorbacks baseball team sits in its best position of the season.
Dave Van Horn’s Hogs (35-11,15-6 SEC) are ranked No. 5 by Baseball America, are tied with Vanderbilt (35-9, 15-6 SEC) for the overall lead in the SEC, are two games ahead of the field in the SEC West, and are rated No. 3 in the NCAA RPI.
Who: at Kentucky
When: May 3, 4, 5
Where: Lexington, Kentucky
Arkansas is fresh off a 17-3 victory over Grambling Tuesday at Dickey-Stephens Park in North Little Rock. It was the Razorbacks’ second-largest run output this year. Shortstop Casey Martin, right fielder Heston Kjerstad, and catcher Zack Plunkett all hit home runs in the game. Kjerstad now has 13 home runs this year, which ties for second in the SEC.
Senior first baseman Trevor Ezell also had quite the memorable game on Tuesday as he went 3-for-3 with six runs scored. The six runs ties the school record for runs scored in a game, joining Jeremy Jackson from 1997 and Todd Zacher in 1981.
At the moment, the Razorbacks are not only in excellent position to host a first-round NCAA Regional, but are also right where they need to be to garner one of eight coveted National Seeds that would see them play in the friendly confines of Baum-Walker Stadium until the College World Series, if they can continue to win.
Sure, the Hogs could be ranked a bit higher in the polls and RPI, but let’s not quibble. The Razorbacks’ back-to-back sweeps of No. 6 Mississippi State and Tennessee the past two weekends have vaulted the Razorbacks into college baseball’s stratosphere.
However, nothing is ever set in stone until the season is over. The Razorbacks must continue to perform at a high level to maintain all that they have gained so far this season.
A two-game lead in the West is fantastic, but it could evaporate quickly if the Razorbacks don’t continue to move and improve.
The Hogs surge to the top of the top of the SEC along with Vandy, which holds the tiebreaker over the Hogs by winning their series, has come with the rise of freshmen pitchers Patrick Wicklander, a lefty, and Connor Noland, a righty, as well as improved hitting up and down the Razorback lineup.
Arkansas is hitting .366 as a team during its seven-game conference winning streak and averaging 10.1 runs per game during that stretch. Left fielder Christian Franklin, Kjerstad and Martin are all hitting over .400 during that span.
Martin and center fielder Dominic Fletcher lead the SEC in doubles heading into Friday’s game with Kentucky. The duo has hit three doubles in the last six games and each have 19 for the year.
Playing at Kentucky (22-22, 5-16 SEC) before two important SEC West series against LSU next weekend in Baum-Walker and the following week at College Station against Texas A&M might seem ideal, but their is no room for complacency by the Hogs at this point in the season. Conventional wisdom is if the Razorbacks can manage to go 6-3 in their final nine regular season games that they will remain in the hunt for a national seed going into the SEC Tournament. Anything better would be gravy.
However, it’s not that simple. Any losses to Kentucky would be harmful to the Hogs’ RPI, much worse than losses to the Tigers or Aggies.
Winning a series on the road in the SEC is difficult enough, much less pulling off a sweep, but a sweep is exactly what the Hogs will need to keep pace or possibly overtake Vanderbilt for the overall SEC lead.
The return of right-hander Cody Scroggins (2-0, 2,54 ERA), who was the Hogs’ Sunday stater until an elbow injury sidelined him the last two weeks, is back on the roster as is designated hitter Matt Goodwin, who was hitting .385 before a shoulder injury from diving back to base, knocked him out of the Tennessee series last Friday.
The Razorbacks will likely be without reliever Zebulon Vermillion who is dealing with a sore shoulder.
Isaiah Campbell (7-1, 2.66 ERA) is scheduled to pitch against Kentucky right hander Jimmy Ramsey (2-4, 7.29 ERA) tonight, while Wicklander (4-1, 4.14 ERA) is expected to face Kentucky left hander Zack Thompson (4-1, 1.88 ERA) on Saturday. If he is not needed to pitch before, Connor Noland (2-2, 3.96 ERA) is expected to start on Sunday.
It’ll be interesting to see if the Razorbacks continue to play as well from atop the SEC as they did to rise to that coveted position.
All games this weekend can be streamed on the SEC Network+. Friday’s game will have a first pitch of 5:30 p.m. (CT), followed by a 1 p.m. (CT) start on Saturday. Sunday’s game will start at Noon (CT).