Monumental series on deck for Hogs as Gators lay in wait

There is a moderate possibility of rain Thursday, but other than that, everything has fallen into place for the No. 1 Arkansas Razorbacks baseball squad to have an outstanding final weekend of play if not a landmark one.

The Razorbacks (39-10, 19-8 SEC) are looking to not only wrap up the SEC Western Division title this weekend, but also capture their first SEC regular-season title since 2004 and only their third in program history — the other was in 1999 — as they host the No. 9 Florida Gators (35-16, 17-10 SEC) in front of what could be the first full capacity crowd at Baum-Walker Stadium this season.

Based on loosened state guidelines, the University of Arkansas recently announced that it would allow full-capacity crowds at Baum-Walker for the first time since Covid-19 shut down the season last year in mid-March.

Next up for the No. 1 Razorbacks

Opponent: vs No. 9 Florida
When: 6 p.m. Thursday, May 20
Where: Fayetteville
Television: SEC Network

Upcoming games

May 21 – 7 p.m. vs Florida, SEC Network
May 22 – 2 p.m. vs. Florida, SEC Network+

The atmosphere at Baum-Walker Stadium should be electric as the reigning No. 1 Hogs square off with the Gators, who opened the season ranked No. 1.

“We are really excited,” Arkansas coach Dave Van Horn said. “There are guys here this year and ones from last year that really didn’t get to see an SEC crowd at home. This will be their first time and only time this year with a SEC crowd, even though we will likely host a regional.

“We need the fans. We need them to be loud. We need the fans to help us. This is when they can do it. Full crowd, playing a great team like Florida. We need them to be into it like it’s a Super Regional. We need that kind of feel here.”

This series is huge for the Razorbacks who have won all nine of their SEC series this season. It could wind up being the biggest regular-season series for Arkansas in more than a decade.

If the Hogs take two of three in the series this weekend, they will be the first to win all their SEC series in a season since Vanderbilt accomplished the task in 2014.

Winning the series would assure the Razorbacks of at least a share of the SEC overall title and lock up the Western Division championship.

The Hogs could win the overall title without a sweep of the Gators, but if Arkansas does take all three games, everything else the rest of the league does this weekend would be moot.

After taking two of three games from Tennessee in dramatic fashion last weekend at Knoxville, Tenn., the Razorbacks are a single game ahead of the No. 4 Vols (40-13, 18-19) who play at South Carolina (32-18, 15-12). No. 3 Vanderbilt (37-12, 17-19) lags a game behind Tennessee going into its home series with Kentucky (28-20, 11-16).

The Razorbacks hold a two-game cushion on No. 10 Mississippi State (37-13, 17-10) in the Western Division. The Bulldogs face Alabama (29-19, 12-14) this week. For Mississippi State to surpass the Razorbacks for the West title, the Bulldogs would need to sweep the Crimson Tide, and Florida would have to sweep the Razorbacks.

Razorback lefty Patrick Wicklander (4-1, 1.93 ERA) will start Thursday’s 6 p.m. opener that will be televised by the SEC Network, while right hander Caleb Bolden (2-0, 4.67 ERA) gets the nod in Friday’s 7 p.m. contest which will also be televised by the SEC Network.

Van Horn said the Hogs’ starter for Saturday’s 2 p.m. finale will be determined by who is available after the first two games. Peyton Pallete (4.09, 1-2) or Lael Lockhart (4.53, 2-2) among others are options.

“We probably could have named a starter for Saturday, but we wanted to see who we need to use to win Game One. Same with Game Two,” Van Horne said.

Van Horne added the key is winning not who starts.

“We don’t have three lock-down starters,” Van Horn said. “We’re still changing things up, and yet we have a chance to win the SEC championship. We’ve had a great group effort. It’s about the team. This team really pulls for each other. Yeah, there are guys who are disappointed they don’t get to start whether it’s in the field or on the mound, but these guys all pull for each other. Bottom line though, they just want to win, to help the team. I think that’s one of the reasons we are where we are. We don’t have a selfish team. They just want to win.”

While the Hogs may be ranked No. 1, Van Horn said the Gators boast as much talent as any team in the SEC.

“They were preseason No. 1 in every poll,” Van Horn said. “They have really good arms. They have good freshman arms. They have good guys back who didn’t sign last year because of the five-round (Major League) Draft. They are playing more freshman in the field. They have dangerous hitters. They are a dangerous team. Am I saying they are better than Ole Miss or Mississippi State or some others? They are just as good.”

One of the Gators whom the Hogs will take special caution with is center fielder Jud Fabian, who is tied with South Carolina’s Wes Clarke for the SEC lead in home runs with 20. His batting average is .267, but his slugging percentage is .634.

“He hits strikes, but he also gets to balls that are outside the zone,” Van Horn said. “He has tremendous bat seed. When that bat makes contact with the ball, it jumps. When you see him physically, he’s not a real big guy, but he’s got some serious power.”