MSU to test Hogs in key SEC West series

With basketball season in the rearview mirror, and football season five months away, Dave Van Horn’s Arkansas Razorbacks step into the solo spotlight for most Hog fans this weekend with another important SEC series.

The No.2-ranked Razorbacks (19-4, 5-1 SEC) play host to the defending national champion Mississippi State Bulldogs (16-10, 3-3) in Baum-Walker Stadium this weekend, and the joint should be rocking.

“Probably for the first time, now that basketball is over, that we feel like it will be really loud here for a great atmosphere,” Van Horn said Thursday. “I know our players are excited.”

Next up for the Diamond Hogs

Opponent: Mississippi State
When: 6 p.m. Friday, April 1
Where: Baum-Walker Stadium, Fayetteville
Streaming: SEC network
Radio: 92.1 FM / AM 1590 (more)

Upcoming games

April 2 – Mississippi State, 6:30 p.m. (SEC+)
April 3 – Mississippi State, 2 p.m. (SEC+)
April 5 – UCA, 6 p.m. (SEC+)

It’ll be chilly Friday evening once the sun sets for the 6 p.m. opener, but the weather is expected to warm up incrementally for Saturday’s 6:30 p.m. game and Sunday’s 2 p.m. closer.

Besides, when has a little cool weather ever put a damper on an SEC series at Baum-Walker Stadium?

Razorback fans are a hearty lot, and the atmosphere for the Hogs and Dogs ought to be outstanding for the ball clubs and Razorback fans alike.

While the Bulldogs stand as defending national champions, Coach Chris Leomonis’ squad is only off to a mediocre start in league play, tied with Texas A&M for fourth in the SEC West with a 3-3 record. The Razorbacks lead the West by a game and half at 5-1 over Auburn at 4-3. Auburn squeaked out a 6-5 victory over No. 13 LSU, which fell to 3-4 in SEC play Thursday night.

In the overall SEC race, the Razorbacks trail No. 1 Tennessee, which boasts a spotless SEC mark at 6-0 in the East going into the league’s biggest series of the weekend against No. 9 Vanderbilt (4-2).

By a quirk of scheduling, the Razorbacks do not play a regular-season series against the Vols, who are coached by former Razorback assistant Tony Vitello, this season. The Razorbacks, however, do host Vanderbilt on May 13-15 for the final regular-season series at Baum-Walker Stadium.

But that is getting ahead of ourselves. The focus this weekend is on the Bulldogs, who are no doubt salivating for an opportunity to improve their slot in the SEC standings against the Hogs.

Oddly the Razorback-Bulldog matchup has been a one-sided affair one way or the other back to 2016. The Hogs or the Bulldogs have swept each other each season since then, although the matchup was not held in 2020, when the NCAA called off the season because of the pandemic just prior to the start of SEC play.

The odds of a sweep of any sort this weekend don’t seem good, but that could have been said each of the last five series, save for 2016 when injuries amounted to an uncharacteristic season for Dave Van Horn’s Hogs.

A sweep hasn’t held either program back from success the rest of the season, but no SEC West team feels good about a lost weekend in league play.

“It’s been unusual because the teams are probably fairly even in those years for the most part,” Arkansas coach Dave Van Horn said. “The sweeps, it’s unusual to win three in a row against somebody that’s really good, and they’ve been really good. We’ve been pretty good as well. Usually somebody is going to lose a game.”

Even if the trend of sweeps goes by the wayside, the Razorbacks are still seeking to extend their streak of SEC series victories to 13 this weekend after going 10-0 in league series last year and defeating Kentucky and Missouri in series the last two weeks.

Though Van Horn expressed concerns with the Hogs’ bullpen going into the series, the starting pitching rotation remains the same.

Junior right hander Connor Noland (3-1, 3.41 ERA) will face Mississippi State’s junior right hander Preston Johnson (2-1, 3.41) tonight.

Freshman lefty Hagen Smith (4-1, 3.45) will open for the Hogs Saturday against MSU’s senior right hander Parker Stinnett (3-0, 4.67).

On Sunday Arkansas sophomore right hander Jaxon Wiggins (4-0, 3.71) is set to face Bulldog sophomore right hander Cade Smith (4-1, 2.91) on Sunday.

After a somewhat slow start to the season, the Razorbacks’ batting averages are slowly moving up. Catcher Michael Turner is hitting .369 with 4 homers and 25 RBI to lead Arkansas, followed by fellow grad-transfer Chris Lanzilli at 358 with 2 homers and 15 RBI.

Cayden Wallace is at .304 with 4 homers and 24 RBI. Brayden Webb leads Arkansas in homer runs with 5 on the season after a very slow start out of the gate. He’s hitting .241, but his average is ever improving.

The Bulldogs have a powerful lineup with Kellum Clark (.266) and Hunter Hines (.312) with eight home runs each and Brad Numbest (.316) with 7 and R.J. Yeager (.293) 6 dingers respectively.

This should be a telling weekend for the Razorbacks, who have won 14 of 15 games since March 5, but who have not been as dominating as one might expect of the No. 2 ranked team in the nation.