Diamond Hogs play host to Rebels in key SEC West series

Arkansas closer Brady Tygart / Photo: ArkansasRazorbacks.com

The SEC West was supposed to be a battle between the Ole Miss Rebels and the Arkansas Razorbacks for divisional supremacy. Unfortunately that hasn’t turned out to be the case as the season progressed.

Oh, the Hogs (32-9, 12-6 SEC) are still a top-five club — ranked Nos. 4 and 5 in USA Today and D1 Baseball’s respective polls — even after dropping road series to Florida and last week to Texas A&M.

However the Rebels (23-17, 6-12) arrive in Fayetteville dangerous but dead last in the SEC West and just a game ahead of SEC East bottom dweller Missouri (22-16, 5-13), which has the worst record in the conference.

Next up for the Diamond Hogs

Opponent: Ole Miss
When: 6:30 p.m. Friday, April 29
Where: Baum-Walker Stadium
Streaming: SEC Network Plus
Radio: 92.1 FM / AM 1590 (more)

Upcoming games

April 30 – Ole Miss, 7 p.m. (ESPN2)
May 1 – Ole Miss, 12 p.m. (ESPN)
May 3 – Missouri State, 6:30 p.m. (SEC+)

To say Ole Miss has been scuffling under proud head coach Mike Bianco is putting it mildly. The Rebels have fallen from holding the No. 1 ranking in the nation this season to being on verge of not qualifying for the SEC’s 10-team baseball tournament. The Rebels making an NCAA Regional would take a near miracle at this point.

That may sound like good news for Dave Van Horn’s Hogs, who have had some trouble getting clutch hits with runners in scoring position this season, but the most deadly snake is a wounded snake.

Because of their extended poor play this year, the pressure is off the Rebels, but squarely on the Razorbacks as the two proud programs square off this weekend for their regular-season rivalry.

“I expect them to be really good,” Van Horn said Thursday. “I expect it to be a really good series. You can throw the records out in my opinion.

First pitch is set for 6:30 p.m. tonight at lovely Baum-Walker Stadium, with streaming by SEC Plus/ESPN Plus. Saturday’s game is set for 7 p.m. and will be televised on ESPN2. The finale is set for noon Sunday and an ESPN broadcast.

The pitching matchup for tonight will be Arkansas right-hander Connor Noland (5-2, 2.54) versus Rebels right-hander Dylan DeLucia (3-0, 4.40 ERA).

Freshman left-hander Hagen Smith (6-2, 3.83 ERA) and sophomore right-hander Jaxon Wiggins (5-1, 5.55) will take the mound Saturday and Sunday for the Hogs.

Noland has been rock solid for the Hogs despite a tough 2-1 loss to the Aggies last week. Smith and Wiggins have mostly had ups, but some downs on the road. Van Horn is expecting them to bounce back this week at home.

“It’s kind of been the pattern a little bit with Hagen Smith and Jaxon Wiggins, that they didn’t have a real good outing one weekend and the next weekend they were pretty good,” Van Horn said. “I think they would both tell you they didn’t have a real good outing last weekend, so hopefully they’ll pitch a lot better this weekend and give us a little more time to get into the game and figure out what we need to do with our bullpen. Hopefully we’ll stick with that, that Wiggins will have a really good outing for us.”
Ole Miss lefty Hunter Elliott (1-3, 3.19 ERA) is expected to get the ball Saturday with righty Derek Diamond (3-3, 6.29 ERA) penciled in as Sunday’s starter for the Rebels.

Arkansas’ relative hitting woes has prompted Van Horn to dicker with his batting lineup more than usual this season, using five different Razorbacks as leadoff hitter.

Tuesday in the Hogs’ tenuous 10th-inning 2-1 walk-off win over Central Arkansas at Dickie-Stephens Park in North Little Rock, Van Horn led off with second baseman Robert Moore.

Moore moves back to the middle of the lineup against the Rebels with third baseman Cayden Webb likely leading off in the opener.
“We have experimented,” Van Horn said. “I like Wallace leading off. I like his athleticism, his speed and power. Could go back that way. I like Robert more in the middle. He’s got a little knack for driving in runs. He’s just slumped a little bit obviously. I’m thinking I’ll probably move him more to the middle of the lineup.”

The series is key for the Hogs as the No. 19 Auburn Tigers (30-12, 11-7) are breathing down their necks just a game behind Arkansas in the standings after being down three games going into last weekend’s series. The Razorbacks travel to Auburn next week for a key series that could be for the West lead going down the stretch.

After narrowly taking two of three last week against the Razorbacks in College Station, No. 21 Texas A&M (26-14, 11-8) is a half game back of the Tigers thanks to a solid 5-1 victory at Vanderbilt Thursday.

No. 1 Tennessee is running away with the Eastern Division and the overall conference race with a sterling 38-3 overall mark and a rock solid 17-1 SEC record. The Vols are six games ahead of No. 14 Georgia (29-12, 11-7) in the Eastern Division race.