Hogs get down to the nitty gritty against Auburn

This baseball season has seemed to whiz by for the No. 4 Arkansas Razorbacks.

It seems just like yesterday that Dave Van Horn’s Hogs took the field for that home opener back in February, but now the Razorbacks are down to their final three series of the season at No. 9 Auburn today through Sunday, against Vanderbilt next weekend in the friendly confines of Baum-Walker Stadium, and then the final road test of the regular season at Alabama on May 19-21.

Maybe, it’s just in my head, but this season has seemed to be somewhat of a struggle for the Razorbacks despite their splendid record of 34-11 overall and 14-7 mark in the SEC.

Next up for the Diamond Hogs

Opponent: at Auburn
When: 7 p.m. Friday, May 6
Where: Plainsman Park, Auburn, Ala.
Streaming: SEC Network Plus
Radio: 92.1 FM / AM 1590 (more)

Upcoming games

May 7 – at Auburn, 4:30 p.m. (SEC)
May 8 – at Auburn, 1 p.m. (SEC+)

The Hogs lead the Western Division by two games over Auburn (31-4, 12-9), LSU (30-14, 12-9) and Texas A&M (28-15, 12-9) who are knotted in a three-way tie for second.

The No. 1 Tennessee Vols (41-5, 19-3), coached by former Arkansas assistant Tony Vitello, are running away with the conference lead and the Eastern Division, despite a 3-2 loss to Kentucky in 13 innings Thursday night. Georgia (31-14, 12-9) is in second place in the East.

The Razorbacks have not been as dynamic at the plate as expected this season, with too many Razorbacks hitting the ball hard, but unable to hit it “where they ain’t,” as Major League great Wee Willie Wheeler once said.

The Razorbacks’ batting average of .277 is in the lower middle of the pack in the SEC. Many have wondered if their bats don’t heat up, will the Hogs being able to maintain their hold at the top of the SEC West?

This weekend, we’ll find out for sure against the Tigers, who hold the No. 4 spot in the RPI, while the Hogs tumbled to No. 28 after their 6-4 loss to Missouri State on Tuesday.

The disparity between Arkansas’ RPI and their rankings in the polls is stunning. The NCAA uses the RPI for its seeding in the NCAA Regionals. It’s not the end all and be all, but it is a factor. As postseason draws closer and closer, it has to be a concern, but with so many games played this season, the numbers aren’t going to change drastically either way.

All Van Horn and his Hogs can do at this juncture is win as many as possible and see where the chips fall.

Auburn will no doubt challenge the Hogs on their home turf. Tonight’s game is set for 7 p.m. and can be streamed on ESPN Plus/SEC Plus. The SEC Network is televising Saturday’s game at 4:30 p.m. On Sunday, it’s back to ESPN Plus/SEC Plus at 1 p.m.

Arkansas right-hander Connor Noland (5-3, 2.77 ERA) faces Auburn righty Mason Barnett (2-1, 4.19 ERA) in the opener. Razorback left-hander Hagen Smith (6-2, 3.75 ERA) faces Auburn right-hander Trace Bright (2-4, 4.29 ERA) on Saturday, and Arkansas righty Jaxon Wiggins (5-1, 5.75 ERA) is schedule to face Auburn right-hander Joseph Gonzalez (6-1, 2.30 ERA) on Sunday.

The Hogs have won their last three series against the Tigers and five of the last six, but this appears to be the best Auburn squad in some time. After battling Tennessee last weekend in two close games and winning one, the Razorbacks are in Auburn’s crosshairs.
However, Tigers coach Butch Thompson knows the Razorbacks won’t be a pushover.

“(They’re) solid across the board,” Thompson said of the Razorbacks. “They continue to play great defense, they’re getting great starting pitching. They’re actually the No. 2 pitching staff in the SEC (behind Tennessee).

“We’ll have to pitch at a high level because we’re facing one of the best pitching staffs and we’re going to need to fight to score runs because they haven’t given up many runs.”

The Tigers will be without starter Hayden Mullins and possibly miss closer Blake Burkhalter, too.

Offensively, Auburn is keyed by Sonny DiChiara and Blake Rambusch at the top of the lineup. DiChiara continues to lead the league and nation in batting average (.436) and on-base percentage (.597), and leads the SEC and is third in the nation in slugging percentage (.842). Rambusch continues to lead the SEC in hits with 67 and is tied for the league lead in hits during conference play with 33.

Van Horn said the key for his Razorbacks at this juncture of the season is to continue to improve as they move their way toward postseason play.

I think it’s really even,” Van Horn said of the West race. “I think a lot of the teams are very talented, especially on the weekends. I think it’ll probably go down to the last weekend —probably the last game.”