Talented Vandy squad challenges Hogs in final regular-season home series

When the No. 4 Arkansas Razorbacks (36-12, 16-8 SEC) meet the No. 24 Vanderbilt Commodores (32-15, 12-12) this weekend for the Hogs’ final home SEC series of the season a ton will be on the line.

Both squads are a shoo-in to make the NCAA Baseball Tournament. Both have at least a chance of hosting for the first round, and perhaps beyond.

However, the winner of this series will not only be able to claim bragging rights but will also advance their standing in the NCAA Selection Committee’s eyes. Beyond that both Arkansas coach Dave Van Horn and Vandy coach Tim Corbin love competing and winning against great competition, and this series should provide just that for both.

Next up for the Diamond Hogs

Opponent: Vanderbilt
When:  6:30 p.m. Friday, May 13
Where: Baum-Walker Stadium
Streaming: SEC Network Plus
Radio: 92.1 FM / AM 1590 (more)

Upcoming games

Saturday, May 14 – Vanderbilt, 6:30 p.m. (SEC+)
Sunday, May 15 – Vanderbilt, 2 p.m. (SEC+)

First pitch for Friday and Saturday’s games is 6:30 p.m. at Baum-Walker Stadium. Sunday’s game is at 2 p.m. All three games can be streamed via SEC Network Plus/ESPN Plus.

The Razorbacks come into the game with a two-game lead over No. 10 Texas A&M (30-16, 14-10) and No. 17 LSU (35-15, 14-10) in the Western Division. Vanderbilt trails No. 1 Tennessee (20-4, 43-6) and Georgia (32-16, 13-11) in the East.

Van Horn and Corbin entered the SEC as head coaches at nearly the same time almost two decades ago, and according to Van Horn they enjoy visiting with each other at SEC gatherings each year.

“We’ve got a good relationship,” Van Horn said Thursday in a media conference to preview the series. “We have conversations at league meetings and the coaches meeting each September.. There is a lot of respect between the programs and the coaching staffs. We work hard; they work hard. We’re both hard to beat. Our team’s show up every game. There is a high expectation at both programs, and you can see that in way the players play and act.”

The UA has several promotions planned for the series, including fireworks after Friday’s game and a red-and-white fan stripe out for Baum-Walker Stadium on Saturday. For more information, see ArkansasRazorbacks.com.

Van Horn indicated Arkansas will go with its regular starting rotation of right-hander Connor Noland (5-3, 2.9 ERA) Friday, Hagen Smith (6-2, 3.79) on Saturday, and Jaxon Wiggins (6-1, 5.40) on Sunday. Van Horn can also call upon the likes of Brady Tygart (2-2, 1.48 ERA), Evan Taylor (4-0, 2.49), Zebulon Vermillion (2-0, 2.66), Zack Morris (4-0, 0.87) and Elijah Trest (0-1, 2.45) out of the bullpen.

Smith, who regularly throws in the 90s, exited the Auburn game earlier than usual last Saturday when his velocity fell into the 80s. Van Horn said the issue was with his pitching mechanics, but that it has been worked out with pitching coach Matt Hobbs.

“They worked that out, and they fixed it,” Van Horn said of Hobbs and Smith. “Coach Hobbs was very excited about what he saw out of Hagen in the bullpen. They made some adjustments.

“It doesn’t matter if you are a senior or a freshman, when you get to this point in the season, you’ve thrown a lot of pitches. You’re going to have some of those days when you are a couple of miles per hour off. Hopefully that will go away, but we’ll keep an eye on it.”

Nashville-based newspaper “The Tennessean” reported that the Commodores are switching up their starting rotation for the Hogs, using midweek starter Devin Futrell (8-1, 2.03) on Friday. Though he hasn’t pitched in SEC play, Futrell has the best ERA among SEC pitchers and lost his only game,1-0.

“He’s not started an SEC game, but his numbers are great,” Van Horn said. “What is he, 8-1? He can pitch. He’s left-handed and awfully talented. Throws strikes. He’s got nine decisions. That means he’s going deep into games. He’s won a lot of midweek games. Great velocity 90 mph, good off-speed stuff and comes right at you.”

Chris McElvain (5-3, 3.48) and Carter Holton (6-3, 3.82) are likely starters for Saturday and Sunday. The Commodores have an impressive bullpen with Thomas Schultz (3-1, 1.42), Nelson Berkwich (1-0, 0.84), and Jack Anderson (0-0, 0.00) to draw from.

“They’ve got a lot of starting pitchers, a lot of high draft choices,” Van Horn said. “They got a good bullpen, a lot of talent. They’ve got a lot of talent. You got to fight them. Our job is to prepare to play good baseball and take on what’s in front of us.”

Vandy is 10-6 on the road, so playing in a packed Baum-Walker Stadium shouldn’t be intimidating for the Commodores.

“They’ve done well (on the road)” Van Horn said. “When you have really good pitching, sometimes, it doesn’t matter where you play.”

Part of the reason is the Commodores’ potent offensive attack. Vandy can play small ball, but they also pack a potent home-run punch. Center fielder and lead-off hitter Enrique Bradfield Jr. has stolen 34 of 34 attempted bases this season

“He’s the best lead-off man in the country, Van Horn said. “He continues to get better and better as far as base-running and stealing. He hasn’t been thrown out this year, 30-plus stolen bases. He can bunt. He can work a walk. Also he’s showing power this year. I think he has six home runs. He’s just a really, really good player, and he’s a top-notch center fielder, too. He can cover a lot of ground. He can put a lot of pressure on your defense. You got to have a clock in your head when he is up.”

Van Horn said the Hogs are aware of Vandy’s prowess on the base paths, but added the Commodores aren’t a one-dimensional team.

“We know what their style is, and we’ve worked on it, but they also have power, too,” Van Horn said. “They have four or five guys who can steal a base, and they will hit-and-run. They’ll bunt. If it works, it can get you. If it doesn’t, you can get some quick innings. Nothing has changed. They have a lot of good athletes.”

Vandy’s big bats come back to back in the middle of the lineup with two of the SEC’s top hitters in Dominic Keegan (.392, 11 home runs) and Spencer Jones (.386, 7 home runs).

“(They are) really good,” Van Horn said. “One hits right, and the other hits left. Jones got 6 hits the other night and hit a couple of them really hard. He’s a big kid who can also run. He beat out an infield hit in a crucial time. They’ve got two guys in the middle of your lineup almost hitting .400. That’s a weapon. You hope when they are up, there are not many on base.”

After suffering through a near season-long slump, Razorback second baseman Robert Moore found his groove at bat last week against Auburn. Van Horn hopes Moore is getting hot at the right time.

“I like the way he’s swinging it,” Van Horn said. “I see a little more confident hitter in him at practice. He’s feeling a lot better. In his defense, when he has hit the ball hard, it went right at somebody. I’ve seen him get frustrated… but that’s the way the game works. He got a big hit or two against Auburn. He hit that big three-run homer to give us a big cushion. It’s good to see that he’s hung in there. He continues to work. Robert’s driven in 39 runs. He’s still helping the team win.”

When asked about the Arkansas’ RPI ranking that’s been hovering between Nos. 20 and 25 in recent weeks, Van Horn was pragmatic despite the fact the Hogs have been ranked in the top 10 of most polls for the bulk of the season.

“I can’t do anything about it, so I’m not super concerned about it,” the veteran Razorback coach said. “I know we’re going to play in a regional. If we play here, that’s awesome. If we don’t, we’ll play where they tells us. At least, I feel like we will, if we keep doing what we’ve been doing. I don’t think we have to win every game or win the tournament (to get in). We’ve played well in league. “We have a good amount of wins in league, which usually proves that you are going to get to be in a regional, but I told the team we still have a lot of work to do. I told them this should really be the fun time of the year. You’ve finished up with finals and can concentrate on baseball. You’ve won enough games to take a little bit of pressure off everybody, but there is still a lot to play for, and it starts Friday night.”

Continuing his thoughts about the Hogs’ RPI ranking, which was No. 21 Thursday as compared to Vanderbilt’s which was No. 4, Van Horn said the RPI is what it is.

“It’s interesting, there were a couple of RPI games we didn’t win,” Van Horn said. “Stanford was probably one of them, but some of the teams we played haven’t won enough games. We thought Illinois State was going to be really good, but they’ve just been OK. We’ve got a couple of other teams that we’ve beaten that are right around .500. If they could get over .500, it’s going to push our RPI up.

“I watch Ole Miss win a game last night and suddenly our RPI is up two points. So it is what it is. There are a lot of things connected there. We’ve beaten some good teams. The more they win, it helps us, but at this time, all you can do is play the game in front of you and try to stay where you are or move up a little bit. If we win enough games, we will move up some more. I think our guys are to the point that just as long as we are playing, we are good.”

While the RPI is a key tool used by the NCAA Selection Committee for seeding teams, it’s not the only criteria.

“If we hang on and win the Western Division, I think they (the Selection Committee) will take that into consideration,” Van Horn said. “If we finish second, it might push us back, but that’s whatever. There are some really good teams with high RPIs that we beat two out of three, like Auburn that was No. 4 in the RPI (last week). They (the Selection Committee) look at everything… I feel that we handled ourselves well in our league. That speaks volumes.”