The Arkansas Razorbacks get to put on their black hats again Saturday when the Hogs open play against the North Carolina Tar Heels in Super Regional play at Boshamer Stadium in Chapel Hill, N.C.
Arkansas senior pitcher and usual first-game starter Connor Noland joked last week about the fun and challenge of playing the villain role in the Stillwater Regional as a visiting team, and the second-seeded Hogs did ruin the weekend for Oklahoma State by taking two of three games from the flamboyant Cowboys to advance to Super Regional play.
Now, Noland and the Hogs (41-19) are looking to turn the tables on Tar Heels (42-20) in their home stadium in their quest to return to the College World Series after falling short of the goal last season at home in Baum-Walker Stadium.
Chapel Hill Super Regional
Opponent: North Carolina
When: 10 a.m. Saturday, June 11
Where: Boshamer Stadium in Chapel Hill, N.C.
Game 2: 12 p.m. Sunday, June 5
Game 3: TBD Monday, June 6 (if necessary)
A large contingent of Razorback fans followed the Hogs to Stillwater last week and made their presence known. Hog calls could be heard throughout the four-day event.
Travel will be tougher this week for the Arkansas faithful. More than a thousand miles separates Fayetteville from Chapel Hill, and with gas prices soaring, even the most ardent Diamond Hog fans might be considering saving their money just in case the Razorbacks advance to Omaha, Neb. and the College World Series next week.
As much as the Razorbacks might enjoy seeing Cardinal splotches breaking up Carolina’s sky blue in the stands, the Hogs are accustomed to unfriendly crowds from SEC play. Once locked in, the Hogs will be seeing red against the Tar Heels whether it’s in the stands or not.
North Carolina, coached by Scott Forbes, won the Atlantic Coast Conference Tournament championship and finished fourth in ACC regular-season play. They are a power-hitting club that depends on the the long ball to salt away games, with a lineup that boasts nearly as much pop as exhibited by Oklahoma State last week.
The Tar Heels have swatted a whopping 100 home runs and boast 400 RBI on the season going into Super Regional play.
Sluggers Vance Honeycutt (.292, 56 RBI) and Alberto Osuna (.265, 57 RBI) lead the Tar Heels in round-trippers with 24 and 20 apiece. Mac Horvath (.273, 53 RBI) has 18 homers and Danny Serretti (.365, 54 RBI) has 10.
In contrast. the Hogs aren’t far off North Carolina’s power-hitting pace with 98 home runs and 400 RBI. Cayden Wallace (.299, 56 RBI) and Brady Slavens (.252, 52 RBI) lead the Razorbacks in home runs with 15 apiece. Braydon Webb (.274, 38 RBI) has 14 homers. Jalen Battles (.293, 43 RBI) has swatted 10 homers with Chris Lanzilli (.321, 33 RBI) and Robert Moore (.228, 42 RBI) each with eight.
Like Arkansas, North Carolina has had its ups and downs with pitching this season, but two Tar Heels have been steady all season.
Sophomore right hander Max Carlson may get the start in the super regional opener, which would likely put junior lefty Brandon Schaeffer on the mound Sunday. Both have 17 starts.
Carlson (4-2 with a 3.61 ERA) and Schaeffer (7-3, 3.73) have been a potent combination for a one-two punch in best two out of three play.
If a rubber match is needed Monday, sophomore lefty Will Sandy could get his seventh start of the season. He was the third starting pitcher for the Tar Heels against Georgia last week in regional play; however, his stint was short. He did not make it to the third inning after issuing three walks.
Right hander Davis Palermo has been a stalwart out of the bullpen for North Carolina with a 2.62 ERA and has five saves on the season.
Van Horn has yet to make the rotation for Chapel Hill public, but the assumption is Noland will start the opener. Beyond that, who knows?
Big thank you to anyone who made the trip to Stillwater this weekend! ? pic.twitter.com/Za0wwPM13f
— Michael Turner (@MBTurner5) June 8, 2022
Van Horn mentioned Hagen Smith, a usual second-day starter for the Hogs, who was the hero closing out Arkansas’ final victory in the Stillwater Regional, could be used in a closer role rather than as a starter.
Such a development could move Jaxon Wiggins (6-3, 6.12) up to the second-game starter, or possibly move Zack Morris (5-0, 1.91) or Zebulon Vermillion (2-0, 2.59) into the rotation if the series goes three games.
Either way, it’s good for Van Horn to have options. Smith and regular closer Brady Tygart (3.92, 3-4) earned Freshman All-American honors earlier in the week. Both likely will play a key role for the Hogs this weekend.
After struggling late in the regular season and in the SEC Tournament, the Razorbacks seemed to get energized prior to the Stillwater Regional, looking like they did through early May when Arkansas was leading the SEC West by three games.
It would have been nice if the Hogs could have picked up that Western Division title, but on the whole, it’s better for them to be playing winning baseball in June than to be carrying a Western Division title in their back pocket.
North Carolina will not make things easy on the Razorbacks for sure, but playing week in and week out in the SEC has toughened the Hogs.
As good as the Tar Heels may be, and as imposing as playing in their home venue is, Arkansas’ SEC schedule means the Razorbacks have played in super regional-type atmospheres all season long.
Even through the Razorbacks are on the road this weekend, the stakes aren’t unfamiliar to this team. Thanks to SEC play, the Hogs are conditioned to rise to the occasion no matter the circumstances.
The Tar Heels might beat the Hogs this weekend, but high-stakes pressure won’t. Van Horn has his Razorbacks’ primed and thriving on pressure at just the right time.