The No. 5 Arkansas Razorbacks (26-7, 8-4) are leading the SEC West by what amounts to a half game over the LSU Tigers (27-5, 7-4). However, with four of the Hogs’ six remaining series against the SEC Eastern Division opponents, the Razorbacks will win or lose the West based on a large degree on how well they fair against the East the rest of the season.
Though there is still a ton of regular-season baseball to play this season, the SEC East has been the better of the two divisions this year. The East’s top four teams — Vanderbilt (27-6, 11-1), South Carolina (29-4, 9-2), Kentucky (27-5, 9-3), and Florida (28-6, 9-3) — each have better records than Arkansas and LSU.
The Hogs have just two Western Division series left against Texas A&M and Mississippi State this season, but four against Eastern opponents Tennessee, Georgia, South Carolina, and Vanderbilt.
If Arkansas is to win the West this season, the Razorbacks are going to have to do it by winning a lot of games against Eastern opponents during the next six weeks.
Their first opportunity comes tonight though Sunday against the No. 12 Tennessee Vols, coached by former Razorback assistant Tony Vitello.
The Razorbacks must bounce back from losing an 11-4 clunker Wednesday night at home to Arkansas-Little Rock.
Opponent: vs. Tennessee
When: 7 p.m. Friday, April 14
Where: Baum-Walker Stadium, Fayetteville
TV: SEC Network
Saturday — Tennessee, 6 p.m. (SEC+)
Sunday — Tennessee, 2 p.m. (SEC+)
The Vols plan to start junior right-hander Andrew Lindsey (0-1, 2.01 ERA) in the opener, but Vitello has yet to announce his intended starter for Saturday and Sunday. Chase Dollander (4-3, 4.19), Chase Burns (2-3, 6.10) and Drew Beam (4-1, 2.52), have been regular starters for the Vols in SEC play.
The Hogs will start southpaw Hunter Holland (5-1 3.00 ERA) on Friday. Hagen Smith (5-1, 3.03) and Will McEntire (4-1, 5.54) are potential starters for Saturday and Sunday, but Razorback coach Dave Van Horn did not announce his pitching plans past Friday night.
Razorback left fielder Jared Wenger is questionable this weekend because of a hairline fracture in his left thumb.
Van Horn said he expects Baum-Walker Stadium to have its best atmosphere of the season this weekend with warmer weather and only a slight chance of showers on the weekend.
While Van Horn’s dust up with ex-assistant Vitello two seasons ago at Knoxville is long buried to him and Vitello on the record, Hog fans don’t as easily dismiss a grudge. Any perceived disrespect by an opponent only fans the fire Razorback rooters already bring with them to the ballpark.
The atmosphere should be electric at Baum-Walker as long as the series is close, which will only stoke the competitive fires that will be burning hot this weekend in both dugouts.
Pride is on the line this weekend and both squads need the series win if they want to be in striking distance to finish in the top quarter of the overall SEC race this season.