The No. 2 Arkansas Razorbacks took a big step Thursday night toward capturing a regular-season SEC Western Division baseball title and possibly the regular-season SEC crown by defeating the No. 12 Vanderbilt Commodores, 8-2, at Nashville.
With two games left in the regular season, the Razorbacks (39-13, 20-8 SEC) are a game and a half ahead of the No. 5 LSU Tigers (41-12, 18-9 SEC) in the Western Division standings and a game ahead of the No. 4 Florida Gators (41-2, 19-9 SEC) for the overall conference title.
“Twenty [wins] in this league is tough, really tough to get to,” Arkansas coach Dave Van Horn said in his postgame teleconference Thursday. “That’s a big number.
“At first, you just try to get to 15. You get to 15, you feel like you’ve got a chance to be in a regional. Anything after that might lead to having a chance to win something.”
LSU won a 12-inning marathon at Georgia, 8-5, Thursday to keep the pressure on the Hogs in the West. Florida walloped Kentucky, 10-3, at Lexington Thursday to maintain the status quo in the overall race.
Despite having an injury-plagued regular season, the Hogs are hot, winning nine of their last 10 SEC games to put themselves in an enviable situation going into Friday’s 7 o’clock game with the Commodores, which will be televised by the SEC Network.
No. 2 Arkansas (39-13, 20-8 SEC)
Opponent: No. 12 Vanderbilt (35-14, 17-10 SEC)
When: 7 p.m. Friday, May 19
Where: Charles Hawkins Field, Nashville, Tenn.
TV: SEC Network
2 p.m. Saturday — Vanderbilt (ESPN/SEC +)
The Razorbacks can synch up the Western Division and earn at least a tie for the overall SEC title Friday with a victory over the Commodores regardless of how the Tigers and Gators fare in their series. Losses by LSU and Florida would also garner the division and at least a shore of the overall title for the Razorbacks.
A Razorback victory coupled with a Florida loss would result in an overall SEC championship for the Hogs.
Vanderbilt’s loss eliminated the Commodores from the overall race for the SEC title, but they could still share the Eastern Division title with Florida under a number of circumstances.
Take nothing away from the Razorbacks’ effort, but the Vandy Boys were complicit in their loss with four errors. Two Vandy miscues in the first inning set the table for four Razorback runs, which put the game in the Hogs’ hands from the outset.
Vandy walked the Hogs’ first batter Tavian Jonesenberger, hit Jared Wenger with a pitch. A throwing error allowed both to score and left Caleb Cali on base for Razorback first baseman Brady Slavens to drive in with his home run to right field for a 4-0 Razorback lead.
Vanderbilt coach Tim Corbin said that slow start was the key to the Commodores’ loss.
“We didn’t get off to a good start, and we did ourselves in too many times, and you can’t do that with a good team,” Corbin said. “We put too many guys on base.”
Razorback second baseman Peyton Holt went three for four on the night, continuing to play well after taking over the position from Peyton Stovall last week. Stovall has a torn labrum that he had been playing with for several weeks. He is out for the season.
Holt’s emergence in the field and at the plate is one of the better storylines for the Razorbacks going forward.
Credit the Razorbacks for never letting the Commodores recover after getting them down. Arkansas’ pitching all but smothered Vanderbilt with Hagen Smith yielding two runs on five hits in five innings of work. He was dominating through three innings. Will McEntire was even steadier in four innings of relief, allowing no runs and just one hit.
By closing out the game, McEntire not only locked up the victory for the Razorbacks but also gave closer Gage Wood the night off. That could be key for the Razorbacks tonight or Saturday afternoon.
Cynics might say the Commodores served up the victory on a silver platter with so many uncharacteristic errors. There might be some truth to that thought, but the Hogs capitalized on those mistakes, which is what all great teams do.
That said there are no guarantees going forward for the Hogs in this series. The Commodores are a very capable team. At points this season, Vandy has looked like the best team in the league. The Razorbacks can’t take them lightly.
Based on the way the Hogs have played this season, that’s not likely to happen. The Razorbacks have taken a gritty, business-like approach to the yard with them throughout this season, and that has put them in the position they are are in — one victory away from at least sharing the SEC title.