The SEC Baseball Tournament is very much like final exams.
The event can be a very stressful time for those squads that underachieved during the regular season, but for the teams that excelled, it’s somewhat of a pressure-free event.
Dave Van Horn’s No. 4 Arkansas Razorbacks (39-15, 20-10 SEC) fall into the latter scenario after winning a share of the SEC regular-season baseball championship with Florida and capturing the Western Division title.
No doubt the Hogs and Van Horn want to play well and have a good showing this week in the SEC Tournament at Metropolitan Stadium in Hoover, Ala., but the pressure is off them thanks to their fantastic regular season.
And make no mistake, it was a fantastic season. The SEC coaches put an exclamation point on that assertion Monday by voting Van Horn their Coach of the Year for the third time. They know better than anyone who should be saluted for his work managing a baseball program.
The coaches also honored four Razorbacks for their play this season with southpaw pitcher Hagen Smith earning first-team All-SEC honors as well as being voted to the league’s all defensive team.
No. 4 Arkansas (39-15, 20-10 SEC)
Opponent: Winner of Texas A&M-Tennessee
When: 1 p.m. Wednesday, May 24
Where: Metropolitan Stadium, Hoover, Ala.
TV: SEC Network
Center fielder Tavian Josenberger also made the SEC All-Defensive squad despite missing several series with a hamstring injury. Relief pitcher Gage Wood made the SEC All-Freshman team, and outfielder/designated hitter Kendall Diggs made the second-team All-SEC squad.
As great as this season was, it certainly had its up and downs like losing two of three to No. 8 Vanderbilt last weekend in Nashville, Tenn., but for a squad that accomplished what the Razorbacks did this season despite all the adversity they faced in terms of injuries, that series should be water off a duck’s back. It’s well in the rear-view mirror as the Hogs ready themselves for tourney play.
Regardless what the Hogs do this week in Hoover, their body of work throughout this season all but dictates that they will be one of the top eight national seeds. That would give them the advantage of a host role through the first two rounds of the NCAA Baseball Tournament as long as they continue to win.
The 16 regional sites will be announced on Sunday. The 64-team field for the NCAA Baseball Tournament will be announced at 11 a.m. Monday on ESPN2.
Now, the near certainty of Arkansas being a host for a NCAA Regional and Super Regional — if the Hogs advance that far — does not mean the Razorbacks won’t approach the SEC Tournament this week with gusto, but it does mean that the strain has eased as they await the winner of today’s 1 p.m. matchup between No. 13 Tennessee (38-19, 16-14) and Texas A&M (32-23, 14-16).
The tourney opens with South Carolina (38-17, 16-13) vs. Georgia (29-26, 11-19) at 9:30 a.m. with the Aggies and Vols up next.
No. 25 Kentucky (36-17, 16-14) faces No. 24 Alabama (38-17, 16-14) at approximately 4:30 p.m. followed by No. 19 Auburn (33-19, 17-13) and Missouri (30-23, 10-20) in the nightcap.
As mentioned before, this has been an injury plagued season for Arkansas. The Hogs lost three pitchers whom were expected to play big roles for Arkansas this season.
Razorback right-hander Brady Tygart missed the bulk of the year and is still gradually working his pitch count up with every appearance. He threw 62 pitches last Friday in a heartbreaking 10-8 loss to Vandy.
Arkansas’ everyday lineup has taken a hit, too. Peyton Stovall, an All-SEC candidate at second base when the season began, is out for the season with a cartilage tear to his shoulder. He has been more than capably replaced by Peyton Holt, who has been tearing it up in the field and at the plate since moving into the starting lineup.
Shortstop John Bolton will not play Wednesday, according to Van Horn, after injuring his ankle during a collision with Holt in the outfield last Friday against Vanderbilt. Van Horn said Bolton would likely not play Thursday either and maybe not at all this week. Harold Coll will man shortstop in his stead.
The Razorbacks no doubt want to play well this week in Hoover, but the biggest key is to come out of the tournament as healthy as possible so the Hogs can be at their best for NCAA Regional play.
Tuesday’s first round of the tournament is single elimination. The tournament shifts to a double elimination format Wednesday through Friday before switching back to single elimination for the semi-finals and finals on Saturday and Sunday.
Confusing? Sure, but it cuts down the number of games for the teams that advance to the semis and is a more manageable product for television.
The SEC Network will televise each game through Saturday’s semifinals, which are scheduled for noon and approximately 3:30 p.m. Sunday’s championship game will be televised at 2 p.m. on ESPN2.
Late spring weather is always a challenge to tournaments in the South. Thunderstorms have been known to make the SEC Tournament a late-night affair from time to time.