Diamond Hogs still making adjustments down the homestretch of SEC play

Considering all the success the Arkansas Razorbacks have had on the baseball diamond this season, one might guess that the year had gone rather smoothly for head coach Dave Van Horn and his coaching staff.

Despite losing a series to a top-10 ranked Kentucky squad on the road last week, from the outside looking in, this may have seemed somewhat like a dream season for the Razorbacks.

The Hogs are 40-9 overall and 17-7 in the SEC West with a one game lead over Texas A&M (40-8, 16-8) in the division. The Hogs are tied with Tennessee (39-9, 17-7) for second in the overall race behind Kentucky (35-10, 18-6).

The D1 Baseball Top 25 disregards the SEC standings, ranking the Vols No. 1 this week, followed by Clemson at No. 2, Texas A&M at No. 3, Kentucky at No. 4, and Arkansas at No. 5.

It’s easy for me to sit back and be critical of the rankings, but honestly, you could shake those five squads up in a paper sack and draw out the names willy nilly and come up with a legitimate Top 5. You would be splitting hairs anyway you ranked them.

The Hogs have two SEC series left to play. This Friday, No. 14 Mississippi State comes to Baum-Walker Stadium for a weekend series. Next week the Razorbacks head to Bryan-College Station for a Thursday through Saturday affair with Texas A&M.

The Razorbacks will then travel straight to Birmingham, Ala. after playing the Aggies, to begin preparations for the following week’s SEC Baseball Tournament at the Hoover Metropolitan Stadium.

While the Razorbacks have occupied the Nos. 1 and 2 rankings much of the season, it’s no secret the Hogs have shown some struggles at the plate for a team routinely considered to be among the best in college baseball.

Whatever deficiencies the Razorbacks have had offensively, the team’s excellence on the mound has picked up the slack. The Hogs did lose a series at Alabama earlier in the season, and they also lost last weekend’s series at Kentucky when Day 2 and 3 starting pitchers Brady Tygart and Mason Molina did not have their best outings.

Up next for the Razorbacks

Opponent: Mississippi State
When: 6:30 p.m. Friday, May 10
Where: Baum-Walker Stadium, Fayetteville
TV: SEC Network+

Next games:

May 11 – Mississippi State, 6 p.m. (SEC+)
May 12 – Mississippi State, 2 p.m. (SEC Network)

Kentucky throttled the Hogs 11-3 on Saturday. Arkansas had the tying run at the plate in the ninth inning on Sunday, but a comeback wasn’t meant to be. Arkansas lost 7-4.

The losses at Kentucky are giving Van Horn the opportunity to challenge his team in ways he couldn’t while the Hogs were riding a winning streak. Not to say, he and his staff haven’t been making course corrections during the season while they were winning, but sometimes it takes a series loss to add more of an exclamation point to the finer points of coaching.

From Van Horn’s responses to a media session following Monday’s Swatter’s Club meeting, it seems he and his staff may be in re-evaluation mode this week.

It seems sophomore Gage Wood could get his first SEC start of the season this weekend? It’s at least being considered.

“We’re not sure on it right now,” Van Horn said. “We’re going to make sure everyone is good to go, and them have some conversations, and kind of go from there.”

Van Horn said Wood was prepped last week by going three innings last Tuesday against Missouri State, and then coming back to throw 70 pitches against Kentucky on Saturday.

“It’d be nice if our rotation would get back together and begin to roll,” Van Horn said, “but they’ve got to do it.”

Van Horn would also like to inject some fuel into the Hogs’ offensive production.

“It was a tough month physically and mentally,” Van Horn said of the packed schedule of April, which left little time for practice between games and travel. “Having just a little down time, you know, not having a mid-week game, should help them to pick up their energy level and strength. The past is the past. We are in a good situation with our wins, and we just need to go forward.”

At times, Van Horn has felt his team take some steps forward but also some steps back as the Razorbacks have searched for the right starting trio in the outfield.

“[Ross] Lovich’s batting average is going up, but he’s made some costly mistakes in the field,” Van Horn said. “[Ty] Wilmsmeyer is the best defender, but we’ve got to get him on base to score some runs. It’s not about his batting average anymore. He’s 22, 23 years old. He’s got to do it.”

Here is where a packed schedule of midweek games might have hurt the Hogs’ ultimate progress.

“It’s not like we’ve had the opportunity to get some guys right against average pitching,” Van Horn said. “The mid-week pitching has been good. Maybe one game. … I want them to swing the bat better, stay in the zone more, and when they get a good pitch, square it up. You don’t get too many good pitches in an at-bat.”

Van Horn believes consistency in the starting lineup going forward would help his Hogs, but then again the players have to provide that consistency.

“We’ve played a lot of close games, and played a lot of different lineups,” Van Horn said. “I’d love to play the same lineup from here on out. Only playing on the weekends, that could happen. But the guys have to do their job and contribute. It’s not always about offense. Making a play here or there, getting a bunt down or whatever. We’ve done that for the most part all year. It’s why we’ve won 40 games, but I feel like we could be better.”

Van Horn said he will probably continue to platoon at the designated-hitter spot.

“The DH situation is if we had left-hand hitters that showed me they could hit lefties, we might go with it, but I’m thinking that is probably going to be a platoon spot for now,” Van Horn said.

Left field is another spot Van Horn would like to see get settled, but it is also dependent upon who mans center field.

“If [Peyton] Holt is playing center, left is wide open,” Van Horn said. “If Wilmsmeyer is in center, it’s more of a defensive situation, and Holt is going to play left.

In right field, Kendall Diggs is the guy, Van Horn said.

“He needs to get rolling,” Van Horn added. “He’s had so many big hits over his career. He got the big hit on Friday to get us that lead. We just need him to be that guy.”