Diamond Hogs feel Bulldogs breathing down their necks

With all but two weekend series already in the books, what is scheduled to be the final SEC Western Division baseball race remains up in the air.

With Texas and Oklahoma joining the SEC next season, the league is moving away from divisional play. The SEC is also dropping the double-elimination component of the SEC Baseball Tournament in 2025. All 16 SEC members will compete in a single-elimination tournament next season.

That makes this year’s Western Division race all the more important to the divisional rivals in a race that is likely to go down to the final game of the regular season.

The No. 5 Arkansas Razorbacks (40-9, 17-7 SEC) lead the West by a game over No. 3 Texas A&M (41-8, 16-8) and three games over No. 14 Mississippi State (32-16, 14-10).

But all that is subject to change this weekend.

The Hogs host the Bulldogs for a three-game series starting Friday at 6:30 p.m., and continuing Saturday at 6 p.m., and Sunday at 2 p.m. The first two games can be streamed on ESPN/SEC+. Sunday’s game will be televised by the SEC Network.

The Aggies travel to Ole Miss (25-23, 9-15) for a three-game series.

There really is not telling where the West’s top three will land after this weekend’s ball games.

While the Razorbacks have been at the top of the West or near it all season, the outcome of this weekend’s series with the Bulldogs and next week’s trip to Bryant-College Station to face the Aggies will ultimately tell the tale if the Hogs will win the final Western Division crown or not.

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)

Regardless of the outcome of the series with MSU and the Aggies, the Razorbacks are in solid position to be one of the eight national seeds and earn home-field advantage throughout the first two rounds of the NCAA Baseball Tournament. The Hogs would probably have to go 0-6 over the next two weekends to fall from being a national seed.

It’s hard to imagine that happening with left-handed ace Hagen Smith getting two starts over the next two weekends. Smith (9-0, 1.36 ERA) has been stunning for the Razorbacks all season.

Right-hander Brady Tygart (4-2, 3.34) is scheduled to start Saturday, while lefty Mason Molina (3-2, 2.81) will start on Sunday.

Van Horn had considered sophomore Gage Wood moving into the starting rotation prior to Wednesday’s practice, but has opted to go with his key starting three, who have gotten the bulk of starts this SEC season.

The Bulldogs, however, are hitting their stride at the perfect time of the year.

Razorback coach Dave Van Horn applauded their pitching, hitting, and defense while previewing the ballgame, calling coach Chris Lemonis’ team one of the hottest in the game right now.

The Bulldogs count on right-hander Khal Stephen (7-2, 2.96), right-hander Jurrangelo Cijintje (7-1 3.53), and right-hander Brooks Auger (1-2, 4.13) as starters.

Dakotah Jordan and Hunter Hines are the keys to the Bulldogs power-packed offense.

“He’ll strike out a little bit, but when he hits, it’s look out,” Van Horn said of Johnson. “When he’s at bat, he takes up the whole batter’s box. He’s still almost hitting. 370. He’s a tough one.

“You got Hunter Hines that can hit them as far as anyone in the league from the other side of the plate. They’ve got some run scorers mixed in there. They’ve got a few guys who can run. They’ve stolen 55 or 60 bases and only have been thrown out like 10 times. I’m sure they take what you give them. If you don’t hold them, they are going to go.

“If you make a mistake, they can hit it over your head. They are a dangerous team. They are very talented, and it seems like they are playing their best baseball over the last month.”

Van Horn said the Hogs can feel the Bulldogs’ breath on their necks.

“Believe me, we know where they are at,” Van Horn said. “We don’t feel like they are hiding in the corner. We know right where they are. They are right on our tail.

“A&M probably feels the same way. It’s the end of the year. It’s pretty exciting. If you are a fan, you should love this stuff. Hopefully our fans will come out to the ballpark and watch two good teams going at it that have a lot to play for.”