Arkansas sophomore Jax Biggers / ArkansasRazorbacks.com
The No. 14 Arkansas Razorbacks might not be where many expected them to be at the midway point of the Southeastern Conference baseball season, but it’s exactly where the Hogs want to be.
With a 29-8 overall record and an 11-4 mark in the SEC, the Razorbacks hold a one-game lead in the Western Division over No. 11 Auburn (27-11, 10-5 SEC) and No. 15 Mississippi State (25-13, 10-5 SEC) and a one-game lead over No. 10 Kentucky (25-12, 10-5 SEC), which leads the SEC East, in the overall race.
Arkansas’ three-game sweep of struggling Georgia (15-22, 4-11) pushed the Hogs to the top of the SEC pack. The Razorbacks defeated Georgia 14-4 Thursday, 5-4 in 10 innings Friday, and 11-3 Saturday to take the series.
The Razorbacks also defeated Missouri State, 12-4, last Tuesday to notch four wins last week after dropping a home SEC series to No. 9 LSU (25-12, 9-6 SEC) the previous weekend. The Hogs appeared to be on their way to winning the series over the Tigers with an 8-1 lead before excellent hitting by LSU and pitching and fielding mistakes by Arkansas allowed LSU to walk away with a 10-8 win in the second game. On Sunday, the Tigers shut the Hogs out, 2-0, to turn the tables on Arkansas.
Any fears of the buckling, though, were wiped away with those four victories last week. This is a more experienced and resilient baseball team that has one of the best hitting lineups top to bottom that coach Dave Van Horn has fielded in a while.
There’s not a truly easy out in the lineup. Though the Hogs could have been more efficient at plating potential runs in the LSU series, scoring’s not an issue with this club.
The Razorbacks continue to lead the SEC in home runs with 52. Mississippi State is a distant second with 39. Arkansas also leads the league in total base hits with 604 to No. 10 Kentucky’s 591.
However, the Razorbacks have made a significant move in batting average. Just three weeks ago, the Razorbacks were seventh in the SEC in batting average, but now the Hogs are second with a team average of .297. Kentucky leads the SEC with a strong .306 average.
Kentucky also leads the SEC with a .477 slugging percentage, but the Hogs are second at .472. Likewise the Wildcats have a league-leading .413 on-base percentage, while the Razorbacks are second at .389. The Razorbacks are also second in RBIs with 246 to Kentucky’s 258.
Jake Arledge and Jax Biggers lead the Hogs in batting with .333 averages for hitters who have appeared in at least three-fourths of Arkansas’ games. Luke Bonfield (.329), Grant Koch (.314), and Chad Spanberger (.302) are also batting over .300. At .299, Carson Shaddy is just off their pace.
On the mound, the Razorbacks lead the SEC in strikeouts with 377 ahead of Mississippi State with 359 and in wins with 29, ahead of Auburn’s 27.
Arkansas’ ERA is 3.35, which is fifth in the league. Ole Miss has the top ERA in the SEC at 2.84. Arkansas is seventh in the SEC with an opposing batting average of .233. Missouri leads the SEC at .219 Arkansas and Missouri’s bullpens are tied for 12th in the league in saves with just 6.
Blaine Knight has developed into a strong presence on the mound for the Hogs. He has six wins, which is tied for first with four other SEC pitchers. His ERA of 1.89 is sixth in the league, and he is ninth in strikeouts with 59.
Behind Knight, Trevor Stephan has been up and down, but he has suffered as much from defensive lapses behind him as he has from his own personal performance. He appeared to have a win in the bag against LSU, before the Razorbacks allowed the Tigers to steal the victory in the late innings.
Knight is 4-2 on the year with an ERA of 2.96. He’s seventh in the SEC in strikeouts with 63. Josh Alberius is 2-4 on the year as the Arkansas’ third-day starter. His ERA is 3.75. Of late Jake Reindl and Kevin Kopps have been solid in relief.
Kopps put the handcuffs on Georgia last Saturday when he entered the game in the fourth with Arkansas leading, 7-3, but with the Bulldogs threatening to pull within 7-5 with a well-placed single.
Kopps hurled one pitch to draw the double-play ball from Georgia’s Tucker Bradley to end the inning. He pitched the rest of the way to pick up the win that lifted Arkansas to the top of the SEC standings.
Overall, the Razorbacks are playing well; however, the Hogs have had some fielding issues the past two SEC series. Going into the LSU series, the Razorbacks had just 25 errors on the season, which was second best in the SEC to the Tigers with 23.
But in the last two weeks, the Razorbacks have suffered seven errors. In the same span, LSU has had just two. It can be argued, errors cost the Hogs the LSU series, and errors also put last Friday’s 10-inning, 5-4 victory over Georgia in jeopardy.
Arkansas is a fine hitting team, and is getting solid pitching all things considered, but few teams hit and pitch well enough to overcome multiple errors in key situations. The fact Arkansas beat Georgia on Friday probably says as much about the Bulldogs, as it does the Hogs.
Arkansas remains a solid fielding team, in fact a strong one when playing their best. The Razorbacks’ fielding percentage is .977, which is fourth in the SEC, and only LSU (25), South Carolina (29) and Florida (31) have fewer errors than Arkansas’ 32 among SEC teams.
However, if the Razorbacks plan to stay atop the SEC standings, they have to tighten up in the field. Errors can be overcome in certain situations, but they often rear their head in the most inopportune time.
The Hogs play a two-game series with Memphis this week before heading over to Auburn to face the Tigers in a huge SEC series.
The first game against Memphis is at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday at Baum Stadium, with the second at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday at Dickey-Stephens Park in North Little Rock. Tuesday’s game will be streamed on SEC Network-Plus.
The Hogs face Auburn at 6 p.m. Friday, 1 p.m. Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday. Friday and Saturday’s games will be streamed on the SEC Network-Plus. The SEC Network will televise Sunday’s game.
Winning the Auburn would give the Razorbacks another leg up for the Western Division title and overall SEC race.
*Rankings by D1Baseball.com