The 2017 Arkansas Razorbacks might not be the most consistent baseball team Dave Van Horn has coached, but they are a gritty bunch that can’t be counted out.
That’s been the storyline all season, and last weekend’s series against the Vanderbilt Commodores at Baum Stadium was a case in point.
The Hogs (37-14, 16-10 SEC) won the series Sunday with a rousing 7-1 victory, after falling 6-2 to Vanderbilt on Saturday and winning 4-3 on Friday.
It’s a familiar pattern for the Hogs, who won rubber matches for series victories against Missouri and Alabama and won the second game of a split against Tennessee.
After Saturday’s loss, one had to question how the Hogs would respond after being tied up by Vanderbilt’s pitching. The last half of the SEC season, the Hogs have struggled to string together hits, and the home runs have not come on cue.
Sunday the Razorbacks mustered not only enough energy to rebound against a very solid Commodores squad but knock them out of the park. The series win gives Arkansas a slim chance to win the SEC Western Division title, but more importantly it keeps the Hogs in the running to host a NCAA regional.
The Razorbacks, who continue to lead the SEC in home runs with 66, did it with the long ball once again. Catcher Grant Koch slapped a two-run homer in the first inning to give the Hogs a 2-0 lead for his second of the series and his fourth in the last seven games to give him 13 for the season.
“I think it was the biggest swing of the day. It gave us a good feeling,” Van Horn said. “That was the first time we had the lead this weekend, except when we won the first game in the bottom of the ninth. We’ve either been tied or behind. It gave us some confidence, probably gave [pitcher] Dominic [Taccolini] some confidence. You could tell that when he hit that home run, they were a little on edge over there.”
Center fielder Domenic Fletcher and first baseman Chad Spanberger pelted homers off the right-field foul pole in the sixth inning to put the game away, 7-1.
Vanderbilt’s only run came on a second-inning home run by Julian Infante. The pitch was practically the only mistake of the day for the Hogs who benefited from a strong starting effort on the mound by Dominic Taccolini and Jake Reindl.
It was the first action by Taccolini (4-0), who had been held back by a sore forearm, in a month. The game also saw a bit of a comeback for Reindl, too, who was pulled from Friday’s game after throwing six balls in a row.
Van Horn liked what he saw from both pitchers.
“He did a really good job,” Van Horn said of Taccolini. “He really didn’t have command of his breaking ball, but his fastball had a lot of sink. They went up there swinging, hit some balls hard and made some nice plays, but Dom just kept battling. He got up to 73-75 pitches, we felt like that was enough. They had been through the lineup twice, so we went and got Jake. It was really good for him to go out and give us more than four innings and give us a chance to get us to our next four guys if we need it, we only needed one.”
Attitude was the difference for the Razorbacks according to Koch.
“We came in today with a little more aggressive mindset, overall, not just at the plate,” Koch said. “We kind of came out on a mission. You know, Sunday’s our day and we’ve got to win on Sunday to be a good team.”
That aggressiveness was good to see from the Hogs. This Arkansas squad played with a swagger through the first half of their SEC schedule, but that confidence seemed to fade after being roughed up at Auburn. The Tigers won the series 2-1. The Hogs notched a solid 7-3 victory that Saturday, but Auburn lit the Hogs up 15-2 on Friday and 11-6 on Saturday.
Arkansas lost their home series to Ole Miss the following week and split at Tennessee with the last game being rained out. But even when facing those doldrums, the Razorbacks had the toughness to win at least one game in each series. That grit has them hanging in the divisional race on the last weekend of the regular season.
Maybe the Razorbacks’ convincing win over Vanderbilt will set them on a positive trajectory heading into their final SEC series of the regular season at Texas A&M.
The Razorbacks are a game and half behind Western Division leading LSU (35-19, 18-9) and a half game behind Mississippi State (33-19, 17-10). The Hogs are a game and a half ahead of the Aggies (35-17, 15-12) in the standings. Interestingly enough, LSU and Mississippi State also meet this weekend.
The Razorbacks could still win the Western Division title. Arkansas would need a three-game sweep of the Aggies, coupled with Mississippi State winning their series with LSU, two games to one.
That would leave all three with 19 wins, but the Hogs would have one fewer loss because of its rainout at Tennessee. The Razorbacks would win the West by percentage points or a half game over the Tigers and Bulldogs.
With a single-game rainout at Starkville this week, the Hogs could tie for the Western Division title, if the Razorbacks sweep A&M and Mississippi State wins both games.
While the odds of Arkansas sweeping the Aggies this weekend are highly unlikely, the Razorbacks go into the series with a shot at winning the SEC West and reaching the 40-win total in the regular season.
That’s infinitely better than a year ago when the Hogs limped to the end of their schedule with a 13-game losing streak.