Almost is an ugly word to wear in sports.
Sure, it’s meant to be encouraging, but hear it too often and “almost” can make you almost want to puke.
Realistically, Arkansas’ baseball season is nowhere near the point of almost. The Razorbacks have faced the toughest three-week stretch of the baseball season that any team in the nation has faced and are likely to face in regular season play.
Playing No. 13 Kentucky, No. 1 Florida on the road, and No. 3 Ole Miss on the road, is a nightmare schedule for most teams in the nation, and it’s tough for SEC squads too. However, the Razorbacks looked at it like business as usual.
No doubt the Razorbacks (19-9) would have liked for business to have been better the last two weeks, but the Hogs held their own with a 5-4 record that leaves them tied with LSU for second place in the Western Division behind division leader Ole Miss (25-4, 6-3) and in a three-way tie for fourth overall with LSU and Missouri.
The Hogs and both brands of Tigers are two games back of Florida and Georgia which lead the SEC East and the league overall with 7-2 marks.
What stings though is that three of the Razorbacks’ four SEC losses have come by just one run. The Hogs lost 5-4 to Florida in the third game of the series, and last week the Razorbacks lost 5-4 to Ole Miss on Friday and 11-10 on Saturday.
I don’t want to say it, but Arkansas “almost” won those three games. A bit better play here or there and they could have won any one of the three.
The troubling thing dating back to the beginning of the season is the defense. The Hogs average giving up one unearned run a game, and they are rated last in the SEC in fielding percentage at .970. The Hogs have 31 errors on the season, ranking them 11th in the SEC.
It’s still fairly early in the SEC season and statistics can be skewed particularly when a team is coming off a schedule like the Razorbacks’, but the Hogs need to play more efficiently in the field if they want to accomplish their goals and meet their potential.
The Razorbacks’ pitching staff isn’t struggling, but Arkansas coach Dave Van Horn is searching for couple of starters to emerge with Isaiah Campbell limited by elbow issues, and Keaton McKinney still recovering from Tommy John surgery. Van Horn is hoping Campbell, who stayed home to rest his elbow from last week’s trip to Memphis and Oxford, Miss., will be able to pitch on a limited basis this weekend against Auburn.
Blaine Knight (5-0, 2.01 ERA) and Kacey Murphy (3-2, 2.55 ERA) are set to start on Friday and Saturday against the No. 15 Tigers (22-7, 4-5), but Van Horn isn’t ready to name a third starter fo the series.
Midweek starters have also been a concern all season. While the Razorbacks have been able to outhit most of their midweek opponents, should the Hogs make it to the College World Series, they will need at least four reliable starting pitchers if they truly want to challenge for the title. There is time for those pitchers to develop, especially if Campbell and McKinney do get healthy.
What is a concern, though, is the pitching staff’s confidence in the defense that surrounds them. Pitching to SEC batting lineups is pressure-packed enough without the man on the mound having to worry about the defense that surrounds him.
Now what does bolster the confidence of Arkansas pitchers is the Razorbacks’ batting lineup. The Hogs’ team batting average is second in the league to Kentucky (.322) at .313 for the season, but they are a scorching .337 in SEC games. Arkansas continues to lead the SEC in home runs with 53.
Van Horn is wanting more from designated hitter and clean-up man Luke Bonfield, and a bit more consistency from proven hitters Grant Koch and Dominic Fletcher, but the Razorbacks have one of the most potent batting lineup top to bottom in the nation.
However, the Razorbacks can’t continue to have the giving nature of Santa Claus on defense and be all that they can be against an SEC schedule.
Auburn pitcher Casey Mize, who is set to start Friday, may be the best pitcher in the SEC if not the nation. He might be the No. 1 pick in June’s MLB Draft. Knight will be on the mound against him for what could be a classic confrontation.
Arkansas has the lineup to challenge Mize, particularly with a partisan Razorbacks crowd behind it at Baum Stadium, but Mize doesn’t need any help. Giving a pitcher like him gifts is an unhealthy proposition for a team’s record.
However, before Auburn comes to town this weekend, Arkansas plays host to Louisiana Monroe at 6:30 tonight and 3:30 p.m. on Wednesday to help the Hogs back acquainted with Baum Stadium after two weeks away from home.