This year’s Arkansas Razorbacks were supposed to be a good team, not a great team, but a solid baseball team.
The Hogs (34-11, 15-6 SEC) started the season ranked in everyone’s top 25 out of respect for returning stars like Casey Martin, Heston Kjerstad, Dominic Fletcher, and Matt Cronin who all project to be Major Leaguers within a few years, and of course because of head coach Dave Van Horn, who has been one of the best coaches in the business for a couple of decades.
Who: vs Grambling State
When: 6:30 p.m. April 30
Where: Dickey-Stephens Park, North Little Rock
Watch: Not Televised
Certainly, the Razorbacks had some question marks, really a lot of them coming off last year’s near miss at a national title. However, most had confidence that Van Horn and his staff would figure the rest out despite playing in the nation’s most competitive conference from top to bottom.
While most had confidence in Van Horn’s prowess as well as the abilities of assistant Nate Thompson, pitching coach Matt Hobbs, volunteer assistant Taylor Smart as well as director of baseball operations Clay Goodwin, few forecasted that the Razorbacks would develop into the ball team they have this season.
Those that have followed this baseball team closely know the Razorbacks have grown from being a talented but inconsistent squad into to one playing some of the best baseball in the nation in recent weeks.
After the Razorbacks’ sweeps of Mississippi State and Tennessee the past two weekends, most of the various polls have aligned to rank Arkansas at No. 5., while USA Today has them at No. 6.
All things considered, that’s fair.
The best teams in the Pac-12 hold a tight grip on the top 5 with UCLA (34-7, 14-4 Pac-12) as everyone’s No. 1 with its sensational pitching staff. Stanford (31-7, 15-3 Pac-12) falls in right behind them in the Baseball America poll at No. 2. Vanderbilt (34-9, 15-6) breaks up the Pac-12 party at No. 3 with defending national champs Oregon State (31-10-1, 17-4 Pac-12) at No. 4.
Again, the Hogs are No. 5, but the Razorbacks may be playing better than that.
The NCAA’s RPI says so with the Hogs ranked third behind No. 1 UCLA and No. 2 Vanderbilt.
We know exactly how good the Commodores are. Three weeks ago they took a home series from the Hogs by winning the first two games 3-2 and 12-2 before the Razorbacks bounced back for a gutsy 14-12 victory in the finale.
After getting walloped 12-2 on Saturday, it would have been easy for Arkansas to have relented on Sunday and just taken the sweep from a then top-6 team, but that’s not the Razorbacks nature.
The Hogs battled tusk and hoof for that 14-12 victory on Sunday when so many onlookers had figuratively already packed up their gear for them.
Just a week earlier, the Razorbacks were struggling at Auburn. They absorbed a 6-3 loss on Friday, and did not play particularly well on Saturday until the late innings. They just hung on inning after inning until the Tigers finally relented in the 15th inning, and the Razorbacks broke the game open for a 9-6 win.
Just by hanging on for so long for that Saturday victory, the Hogs depleted Auburn’s bullpen. The Tigers were throwing scraps on Sunday, and Arkansas left with a series win thanks to an 8-0 victory.
These Razorbacks know how to fight. They are stubborn and latch on to games like an old snapping turtle. A good team might play well enough to beat them, but there is no quit in these Razorbacks. That’s a special quality for a team, and it has helped them all season as they have struggled for consistency from time to time.
As mentioned before, the Razorbacks are red hot in SEC play with seven consecutive victories that date back to that 14-12 Sunday victory at Vanderbilt.
As a Razorback fan, I love the fight in this team, but what I like even more is that you never know who is going to be the hero, the stud or the dude — whatever you want to cal it — in any given game.
The team does have stars like Martin, Kjerstad, Fletcher, and Cronin, but you can go up and down the Hogs’ lineup and pitching staff and find a dozen more players who have been the stars of moment for this Razorback team.
Whether it’s Casey Opitz’s 10th-inning, walkout double to deliver the final stroke in the sweep of Tennessee on Sunday, freshman left fielder Christian Franklin’s four-for-four night on Saturday, or freshman third baseman Jacob Nesbit’s six RBI night last Friday.
Likewise a variety of pitchers have come through for the Razorbacks all season as well. Isaiah Campbell has worked himself into being the Hogs’ ace this year after a on-again, off-again sophomore season a year ago. Even when he doesn’t have his best stuff, Campbell knows how to pitch and fight against the quality competition he sees each week.
Likewise Cronin has lived up to his All-American billing, but when he struggled some Sunday, freshman Elijah Trest came in to polish off the Vols three up and three down in the 10th.
After struggling during the period when spring football overlapped with baseball, Connor Noland has bounced back with two very strong starts in his last two appearances.
Fellow freshman Patrick Wicklander has worked himself into a steady role as a weekend starter with Cody Scroggins out in recent weeks to rest his arm. If all four of them get and remain healthy, Arkansas will be well equipped for postseason tournament play.
But that’s putting the cart before the horse with three SEC series left to play at Kentucky (22-22, 5-16 SEC) this weekend, at Baum-Walker Stadium against No. 12 LSU (29-16, 13-8 SEC) next weekend, and at No. 15 Texas A&M (30-15, 11-9-1 SEC) for the regular season finale.
Razorback fans need to enjoy Arkansas’ hot streak now because the tables can be turned so quickly. Baseball is a fickle sport. Fortunes can turn very quickly, especially against the solid competition the SEC brings on a weekly basis.
The Razorbacks lead the SEC Western Division by two games at this point at 15-6. No. 6 Mississippi State (36-9, 13-8), No. 18 Ole Miss (30-15, 13-8), and No. 12 LSU (29-16, 13-8) are tied for second with No. 15 Texas A&M (30-15-1, 11-9-1) and Auburn (27-17, 10-11) still in contention.
Arkansas is tied with Vanderbilt (34-9, 15-6) for the overall SEC lead, but the Commodores hold the tiebreaker by virtue of winning the regular-season series.
The Hogs play Grambling State (23-20) at 6:30 p.m. tonight in North Little Rock at Dickey-Stephens Park in their last mid-week game of the regular season. The game is not televised, nor will it be streamed on the ESPN App.