What a difference one game can make.
It’s hard to tell what one victory or loss can mean for a college baseball program in the middle of the season, but for whatever reason, the Arkansas Razorbacks 14-12 victory over Vanderbilt on April 13 seemed significant then, and it certainly has proven to be now.
Who: at Texas A&M
When: May 16, 17, 18
Where: College Station, TX
Watch: ESPNU, SECN+, SEC Network
Out-slugging the Commodores for that victory soothed some of the pain from a 12-2 loss on April 12 and a 3-2 loss on April 11, and by avoiding being swept, it actually built some momentum for the Razorbacks, who have won four consecutive SEC series since.
That one victory is what separates the No. 4 Razorbacks (39-13, 19-8 SEC) from No. 5 Mississippi State (42-10, 18-9 SEC) and No. 6 Georgia (39-14, 18-9 SEC) in the overall SEC Standings and gives them the chance — however slight it may be — to catch No. 2 Vanderbilt (41-10, 20-7) for the conference title this weekend.
The Hogs play a three-game series at No. 18 Texas A&M (34-18-1, 14-12-1), scheduled for 6 p.m. Thursday on ESPNU, 6:30 p.m. Friday streaming on the ESPN App., and 2 p.m. Saturday on the SEC Network.
Vanderbilt plays at unranked Kentucky (25-26, 7-20) at 6:30 p.m. Thursday and Friday and at 2 p.m. Saturday, with all three streaming on the ESPN App.
For the Razorbacks to win the overall SEC title, they would need to sweep A&M, and Kentucky would need to beat Vanderbilt two out of three games, or Arkansas would need to take two of three from the Aggies and Kentucky would need to sweep the Commodores.
It’s hard to foresee either of those combinations coming to fruition. With respect to top-rated UCLA,Vanderbilt may very well be the best college baseball team in the nation. The Commodores probably aren’t going to lose two or three times to the Wildcats.
The Aggies won’t be easy pickings for the Razorbacks, either. A&M’s pitching staff is formidable even without its usual Game 2 starter Asa Lacy, who received a four-game suspension for fussing with the umpire in a 2-1 loss to Alabama last Saturday.
Arkansas coach Dave Van Horn said Monday that he expected A&M midweek starter Chris Weber (4-0, 2.79) to step into Lacy’s spot on Friday, when the Hogs will likely throw Patrick Wicklander (5-1, 4.17).
Razorback ace Isaiah Campbell (9-1, 2.57) is expected to face the Aggies’ John Doxakis (6-3, 1.93) on Thursday. Van Horn has usually started freshman Connor Noland (2-3, 3.99) in the third game, while the Aggies normally go with Christian Roa (2-2, 3.49).
Thanks to the Razorbacks’ sweep of Mississippi State four weeks ago, the Hogs hold the tiebreaker over the Bulldogs and will win the Western Division if they can win two games against the Aggies, regardless what Mississippi State does against its weekend opponent South Carolina (26-25, 7-20).
However, if the Bulldogs sweep South Carolina and the Hogs lose two of three or all three to the Aggies, then Mississippi State would win the Western Division outright.
Make no bones about it, Van Horn and the Hogs want to win every game they can, but the head Hog said the Razorbacks aren’t feeling any undue pressure as they prepare for the Aggies. There is always pressure to win, but no seeding implications for the SEC Tournament come into play this weekend for Van Horns’ Razorbacks.
The Hogs will either be the West’s No. 1 or 2 seed whatever happens this weekend. That gives them a buy in the SEC Tournament. The Hogs will begin play on May 22 in the double-elimination portion of the bracket.
Knowing they won’t be playing on May 21 gives Van Horn and his staff a head start on setting their pitching rotation. The big question is whether to start Campbell in their first game on six days rest or whether to risk holding him for a day to keep him on the same schedule? Campbell has pitched on six days rest before, so even that is not too big of a quandary for Arkansas’ brain trust.
Besides the Aggies are on the forefront of the all the Razorbacks thoughts at the moment. While seeding for the SEC Tournament isn’t a worry for Van Horn, the Hogs still have a ton to play for this weekend in Aggie Land.
At the moment, the Razorbacks are in position to garner one of the NCAA Tournament’s eight National Seeds with their No. 4 ranking and No. 6 RPI, but nothing is guaranteed.
The teams which receive one of the eight national seed not only host a first-round Regional, but also automatically get to host a Super Regional if they advance past the first weekend of NCAA Tournament play. Playing at home is a huge advantage for the Razorbacks, which are 28-6 this season in Baum-Walker Stadium.
Some say the Razorbacks need just one win at College Station to wrap up a National Seed, but I think that is too optimistic.
Arkansas needs to win the A&M series to remain in good stead for a National Seed going into the SEC Tournament and to carry momentum into the postseason.
No matter how confident and strong the Razorbacks feel after winning their last four SEC series, all of that comes to a halt if they drop the series to the Aggies. It would be like starting all over again.
The strength of the Aggies pitching staff leads me to believe these games will be close and low-scoring, unless the Hogs are able to battle the Aggies’ middle relief like they have against many opponents during the last fourth of the season.
The Razorbacks have held things together pitching-wise all year. Even when situations have been a bit unstable,, usually one reliever or closer or the other has answered the bell. That may need to be the case again this weekend.
As always with college athletics, the more a team wins the bigger and bigger the stakes become. Thankfully some truly big things still await this Razorback baseball team as postseason play barrels ever closer..