After two weeks on the road, the No. 1 Arkansas Razorbacks and their skipper Dave Van Horn are happy to be back playing in the friendly confines of Baum-Walker Stadium for a three-game series with Georgia.
In fact, as the regular seasons draws to a close, the Hogs (34-8, 15-6 SEC) will enjoy playing two of their final three series in Fayetteville in hopes of extending their streak of 14 consecutive weekend series victories before heading to Hoover, Ala. for the SEC Tournament which begins May 25.
The Hogs play their final road series at No. 4 Tennessee (34-11, 14-7) next weekend before returning to Fayetteville to host No. 10 Florida (31-14, 13-9) May 20-22 to close out the regular season.
Next up for the No. 1 Razorbacks
Opponent: vs. Georgia
When: 6:30 p.m. Friday, May 7
Television: SEC Network+
Saturday, May 8 – Georgia, SEC Network
Sunday, May 9 – Georgia, SEC Network+
“It’s really good to back home,” Van Horn said. “We weathered the storm with back-to-back weekends on the road, going 4-2. When you look at the schedule and see that we’ve got to go back-to-back weekends on the road in this league, you have to wonder how are you going to handle that. I think we did O.K., especially playing the teams that we did and how good they normally are at home. It’s good to be back home at Baum, particularly with more fans in the stands. We hope they are loud, and we hope we play well.”
Capacity at Baum-Walker Stadium has been increased to 7,685 for the rest of the season.
The Bulldogs (27-16, 10-11) have had an up-and-down season, but they did a win a series from No. 2 Vanderbilt, which points out their potential and talent.
“The Vandy series jumps out at you,” Van Horn said. “It’s hard to take a series from them no matter where you play. Georgia’s roster is loaded with talent.”
The Razorbacks also have a talented roster although Van Horn is still experimenting with the chemistry of his batting lineup. Second baseman Robert Moore is one of the Hogs’ best hitters, but Van Horn has bounced him around the lineup. He’s used the talented sophomore to lead off, but now has him slotted sixth behind All-American candidate center fielder Christian Franklin.
“Robert hits behind Christian now,” Van Horn said. “Christian had 10 RBIs last weekend. Part of that was that they decided to pitch to Christian. They had to pick their poison a little bit. Now if we could get our lead-off man — I think it will be [Zack] Gregory — to reach base, it would really make our offense deeper.”
Despite the fact the Razorbacks lead the overall SEC race and are ranked No. 1 in the nation, Van Horn is comfortable making adjustments to provoke continued improvement.
“You can always pick apart everything as a coach, and that’s our job,” Van Horn said. “We just need to continue to get on base, particularly at the top of the lineup. We could get off to a better start. We feel like if our lead-off guys Gregory and we’ve led off with [Brayden] Webb. Those guys need to get on base and score runs for us. We need to do a good job of scoring runs with two outs. We’ve been pretty good at it all year, but maybe the thing we need to do more is score earlier in the game. We did a really nice job of scoring early in Game 2 at LSU. A run or two early would really help us going forward.”
In Game 1 and Game 3 at LSU, the Razorbacks’ runs didn’t come until late in the game. In the 7-0 Game 1 victory, the Hogs scored all their runs after the sixth inning. In the 5-4 Game 3 Loss to LSU, the Hogs rallied to plate three runs in the ninth, but failed to catch the Tigers.
“We feel pretty good that we can fight back,” Van Horn said of his Hogs’ tenacity. “If we go into the last inning three or four runs down, we still feel like we have a shot. Three we have a good shot. Four is a little more difficult. We found that out the other day, but we did hit the ball extremely hard in that inning when we didn’t get on. We’re going to fight you down to the last inning, and we feel like we have a good shot even if we are down two or three runs.”
Part of what makes the Hogs so good at the plate is how picky they are in selecting pitches to hit. Analytics has allowed the Hogs to hone in on what type of pitches they want to swing at. The side effect is that the Razorbacks not only lead the nation in home runs but also lead the SEC in walks. Running the pitch count up quickly on SEC starting pitchers has been one of the keys to the Hogs’ success this season.
“It’s a big part of our offense,” Van Horn said of the Razorbacks’ selectiveness at the plate and propensity to draw walks. “Whenever you hit the ball out of the park, it’s nice to have a runner or two on base. It’s a big part of our offense, the ability to score fast like that.
“The walks just mean we are being more patient than we have been in the past, recognizing more pitches, maybe taking more pitches, more border-line pitches early in the count. I think we’ve gotten a lot better at that over the last 30 games or so.”
While Van Horn has struggled all season with nailing down three starting pitchers for SEC series, he’s used his bullpen effectively, particularly Kevin Kopps, who has been handcuffing opponents left and right this season.
Kopps was named National Pitcher of the Month by the National Collegiate Baseball Writers Association by posting a 0.81 ERA with four saves in 22.1 games with 42 strikeouts and just 5 walks. Kopps often gets the closing role for the Hogs, but Van Horn said his senior is more than that.
“He’s not just a closer,” Van Horn said. “He’s built up to go four or five innings if his pitch count isn’t up. He’s unique in many ways, but his experience factor pushes him over the top.”
While Kopps has become a dominate force for the Hogs, the Razorbacks have yet to find a consistent third starter.
Patrick Wicklander (3-1, 1.89 ERA) will face fellow lefty Liam Sullivan (1-0, 4.74) Friday night. Righty Peyton Paulette (1-2, 4.02) is scheduled to face Georgia right-hander Jonathan Cannon (2-2 4.19) on Saturday, while Van Horn is undecided who he will start Sunday against Georgia southpaw Ryan Webb (3-3, 3.04).
Freshman Jaxon Wiggins (3-0, 5.11) could get his first start on Sunday if the Razorbacks don’t have to call upon him Friday or Saturday. Wiggins has been used primarily in relief or as a closer this season. If Wiggins doesn’t get the start Sunday, Caleb Bolden (2-0, 4.34) or Zebulon Vermillion (2-0, 4.38) could be in play.
Van Horn said he’s not apprehensive about giving Wiggins a start.
“It’s all difficult. Either you can or can’t,” Van Horn said about a freshman like Wiggins getting a start. “… It’s really up to the individual to be able to handle it mentally. It’s a tough question to answer. It’s more about seeing what he can do. If he can’t do it, we can get him out of there pretty quick.
While Wiggins hasn’t seen closing action in three weeks, he has been working hard in practice.
“We’ve been simulating throwing a game with him,” Van Horn said. “Throw 20 pitches sit down and rest, and then throw 20 more. We’re not asking him to go five, six, or seven innings. Just throw three or four to start out.”
Not naming a Sunday starter isn’t about hiding anything, according to Van Horn. It’s just the situation the Razorbacks are in.
“For us it’s the best thing to do,” Van Horn said. “I’d like to have a third guy that we could plug in and let him go get them with the rest of the guys coming out of the pen. I don’t think we have that luxury yet to be able to go ahead and announce all three. That’s why we think we should just leave it open and take each game one at a time, and use whoever we have to, to try and win each day and then move on to the next day.
“We feel like offensively that we can score a lot of runs, but you just never know. You’d hate to go out on a Sunday and score 15 runs but get beat 16-15 for whatever reason. We just tell our guys to go out and try to win the one that’s in front of you. We’ll make the decision for the third game [starter] after the second [game] based on our best option.”