It could be argued that the top-ranked Arkansas Razorbacks (42-10) have nothing to gain this week in the SEC Baseball Tournament that’s being played in Hoover (Ala.) Metropolitan Stadium.
The Razorbacks are the SEC regular-season champions by two games after a stunning sweep of the No. 13 Florida Gators last weekend in front of three outstanding crowds at Baum-Walker Stadium. The series victory made Arkansas only the second team since the league was expanded to win every series in a season along with the 2013 Vanderbilt Commodores.
The Hogs have stood atop at least one of the polls now for two months, and regardless of what happens this week in Hoover, the Razorbacks are a lock to host a NCAA Regional and likely to be named the No. 1 national seed when the 64-team field is announced on Memorial Day.
Next up for the No. 1 Razorbacks
Opponent: vs Georgia (SEC Tourney)
When: 4:30 p.m. Wednesday, May 26
Where: Hoover, Ala.
Television: SEC Network
However, the Hogs’ stay in Hoover is anything but meaningless to Arkansas head coach Dave Van Horn, who was named SEC Coach of the Year on Monday. Even if the Hogs have nothing to gain this week, Van Horn wants to make sure his Razorbacks don’t lose their edge before they begin a run at returning to the College World Series in Omaha, Neb.
There also is the fact that Arkansas has never won the SEC Baseball Tournament. Van Horn won’t jeopardize Arkansas’ chances in the NCAA Tournament by overtaxing his pitchers or position players, but he certainly wouldn’t turn down an SEC Tournament title if his Hogs can win one.
To keep his pitching staff sharp, Van Horn said all hands would be on deck for the tournament, even SEC Pitcher of the Year Kevin Kopps (10-0, 0.75 ERA).
Now, Van Horn said Kopps would likely not be the workhorse this week that he was in the SEC regular season when it was common for him to close out two games in a three-game series, but that he would likely see action at some point during the Hogs’ stay in Hoover.
Van Horn said the Razorbacks’ normal starters will all pitch, possibly in relief, at some point unless Arkansas makes a very quick exit from the tournament.
Left-handed pitcher Lael Lockhart (2-2, 4.53 ERA) will start for the top-seeded Hogs at approximately 4:30 p.m. Wednesday against the winner of Tuesday’s elimination contest between No. 8 seed Georgia (13-17) and No. 9 seed LSU (13-17).
Van Horn said he would determine who would start in the Hogs’ second game when he knows the matchup.
Odds are that it will be left-handed ace Patrick Wicklander (5-1, 1.89), a second team All-SEC selection, to make sure he gets some work, particularly if the Hogs’ happen to fall into the loser’s bracket after the first game.
However, don’t expect the Razorbacks to go down easily. This Razorback squad only knows one speed. They aren’t going to lay off just to get some extra rest.
Van Horn said the Razorbacks were in Hoover to win some games if not the whole tournament. He’s just not going to overstress this squad to do it.
Going into the tournament, Van Horn said senior catcher Casey Opitz would start Wednesday’s game, although he would not rule out back-up Dylan Leach catching a game or some innings.
One player who is ruled out is sophomore pitcher Peyton Pallette, who appeared to injure his elbow Sunday against Florida. Van Horn basically said Pallette is out for the rest of the season.
Senior outfielder Braydon Webb will travel with the team despite being arrested early Sunday morning on charges of public intoxication at the intersection of West Avenue and Dickson Street. However, Van Horn said he would not start Wednesday.
Van Horn said he may spot play some position players as needed this week but for the most part, Razorback regulars will continue to fill their roles in the field and in the batting lineup.
Joining Kopps on the All-SEC first team were designated hitter Matt Goodheart and second baseman Robert Moore. Preseason All-American center fielder Christian Franklin made second-team All-SEC. Right fielder Cayden Wallace made the All-SEC Freshman team, while Moore, Franklin and Kopps were named to the SEC All-Defensive team.
Van Horn said the Hogs had a spirited workout Tuesday at Samford University’s facility after having a lackluster practice in Fayetteville Monday before flying to Hoover.
“We practiced like we were about to get on a plane, Van Horn dead panned Tuesday in a Zoom teleconference with media.
Van Horn was upbeat in the teleconference until asked about the non-renewal of former assistant and good friend Rob Childress’ contract by Texas A&M after 16 seasons. Van Horn’s concern for his friend and ire at the Aggies for making the head-scratching move was evident.
Until missing out on the postseason this year, the Aggies had played in the NCAA Tournament 13 consecutive seasons under Childress, including a College World Series appearance in 2011.