Midway though the 2017 SEC race in baseball Arkansas had the overall lead with an 11-4 record. Had the Razorbacks been able to maintain that pace they would have won the conference outright. But in an SEC West showdown series with Auburn to start the second half of league play the Hogs’ Blaine Knight was brutalized in the Friday night opener to the tune of 8 hits and 8 runs in two and a third innings of work. Arkansas lost the game 15-2 and lost the series 2-1.
Dave Van Horn’s guys returned home looking for a bounce back against Ole Miss. But first they would head to Kansas City for a Tuesday game against Kansas State in the Royals Kauffman Stadium. Arkansas won it 6-5 but a few miles down the road back to Fayetteville Van Horn would later observe, “The only people awake were me and the bus driver. Our players were exhausted.”
A day and a half later the team was back on the field to start the Ole Miss series with what Van Horn would describe as “dead legs.” The Razorbacks lost their second straight conference series with a miserable Thursday and Friday at the plate scoring just two combined runs to 13 for the Rebels.
The following week Arkansas slowly began to right the ship. It started with split on the road at Tennessee in a rain-shortened two-game series.
Arkansas returned home to win a crucial series against Vanderbilt, taking game one 4-3 on a walk-off base hit by Luke Bonfield. After a 6-2 loss in the Saturday game the Hogs dominated the Commodores in the finale 7-1 behind 10 hits, three home runs and solid pitching by Dominic Taccolini and Jake Reindl.
The final weekend of the regular season found Arkansas back on the road at College Station with an outside shot at the SEC West Championship. It started well enough with a 6-4 win over the Aggies in extra innings in game one. A Friday night loss ended the Hogs’ title hopes but they again would dominate the final game of a series with eight runs on 13 hits and a combined shutout effort on the mound by Blaine Knight and Kevin Kopps. The series win sent the Razorbacks to Hoover, Alabama as the four seed in the conference tournament.
Looking back it’s easy to see where things went wrong and how the correction occurred.
In the first half of league play the Hogs outscored their SEC opponents 97-62. In the final five series they were outscored 70-59. The damage was done in those back-to-back series losses to Auburn and Ole Miss which finished 5th and 6th respectively in the West. The bounce back came against Vanderbilt and Texas A&M with a strong game three in each series.
Arkansas will not play until Wednesday in Hoover, taking on the winner of a Tuesday game between Georgia and Mississippi State. Van Horn’s team starts tournament play third in fielding percentage, third in hitting, second in slugging percentage and first in home runs. On the mound Arkansas is second in strikeouts.
What’s at stake?
A chance to host an NCAA regional for starters. Two and out in the tournament might put the Hogs on the road for NCAA regional play. A single win in Hoover would probably punch their ticket to host a regional although it’s possible Arkansas has already done enough to secure a home bid.
By winning the SEC Tournament it’s also possible that the Razorbacks might gain a national seed which would mean their road to Omaha would run through Fayetteville.
Post season play is what it’s all about and post season play starts this week.