BY DUDLEY E. DAWSON
While it doesn’t appear Arkansas will be back to be fully healthy just yet, the Razorbacks will amazingly still take a share of the SEC lead into a weekend match of two of the nation’s top 10 teams.
No. 3 Arkansas (36-12, 17-7) will host No. 6 South Carolina (36-12, 14-9) in a three-game series beginning Friday at 6:30 p.m in a game that will be streamed on SEC +.
The Razorbacks, hosting their first top 10 showdown in two years , have won six en straight league games while the Gamecocks have six of eight and two straight SEC series.
“They’re a dangerous team,” Arkansas head coach Dave Van Horn said. “They’re really good. They’re ranked in the top 10 for a reason. They’ve gone on the road and been good. They’ve been good at home.
“I know they’ve lost a few games in a row. We’ve been there and it can change real quick.”
Arkansas had hoped to have its injured top three hitters back this weekend in Tavian Josenberger (hamstring) , Peyton Stovall (shoulder) and Jared Wegner (thumb), but may only have one back.
“Josenberger’s looking good,” Van Horn said. “He worked out with us yesterday. He’ll be out there again today. So he’ll be on the roster again.
“Wegner got his pins out on Monday. He’s still pretty sore. He’ll be on the roster. Still not sure about playing [him] yet. He’s not swinging the bat with the team at all yet, so probably highly unlikely this weekend.
“And then Stovall’s shoulder is not doing great. So probably not as of now [going to] put him on the roster. We’ll see how that goes.”
Arkansas plans to start Hagen Smith (7-1, 2.56 ERA) on Friday night with a likely combo of Brady Tygart (2-0, 3.86) and Will McEntire (6-2, 5.64) on Saturday and Hunter Hollan (6-2, 4.15) on Sunday.
“We’ll do what we’ve been doing,” Van Horn said. “Smith will start this week again, and then we’ll TBA it. Because we could use those guys out of the pen.
“We’re going to do what we’ve got to do to win Friday. And we’ll TBA it on Sunday as well. Probably after the game I’ll be able to give you a Saturday starter, then obviously we pretty much know who’s going to throw on Sunday if he’s feeling good.”
Tygart would be making his third start on a pitch count since coming back from a UCL injury suffered on March 1.
He should be able to throw around 60 pitches.
“Yeah, he’s built up,” Van Horn said. “It’s up to him to pitch well and earn his way to that number again. He’s feeling good and knock on wood that it stays that way.”
South Carolina was one of the hottest teams in the league when SEC play opened by jumping out to a 9-1 record.
“I’ve been following them since the beginning of the season,” Van Horn said. “They got off to such a great start. They might’ve been undefeated for the first three or four weeks it seemed like.
“I think they have a great team. They have some veterans back in some key spots. I know they’ve had some injuries, but they have a lot of pitching. They strike you out a lot and they hit balls over your head, a lot of them go out of the park.”
Van Horn said South Carolina possesses a combination of power and speed.
“They still have like 84, 85 doubles,” Van Horn said. They’ve got 103 home runs. That’s a lot of extra base hits…They can run when they need to. They’ve got a good stolen base percentage, like 44, 45 out of 50 or something like that. Yeah, it’s really good. That means they’re picking and choosing their times and it’s worked out for them.”
Freshman Ethan Petry leads South Carolina with a .395 average, 18 homers and 65 RBIs.
“What’s amazing to me is the batting average with the home runs, and a lot of times, you don’t see that,” Van Horn said. “You’ll see the home runs and a .290 batting average, ’cause there were a lot of swing-and-miss in there, you know, all or nothing, but his strikeouts, they’re pretty good.
“He’s struck out mid-40s and probably 20, 30 walks, something like that, but when he gets a pitch to hit, it looks like he doesn’t miss it, whether it’s a line-drive single or a home run…This is a really high level of baseball, and he’s kind of making it look easy, honestly.”
South Carolina’s top two starting pitchers are both injured so the Gamecocks are changing up their pitching rotation this weekend.
That comes after giving up 30 runs and 37 hits in 27.1 innings with an ERA of 9.87 in the last two weekends against Auburn and Kentucky.
Right hander Eli Jones (4-2, 3.38) will get the starting nod Friday in just his fourth start this season.
Left hander Matthew Becker (4-1, 4.46) is listed as Sunday’s starter with Saturday’s starter still left to be announced.Senior Jack Mahoney (4-2, 4.42) has been a starter, but will work out of the bullpen in this series after giving up 11 runs in his last two starts.
Photo by John D. James