BY DUDLEY E. DAWSON
Heading into his team’s last SEC weekend this season, Arkansas head coach Dave Van Horn finds the Razorbacks in a different situation than this time during the last campaign.
Arkansas was ranked No. 1 nationally, needed just one win in three games to clinch the SEC Western Division and overall title and was a virtual lock to be an NCAA Tournament Regional and Super Regional host.
None of those things are true as the Razorbacks (37-14, 17-10) head to Alabama (27-24, 10-16) for a three-game series with contests scheduled for Thursday at 6 p.m., Friday at 7 p.m. and Saturday at 1 p.m.
Arkansas heads into this weekend in a tie for the SEC Western Division lead with Texas A&M, who is at resurgent Ole Miss for a trio of games, as the teams prepare for next week’s SEC Tournament in Hoover, Ala.
“It’s fun,” Van Horn said Wednesday afternoon before the team left for Tuscaloosa. “This league is something else, and to have an opportunity to win it outright, get a piece of it, it’s still right in front of us. It would be great. The guys know. We haven’t really talked to them about it. We just talked about finishing strong, putting together some good games and putting together a good tournament.
“… We’re going to stay in Alabama for a while. Talked about a lot of things the other day before practice. But I mean, it’s tough to be at the top at the end, especially in the Western Division in my opinion because the teams are really good. There’s a lot of name teams that have won leagues many times. They’ve won national championships. So we’re gonna go out there and do the best we can at Alabama and see if we can get part of it at a minimum maybe the whole thing.”
The Razorbacks swept visiting Florida last season to close out a 50-13 regular season in which the finished 20-8 in SEC action. That held off eventual national champion Mississippi State by two games as the Bulldogs were sweeping Alabama.
Van Horn knows his team will need to play with a sense of urgency this weekend.
“It’s different than last year,” Van Horn said. “I don’t remember when we wrapped up the West, but we had such a great year. I think we still had to win a game or two on the weekend. But we didn’t really have a lot of ups and downs last year. This year, we’ve definitely had them. We’ve had to fight. We had some heartbreak, some great wins and some almost wins and frustration. Last year was smooth sailing amongst the players, amongst the fans. This year, not so smooth.”
Van Horn knows there is a vocal minority of Arkansas fans unhappy about this season.
“I think amongst the players it’s pretty good,” Van Horn said. “ Part of the fan base, not so good. It’s been a little disappointing. We feel like our guys play hard everyday, and we feel like there’s probably 90% of the fans who are awesome, and there’s 10% that put a lot out there. I feel bad for the players, and I told them that yesterday. It’s all about you. It’s about us and our team. Just keep fighting.”
Arkansas will send out its normal weekend starters in Connor Noland (5-3, 3.38), Hagen Smith (6-2, 4.34) and Jackson Wiggins (6-2, 5.31), none of whom pitched through the fifth inning last weekend.
“Yeah, I mean, you’re always concerned about it,” Van Horn said. “But they feel good. I think it’s just a matter of going out and doing it. I think that throughout the season, a lot of times it’ll happen earlier. For us, it might have just happened a week or two later.
“Hopefully those guys will go out and have a good outing this week. They don’t feel tired. Their bullpens are good. Now it’s just about getting it done in the game like they did earlier.”
Alabama’s starters are slated to be righty Garrett McMillan (4-4, 3.51), righty Jacob McNairy (5-2, 4.60) and lefty Grayson Hitt (4-3, 5.02), all who have started over 10 games this season.
Alabama has lost its last five series, but did have wins over Texas A&M and Ole Miss and a series opening win over No. 1 Tennessee before beginning its current struggle.
Alabama (27-24, 10-16), Kentucky (28-23, 9-17) , Mississippi State (26-27, 9-18) and Missouri (26-22, 8-19) and are four teams battling for the final two spots in the 12-team SEC Tournament, which begins Tuesday and excludes two of the league’s 14 teams.
“They’re fighting for position, fighting to get to a regional, last weekend at home,” Van Horn said. “ It is exactly where I thought we were going to be.”
Auburn took the first two games from Alabama last season before weather halted game three on Sunday and it was declared a no-contest with there score tied 1-1 in the fifth.
McMillan, a 6-4, 230-pounder, is considered Alabama’s ace and has fanned 77 batters and walked 22 in 77 innings, which is the third most among SEC pitchers this season.
He went 5 2/3 innings last Friday while giving up three runs on five hits, six strikeouts and two walks and throwing 100 pitches in what turned into Auburn’s 3-2 win.
“He’s going to throw the ball 92 to 95 miles an hour from the right side, with a slider and change-up and competes,” Van Horn said. “Doesn’t walk people. That’s a big thing. Throwing strikes. Making teams swing. He’s given them a lot of quality innings, given them a chance to win, just like he did last weekend.
“We just have to do a good job. Really what it boils down to is offensively we’ve got to get some big hits in big spots and keep them from getting big hits in big spots. That’s what it seems like it boils down to in every game 1.”
Van Horn thinks Noland is poised to bounce back in Thursday’s opener after some subpar outings lately.
“He’s been handling it real well,” Van Horn said. “Bouncing around, staying upbeat. I think he just feels like he had a couple-game slump, and he needs to get it together this week. I feel like he feels healthy. There’s no issues there physically.
“We just think that, you know, pitch to contact a little more. We’d like to, you know, don’t worry about getting strikeouts. And I don’t think he is, I’m just, that’s what we tell him. Hey, just let them hit it. We’ll field it. Hopefully he’ll be good this weekend.”
Arkansas hurlers Will McEntire (1-1, 1.96) and Zack Morris (5-0, 1.12) have been throwing more innings lately and have helped the staff lately per Van Horn.
“Oh, big time,” Van Horn said. “We told them four or five weeks ago we needed a couple more arms, a couple more guys to step it up at least to be a bullpen piece or even a Tuesday starter, which McEntire ended up being there for a while.
Closer Brady Tygart (2-3, 2.23, 7 saves) will also be ready to go and has a mental makeup better than most freshmen.
“It’s pretty rare,” Van Horn said. “ A lot of times they might have the stuff, but mentally they panic a little bit. I think he’s done a great job of not getting sped up I don’t think the game has stressed him out, so to speak. He’s just gone out there and done what he does and I think he kind of likes it.”
Arkansas head baseball coach Dave Van Horn discusses his team’s series this weekend at Alabama.
BY DUDLEY E. DAWSON