Per numerous college baseball experts, SEC co-champ and No. 3 Arkansas heads into the SEC Tournament as a safe choice to be one of the coveted eight national seeds when NCAA Tournament field is announced Monday.
Arkansas (39-15, 20-10), projected as the No. 3 seed by Division I baseball, will see its first league tournament action Wednesday when it faces Texas A&M (33-23) at around 1 p.m. in a quarterfinal round game in Hoover, Ala.
The Razorbacks plan to send Cody Adcock (4-2, 5.23 ERA) out as the starting pitcher against the Aggies, who eliminated Tennessee 3-0 via a one-hitter on Tuesday to move into the double elimination bracket.
“A&M is finally starting to hit the ball like everybody thought they would because they have so many starters back from last year that hit the ball well,” Arkansas head coach Dave Van Horn said of team that had five hits on Tuesday. “They’ve been scoring a lot of runs.”
Van Horn, who was named the SEC Coach of the Year on Monday, has a clear vision of what he would like from his team in this tournament, which has semifinals on Saturday and a Sunday 2 p.m. championship game.
“… Obviously we do want to win,” Van Horn said. “I guess the importance would be to continue to get these pitchers some work, but not too much work. Keep them sharp.
“The same with the hitters. They need some live at-bats, especially with a couple of of the guys (outfielders Tavian Josenberger and Jared Wegner) who have been injured, to get those guys in the lineup and swinging the bat and try to get them right.”
Texas A&M head coach Jim Schlossnagle believes his squad is a different than the one that was swept in Fayetteville on April 27-29.
“That’s been such a while ago,” noted Schlossnagle, whose team walked 14 in of those earlier meetings. “We’re a different club. I think we’ve won six of our last eight SEC series. We have some guys pitching out of our bullpen that — Shane Sdao and Brandyn Garcia pitching with a lot of confidence, so we have a couple guys there.
“But, frankly, Arkansas outplayed us. It’s amazing the job that — I mean, Coach Van Horn has always been one of the — if he’s not the premier coach in our sport, he’s in the top one or two, and the job he’s done with his team this year is really, really impressive. They play such sound baseball, overcoming injuries and doing all that stuff.”
It’s clear that Schlossnagle has great admiration for Van Horn and his program.
“I never want to lose, but when you lose to a program that plays the game the right way and has a true system to what they’re doing, they throw a lot of strikes, they play sound defense, they get the timely hits and there’s a lot of belief, and certainly playing them in that ballpark is tough,” Schlossnagle said.
“But we’re a different team. We’re playing with a lot of confidence. We’ve played better down the stretch with the exception of two games against Alabama. So this time of year, you’re either hot or good or both. I think we’re solid, and these guys are playing with some confidence.”
Arkansas, who will pitch ace and first-team All SEC selection Hagen Smith (8-1, 2.56) on Thursday on normal rest, will be without injured shortstop John Bolton.
Bolton was injured in Friday night’s game with Vanderbilt.
“He won’t play tomorrow for sure,” Van Horn said. “They have tried to accelerate this as far at treatment, lot of treatment, keeping it elevated. He walked with a boot on it and now he is not in a boot and he walked to the bus yesterday. He did not hit or field. I think he will today or maybe play some catch today.
“If we are here on Saturday, I think there would be an opportunity to play. That’s guessing. If he is not ready, like 90 to 95 percent ready, I am not going to play him. So we will see how that turns out.”
Arkansas grabbed a share of the SEC title last weekend while in Vanderbilt, but missed out on winning the undisputed title after losing an 8-2 lead in the eighth inning and losing 10-8 on Friday and then falling 7-6 on Saturday.
“…The best feeling to me is knowing that we finished on top of the West and then getting a piece of the overall championship, which is so hard to get,” Van Horn said. “We were so close to getting it all by ourselves. It’s hard to even look back on it because it kind of makes you a little nauseated, honestly. But it’s a great feeling. I’m just really proud of the players.”
Those players have bounced back from the weekend according to Van Horn, whose team traveled from Nashville to Hoover on Saturday.
“It was interesting,” Van Horn said. “We take two buses here, split the team up a little bit. The buses were really quiet. It wasn’t like you just won a championship. They were really quiet and disappointed that we lost. We just feel like we left it slip away. They were probably doing a lot of thinking.
“I think maybe it will help us down the road. This is still a team that’s got a little edge, definitely got an edge to it. I think the mindset right now is ‘man, we have got to get our shortstop healthy, we have got to get our pitching lined up.”
Van Horn saw good signs from his team at a Monday practice at Hoover High School.
“All of us, we’re glad that the 10-weekend (regular season) gauntlet is over with,” Van Horn said. “Just kind of catch your breath. Yesterday, we had a workout. I thought it was very spirited. You could tell they wanted to be out there.
“Even at the end, we lifted. The pitchers lifted after their workout, and position players lifted. So, there was some waiting around, and they were throwing the football around, running pass patterns.
“You had managers trying to cover guys and coaches trying to do things. I’m thinking, ‘Well, this looks fun. But man, I hope nobody gets hurt.’
“I had to slow down a few guys on a few things. But you could just tell they like being out there. They like each other. The mindset is good. I don’t know how it’s going to go here. I do believe that we’ll play well, but I’m not going to go crazy as far as extending our pitchers to try and win a game. I think they know that.”
South Carolina ousted Georgia 9-0 in the first elimination game Tuesday with it being the first time in tournament history the initial two games has been shutouts.
Eighth seed Kentucky was set to face ninth seed Alabama and fifth seed Auburn matched up against 12th seed Missouri in Tuesday night’s other elimination games.
Wednesday’s action will begin with third-seeded LSU facing sixth-seeded South Carolina at 9:30 a.m. followed by the Arkansas-Texas A&M contest.
Eastern champion and overall co-champ Florida awaits the Kentucky-Alabama winner while Wednesday’s finale will have fourth-seeded Vanderbilt taking on the Auburn-Missouri victor.
Photo by John D. James