By Nate Allen
FAYETTEVILLE – If familiarity breeds contempt, then the Arkansas Razorbacks and Ole Miss Rebels ought totally to disregard the other.
But they can’t.
Because unlike their previous five games for 2019 with Arkansas sharing the SEC West co-championship with Mississippi State but losing twice to Ole Miss in the March 3-game SEC series at Baum-Walker Stadium and each beating the other in two SEC games last month in Hoover, Ala., the winner of this best 2 of 3 Super Regional starting today at Baum-Walker advances among the Elite Eight playing for the national championship at the College World Series in Omaha.
The loser sacks the bats and waits ’til next year.
So it’s all on the line as Coach Dave Van Horn’s nationally fifth-seeded Fayetteville Regional winning Razorbacks, 44-17, and Coach Mike Bianco’s nationally 12th seeded Oxford Regional winning Rebels, 40-25, clash at Baum-Walker at 11 a.m. Saturday on ESPN, 2 p.m. Sunday on ESPNU and, if necessary, 3 p.m. Monday on ESPN2.
Last year after winning the Fayetteville Regional the Razorbacks in the Super Regional at Baum advanced to Omaha and their eventual national runner-up College World Series finish by winning 2 of 3 from SEC East member South Carolina.
Van Horn’s Hogs 2018 Hogs had played those Gamecocks four times, winning 2 of 3 in a SEC series in Fayetteville and beating them in the SEC Tournament in Hoover before renewing acquaintances in the Super Regional.
“You know, last year we had to play South Carolina after playing them four times, we had to play them five, six and seven,” Van Horn said after the Razorbacks practiced So we learned from that a little bit. Now it’s just do what we do and like I said, I’m repeating myself, but we can only control what we can control, and that’s our team. If we play good we have a shot at winning.”
Unlike football, baseball odds seem to improve more with less adrenaline.
“The team’s loose,” Van Horn said. “We’re either gonna win or lose, right? There’s 16 teams (in the eight Super Regionals) and we’re still playing. I hope it goes good and we’ll continue on. If it doesn’t, it’s been a great year.”
So they minimize concern about Ole Miss winning 10 of the last 14 meetings with Arkansas including the Rebels’ 3-2 edge this season, though they certainly don’t minimized talent of Bianco’s team.
“He’s done a great job,” Van Horn said. “They’re always good. They’ve had our number as you know especially the last four or five years. It’s just trying to find a way to get through the weekend.”
Bianco today starts junior right-hander Will Etheridge, 7-6, 2.91.
“He’s a really good competitor,” Van Horn said. “His fastball is going to be anywhere from 89 to 95, probably 94, a little bit of sink and a lot of run. The ball runs in to righties and away from lefties. Pretty good breaker. Throws a changeup. We’ve seen him a lot. He was a reliever last year, went to Friday night starter (traditionally the opening night of a SEC weekend series.
Arkansas today starts its ace, junior right-hander Isaiah Campbell, 11-1, 2.27 ERA and the winner over Ole Miss at Baum-Walker.
Arkansas sophomore catcher Casey Opitz was asked if he calls the game any differently for Campbell or any Razorbacks pitcher after facing Ole five games.
“We’re going to stick with what were doing when we were having success,” Optiz said. “We are going to pitch to Zay’s strengths. We’re not going to worry too much about the hitters necessarily.”
Opitz might not worry about the Rebels’ hitters but certainly respects them like he respects Arkansas’ lineup.
“Their lineup top to bottom is good hitters,” Opitz said. “Kind of like ours. They’ve got big power guys. They’ve got dudes that can run. They’ve got dudes that are in there to bunt and kind of hit and run those guys. So it’s one through nine they’re deadly. It’s kind of fun to call a game against them because you’ve got to really keep them off balance. And with Zay going Game One we’ve got a lot of confidence that he’ll keep them under control.”
Bianco starts freshman lefty Doug Nikhazy, 8-3, 2.98, Sunday and has 3-2 junior right-hander Gunner Hoglund slated Monday if needed.
Van Horn plays it coy which order he would start his SEC rotation freshmen, right-hander Connor Noland, 3-4, 3.56, and lefty Patrick Wicklander, 6-2, 4.29 after they and Campbell combined to go 3-0 in the Fayetteville Regional.
Is Opitz amazed to see two rookies throughout the weekends pitching rotation?
“Surprised, not really,” Opitz said. “I could tell there was something special in them in the fall. It’s awesome to see their progression.”