FAYETTEVILLE – Starting today against the Georgia Bulldogs, the SEC champion nationally No. 1 Arkansas Razorbacks commence their perhaps most unimportant week of this baseball season.
Coach Dave Van Horn’s, 42-10 overall/22-8 in the league SEC West champion Razorbacks, last weekend clinching the SEC Overall championship by two games over SEC East champion Tennessee and SEC West runner-up Mississippi State, and with the quest for the national starting with next week’s NCAA Regionals, today start their double-elimination phase of the SEC Tournament at the Hoover Met in Hoover, Ala.
Game time is approximately 4:30 p.m. on the SEC Network with Georgia advancing off its 4-1 play-in game Tuesday over LSU while SEC champion Arkansas and next best SEC teams Tennessee, Mississippi State and Vanderbilt earned Tuesday first-round byes.
The Razorbacks have never won the SEC Tournament, which for the finalists runs through Sunday. While they’d like adding that feather in their cap, they’d rather not start next week’s Regionals with their pitching overextended in the 90-degree heat predicted for Hoover.
“It’s going to be a tournament we’ll try to do the best we can in,” Van Horn said after the Hogs swept three from Preseason No. 1 Florida last Saturday completing the regular season in Fayetteville “But also try to get our pitchers ready. It’d be nice to play at least three games. I’d like to play more. I’d like to win it. But at the same time you have to take care of the arms. You’ve got to take care of everybody.”
Van Horn acknowledged the LSU-Georgia winner, vying for NCAA Tournament selection committee attention which the nationally No. 1 Razorbacks already are assured, has more incentive today but he assures the Hogs have some, too.
“We talked to our team about that already that it’s a situation where there are so many different scenarios here,” Van Horn said at Tuesday’s Zoom press conference in Hoover. “We have our own scenario and we’re in good shape. They (LSU or Georgia) are going to give great effort and I just want to be sure we give great effort as well and I think we will.”
Senior No. 3 starter Lael Lockhart, who with the SEC championship clinched Friday was withheld to give freshman Jaxon Wiggins his first SEC start in Saturday’s 9-3 victory completing the 3-game sweep over Florida, will start today, Van Horn said.
Ace starter Patrick Wicklander, who struck out 11 through six complete beating Florida, 6-1 last Thursday, is bound to pitch either Thursday or Friday if the Hogs today assure themselves a Game 3.
Caleb Bolden, the Game 2 starter against Florida also is in line for a start.
Though he won’t be taxed like his often two appearances totaling six innings on SEC weekends, senior SEC Pitcher of the Year reliever Kevin Kopps, 10-0, eight saves and 0.75 national earned run average leader, will get some work.
“You might see him one game if we need him for three innings and then he doesn’t pitch for a day,” Van Horn said. “Or then if he does it’s gonna be one inning. We’re going to take care of him. But he needs to work. He wants to work.”
The Hogs are down one vital pitcher. Benton’s Peyton Pallette, the No. 2 starter much of the season, injured his arm delivering a pitch in relief of Bolden last Saturday and likely won’t pitch again this season, Van Horn said.
Alternating left fielder Braydon Webb, arrested on a public intoxication incident following a 2 a.m Sunday altercation at a hot dog stand, is with the team in Hoover.
“We’ve handled it,” Van Horn said of discipline. “Too much celebrating a conference championship and just disappointed with what went on there. But at the same time, he’s young, they make mistakes and glad nobody got hurt. He probably feels as bad as anybody I’ve ever seen when they’ve gotten in trouble. I just hope he learns from this and I know he will.”
Zack Gregory, with whom Webb has alternated throughout the season, likely starts today’s game in left.
During the SEC season, Arkansas won 2 of 3 from LSU Georgia at Baum-Walker Stadium.
“Georgia is a big, physical team that’s got a couple of good arms in the bullpen,” Van Horn said.