FAYETTEVILLE – If the Arkansas Razorbacks do achieve the outright SEC baseball season championship they would achieve with two victories in this finale 3-game series at Baum-Walker Stadium with Florida, they will win a championship nearly forgotten with the first Regionals pitch that starts determining the Elite Eight’s College World Series route to Omaha.
The nationally No. 1 Razorbacks, 39-10 overall and 19-8 in the SEC West leading second-place Mississippi State (17-10) by two games and leading SEC East leader Tennessee (18-9) by one for the overall championship, and Florida’s nationally No. 8 in the Coaches poll Gators, 35-16 overall and 17-10 third in the SEC East, meet at 6 tonight, 7 p.m. Friday and 2 p.m. Saturday in the regular season curtain closers leading into next week’s SEC Tournament in Hoover, Ala.
Winning any league over a March through May span, especially the nation’s toughest college baseball league, seems a monumental achievement sadly overlooked as college baseball fans tend to put all eggs in the Regionals and Omaha basket like college basketball fans quickly forget conference championships for the March Madness postseason and Final Four.
Dave Van Horn, in his 18th year coaching the Razorbacks, recalled feeling prouder of the Big 12 championship achieved when he coached Nebraska than coaching the Cornhuskers to their first two ever College World Series and the same with his
“To me, that was the biggest accomplishment to me that we achieved,” Van Horn said of Nebraska overcoming Big 12 powers Texas, Oklahoma and Oklahoma State for the long haul. “Because you can get hot, play good at the end, get a break and you can get to Omaha every now and then, maybe once in a while. But when you go through the gauntlet of the SEC week in and week out and you can hang in there and have a chance to win the league, it’s a big deal.”
But just part of deal like playing on ranked No. 1 as the Hogs have done throughout this season of course with Omaha in mind though not necessarily in their conversations.
“Our ultimate goal is to play late into June,” Van Horn said. “I’ve never talked to our team about winning the West, winning the overall, winning the conference tournament. I don’t bring it up. We know they want to win. That’s why they work hard every day. If we win it (the SEC) , it’d be awesome. If we don’t, hats off to the team that does and we’ll just keep playing.”
He knows they’ll have to keep on playing well to beat the Gators of whom other SEC coaches call the league’s most talented, team, Van Horn said.
“They were like preseason No. 1 in every poll,” Van Horn said. “There are a lot of teams in the SEC that are dangerous and Florida is one of them.”
The USA Today Coaches poll lists SEC members Arkansas, No. 1, Vanderbilt, of the SEC East and not on Arkansas’ schedule this year, No. 2, Tennessee, No. 4, Mississippi State, No. 6, Florida, No. 8 and Ole Miss, No. 12.
The Gators pitching staff comes well armed, Van Horn said, deep in the bullpen headed by Jack Leftwich 7-3, four saves and a 3.28 ERA, behind starters Tommy Mace 4-0, Hunter Barco, a 9-2 lefty, and Franco Aleman, 1-3.
The Hogs hit home runs with lineup consistency. Razorbacks Matt Goodheart and Robert Moore have hit 12 each, Brady Slavens, the team batting average and RBI, leader, .306 and 54 and Christian Franklin, 49 RBI, have hit 11 each while freshman right fielder Cayden Wallace of Greenbrier has hit 10 and hits .303 as does Franklin.
However none approach the 20-home run output of Florida center fielder Jud Fabian.
“It’s hard to pitch to him,” Van Horn said. “Obviously he hits good pitches that are strikes but he also will go out of the zone and drive it. He has tremendous bat speed. When you see him physically, he’s not a real big guy, but he’s got some serious power.”
Left-hander Patrick Wicklander, 4-1, 1.93 earned run average, starts tonight as first game usual but then the rotation changes.
Benton’s Peyton Pallette, the customary Game Two starter but recently struggling by the fourth or fifth inning, will be bullpen available tonight and Friday with Caleb Bolden, 2-0, 4.67 getting the Game Two start.
Left-hander Lael Lockhart, pitching into the fifth last Sunday against Tennessee, or Pallette seem the likely Game Three starter depending on if either is used extensively in relief.
If it’s close from the sixth inning on, bank on 9-0, seven saves, 0.80 earned run average reliever Kevin Kopps, logging Arkansas’ two victories over Tennessee last weekend after a save and a win for Arkansas’ two victories the previous SEC weekend against Georgia, to be summoned.
“Amazing,” Van Horn said of Kopps.
For the first time this season, covid-19 restrictions have been lifted at Baum-Walker Stadium to allow a full capacity crowd attending each game this series.
“We’re really excited,” Van Horn said. “There’s a lot of new guys in the program, some guys who were here last year (when covid cancelled the 2020 SEC season before it began) that really didn’t get to feel an SEC crowd at home.”