FAYETTEVILLE – The unanimously nationally No. 1 ranked 49-11 SEC/SEC Tournament/Fayetteville Regional champion Arkansas Razorbacks already have played most of the best nation’s best including six of the eight top national Regional seeds.
Add one more among the national Top 20 of Arkansas foes with the Razorbacks hosting the by D-1 Baseball 16th-ranked North Carolina State Wolfpack in Friday’s start of the Super Regional at Baum-Walker Stadium.
The winner of this best 2 of 3 Super Regional advances among the Elite Eight playing for the national championship at the College World Series in Omaha.
Friday’s game time is 5 p.m. telecast on ESPNU.
Saturday’s game time is 2 p.m. on ESPN2.
If necessary, the Razorbacks and Wolfpack will clash in a winner take all 5 p.m. Sunday game on either ESPN2 or ESPNU.
Though ranked No. 1, Coach Dave Van Horn’s Razorbacks rode a tougher road through their Fayetteville Regional than the Wolfpack did winning the Louisiana Tech hosted Ruston Regional.
With incomparable reliever Kevin Kopps, 12-0 with 11 saves and 0.68 earned run average, sandwiching a save between two wins and the Hogs losing the one game he rested his iron arm, Arkansas at Baum-Walker came from behind to beat the New Jersey Institute of Technology Highlanders, 13-8 then in three games against the Big Ten champion Nebraska Cornhuskers, won, 5-1, lost, 5-3 and won, 6-2.
Against an Alabama team that Arkansas beat twice of thrice opening the SEC season March 19-21 at Baum-Walker, the Wolfpack in Ruston romped, 8-1.
Then against Louisiana Tech, beaten twice of thrice by Arkansas during a March 12-14 nonconference series in Ruston, the Wolfpack swept, 8-3 and 14-7.
Elliott Avent, in his 25th year head coaching North Carolina State, brings a Wolfpack blending power and speed.
The Wolfpack, the Atlantic Coast Conference runner-up to Notre Dame and the ACC Tournament runner-up to Duke, hits .291 as a team, 22 points above Arkansas’ .269.
While not rivaling Arkansas’ 103 home runs, the Wolfpack has clouted 83.
With less reliance on the home run, the Wolfpack is more inclined to steal a game away with 70 swipes in 86 attempts to Arkansas’ certainly also effective 42 of 51.
Other than .231 hitting hitting third baseman Mensik Vojtech, 10 of 13 on stolen base attempts, it seems most of the Wolfpack’s best hitters double as N.C. State’s best base runners.
Top two hitters Johnny Butler, the left fielder hitting .379 with 12 home runs and 46 RBI, and center fielder Tyler McDonough, .351 with 15 home runs and 43 RBI, respectively have stolen 15 of 16 and 13 of 17.
First baseman Austin Murr, .329 with seven home runs and 31 RBI, has stolen 4 of 6 while designated hitter Terrell Tatum, the son of football Razorbacks 1982-1985 running back Terry Tatum, hits .321 with 11 home runs, 35 RBI, and 15 of 17 stolen bases.
Shortstop Jose Torres and right fielder Devonte Brown, 8 of 10 stolen bases between them, respectively hit .294 with seven home runs and 40 RB and .265 with 12 home runs and 39 RBI.
The Wolfpack’s weekend starting pitching rotation generally utilizes right-handers Reid Johnston, 8-2, 3.90 earned run average; 10 Sam Highfill, 7-2, 3.95; and Matt Willadsen, 5-3 , 4.97.
Left-hander Evan Justice 4-2 and 10 saves, with a deceptive 4.47 ERA since he’s been far more effective out of the bullpen than as an early-season starter, is the Wolfpack closer.
The Razorbacks know from experience that the Wolfpack played before a spirited crowd battling Louisiana Tech’s Bulldogs in Ruston, but Avent knows the numbers don’t match the 11,084 Baum-Walker sellouts and maybe more that the Hogs drew with their four Fayetteville Regional games and will again at this Super Regional.
“When we went to Ruston we played in front of 3,000 plus,” Avent told the Charlotte Observer. “Now you have to (multiply) that by five.”
The big difference isn’t volume in numbers but sheer volume, Avent said he was told.
“They said it’s the loudest place they’ve ever played in front of,” Avent was quoted in the Charlotte Observer. “It’s going to spur some kind of reaction and you hope it’s a positive one for you. There’s no planning for it, there’s nothing you can do except just play in it.”
With six Razorbacks hitting between third baseman Cullen Smith’s 10 home runs and second baseman Robert Moore’s 14, right fielder-third baseman Cayden Wallace of Greenbrier, first baseman Brady Slavens, center fielder Christian Franklin, and designated hitter-outfielder Matt Goodheart all hitting 13, and pinch-hitter Charlie Welch’s sixth applying Monday’s game-sealing crusher over Nebraska, Arkansa has thrived on the home run.
The Hogs do hope this week’s workouts get Slavens, struggling since returning from missing five games with an ankle injury, and Franklin, struggling in the Regional after last Friday’s home run but after striking out four times Monday fouling off four two-strike pitches working the 2-out walk that started the game-winning eighth-inning rally, back on track.
Even with a struggling bat, Franklin’s defense, with key catches rescuing Kopps from the only jams that beset him in the Regional, is pivotal.
Against the Wolfpack Friday and Saturday, left-handers Patrick Wicklander and Lael Lockhart appear the most likely to start.
A Kopps finish became a Regional must for Arkansas to prevail.