Depending on what happens in the final weekend of SEC regular season play the Razorbacks could win an outright conference championship, tie for that title, finish second, third or even fourth. Arkansas could also win a West division title, or finish second. But head coach Dave Van Horn claims not to be worried about the various possibilities.
“I don’t know if we’re really thinking about it that there’s that much on the line,” Van Horn told reporters following Monday’s Swatter’s Club luncheon. “We’re just gonna go down there and try to win the series. We already know we’re in a good position in the (SEC) tournament. We know we can set our pitching up for the tournament. So we’re not all stressed out about it. We’re just gonna go play baseball.”
There are a couple of reasons why Van Horn feels good about his team’s chances for a successful weekend. After a slow start to the season the top of the team’s batting order is coming around at the right time. Trevor Ezell, Casey Martin, Matt Goodheart, Dominic Fletcher and Heston Kjerstad are batting .325, .311, .361, .332, and .335 respectively. They have combined for 44 home runs, an astounding 81 doubles and 219 runs batted in.
As good as those numbers are it’s the bottom of the lineup that separates Arkansas from other teams, Van Horn noted. Jacob Nesbit, Casey Optiz and Christian Franklin have combined for 99 runs batted in. They’ve hit 11 home runs and 16 doubles.
“It’s been the key to our offense knowing that we can score at the end of that lineup,” Van Horn stressed. “That’s what’s really kind of thrown us over the top and helped propel us into the top of the league.”
Batting between those two groups is the surprise player of the season according to Van Horn. Second baseman Jack Kenley, in his first season as a regular part of the starting lineup, is hitting .314 with 10 home runs and 42 runs batted in.
“I thought he might hit seven or eight home runs this year just because he hit like six or seven in fall ball,” Van Horn said of Kenley. “But he’s exceeded that and he’s really just been solid at second base.”
Van Horn is also happy that the team heads to College Station with its pitching staff finally at full strength. Cody Scroggins, Jacob Kostyshock and Zebulon Vermillion have all sat out at various points of the season with minor injuries. Each is available for the A&M series.
“We were two (pitchers) short a couple of times and thank goodness our offense kicked it in that weekend, Van Horn recalled. “Or we got a big outing from Campbell who would give us seven plus and come out with a pretty good lead and we didn’t have to burn guys. It feels a lot better now knowing we’re not going to have to recycle guys.”
What does Vermillion add to the staff?
“He’s usually a one-inning guy. Maybe four or five outs at the most,” Van Horn noted. “That’s really what we want out of him. If we could get that once a weekend that would be good. Twice would be great. If we throw a couple of guys on a Friday he can give us an inning on a Saturday. It helps us get to the closer.”
Van Horn is also fired up about the job new pitching coach Matt Hobbs has done developing freshmen Patrick Wicklander and Connor Noland.
“I’ve seen ’em get better,” Van Horn affirmed. “Sometimes it doesn’t happen the first year. Maybe they’ll make a big jump the second year. But I’ve seen them make that jump over the last month or two. It really helps us as coaches kind of read the future a little bit and know what we might need to do here or there. Get another piece of the puzzle this summer, whether it’s a junior college transfer or a major college transfer.”
A&M’s numbers at the plate are not in Arkansas’ ballpark. The Aggies are hitting .252 as a team. Arkansas is batting .311. A&M has 32 home runs. Arkansas has hit 70. The Aggies have knocked in 266 runs on the season to the Hogs’ 390. But Van Horn believes that this weekend’s opponent may have the best pitching staff in the conference.
“They’ve got two first round lefties,” Van Horn explained. “Their ERA is low. Lot of strikeouts. Just talking to other teams that have played ’em, they say their pitching’s really good.”
Arkansas appears to be catching a break. One of those “lefties,” sophomore Asa Lacy, is serving a four-game suspension and will miss the series. However Van Horn said that the Aggies have an excellent midweek starter that will likely move into Lacy’s spot.
“He’s been doing really well. His ERA is in the two’s,” Van Horn observed. “He’s won almost very midweek game for ’em and he’s another left-hander. He came in yesterday (game three vs. Alabama) and gave them some quality innings. I would say that they were setting that up to get him ready.”
Game one is set for Thursday with a 6 pm start time. Friday’s game two will begin a half hour later and the Saturday’s finale will go off at 2 pm. After the series Arkansas will head straight for Hoover, Alabama where it is slated to begin play in the SEC Tournament Wednesday, May 22.