FAYETTEVILLE - Starting tonight in a three-game SEC West baseball series in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, Arkansas faces the LSU Tigers, floundering in uncharted, troubled waters.
Winners of six national championships, with 18 College World Series appearances in Omaha and last year, winning the SEC West and finishing national runner-up to SEC East champion Florida at the CWS, the Tigers come home unranked to their legendary Alex Box Stadium with an ordinary 26-19 overall record and at 10-11 in SEC games tied for fourth in the SEC West with Auburn.
By contrast, Coach Dave Van Horn’s nationally No. 5 Razorbacks come to Baton Rouge 32-13 overall and 13-8 best in the SEC West.
Game times are 7 p.m. Friday, 7 p.m. Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday, with Saturday’s game televised by the SEC Network. Friday’s and Sunday’s games are Internet available on SEC Network +.
All are broadcast on the Razorbacks Radio Network.
“They lost a lot of good players off that team last year that finished second in the country and won the West,” Van Horn said about floundering LSU. “So nothing really surprises me anymore. There's a lot of good teams out there and you're going to have a year where maybe it doesn't go your way. But when you look at it, they're just a few wins away from being in the Top 25 and just a few wins away from hosting a regional and being in first place in the West.”
Coach Paul Mainieri’s Tigers still play like Tigers at Alex Box.
This season they are 23-6 in Baton Rouge.
And as the Razorbacks learned on their last Baton Rouge visit in 2016, the Tigers can “play opossum” then turn on you at Alex Box.
An opossum’s emergence through the fence on to the field, called the “Rally Opossum” in LSU folklore, coincided with the Tigers rallying from down five in the seventh inning and win in 10 during a three-game sweep against Van Horn’s lone sub .500 Razorbacks team in 15 years.
“I was on the mound when the opossum showed up,” Blaine Knight, the 7-0, 2.45 earned run average junior right-hander from Bryant starting for the Razorbacks tonight, said. “That was my freshman year. If they can keep animals off the field this year, that'd be pretty nice.
The timing was no coincidence in Van Horn’s view.
“Somebody put that opossum underneath that fence,” Van Horn said. “So you can take that to the bank.”
What if the Rally Opossum returns this weekend?
“I really don't care,” Van Horn said. “They can release whatever they want.”
These Hogs obviously are way better than those 2016 Hogs that consecutively lost their last 13 games.
However while 27-3 at home, these Hogs are only 4-9 on the road.
Two SEC weekends ago they were swept by Mississippi State in Starkville, Miss. and earlier lost two of three both at currently nationally No. 1 SEC East leader Florida and at currently nationally No. 4 SEC West runner-up Ole Miss.
Arkansas junior right fielder Eric Cole asserts the Hogs have played better on the road than their record shows.
“We had one bad game (17-2) against Florida but other than that we lost two one-run games at Ole Miss,” Cole said. “And, at Mississippi State they played out of their minds. We didn’t play as well as we could but they were still good games. Really we just keep doing what we’re doing and we’ll get some wins.”
Cole knows that goes ditto for LSU.
“They really are a good team though their record might not show it,” Cole said. “They lost a close series to Ole Miss this past weekend and blew a lead on Sunday. But really any day anything can happen in the SEC. I’m expecting a good team to come out there.”
Batting .288 as a team, though without its accustomed power, Arkansas has hit 69 home runs to LSU’s 35.
LSU, offensively, is led by right fielder Antoine Duplantis, .354 batting average center fielder Zach Watson, .333 and first baseman Austin Bain, .318 and vexed by third baseman Josh Smith being more out of than in the lineup with an ailing back.
Cole notes the Razorbacks face a “new” pitching rotation this weekend in Baton Rouge than they faced last year when LSU won two of three from Arkansas at Baum and edged Arkansas in the SEC Tournament’s championship game.
Right-handers Zack Hess, 6-4, 3.93, Ma’Khail Hilliard, 8-3, 2.89 and A.J. Labas, 5-1, 3.18 comprise LSU’s SEC rotation.
Arkansas counters with Knight tonight, and left-hander Kacey Murphy, 5-3, 2.54 on Saturday.
Sunday’s starter is to be announced Van Horn said after regular SEC starter Isaiah Campbell, 3-4, 4.17, didn’t last two innings against Alabama.
Arkansas injured second baseman Carson Shaddy (painfully bruised right hand) and ailing closer Matt Cronin (mononucleosis) were on the 27-man travel roster to Baton Rouge but doubtful to play, Van Horn said before the Hogs departed Fayetteville.