LITTLE ROCK — Suggested in jest, a regular at Arkansas baseball had an unorthodox idea to improve the Razorbacks’ chances in the NCAA Tournament.
Lose the first two games next week in the SEC Tournament at Hoover, Ala., he said. What?
Hear him out. Arkansas’ relief pitchers need to rest their arms, he said.
Arkansas coach Dave Van Horn won’t go along, but losing next Tuesday and Wednesday could be done tactfully by using less than his best pitchers. If one or two of the lesser lights happened to pitch well enough to win, no harm.
The 10-team SEC Tournament begins as a double elimination event with only the top two seeds avoiding play on opening day. A lower seed that gets to the finals on May 27 could play as many as six games and then begin NCAA Tournament play a few days later. That is a grind.
Last year, South Carolina was 1-2 in the SEC Tournament and then won the College World Series. The year before, the Gamecocks were 0-2 in Hoover and won in Omaha.
In fact, a year ago, the Sun Belt Conference adopted a format similar to the one employed in the Atlantic Coast Conference. The eight teams are divided into two pools and the winners of the pools meet for the tournament championship and the automatic bid to the NCAA. No team plays more than four games.
NCAA pitching was supposed to carry Arkansas this year, but the three starters counted on the most have not done enough to protect the bullpen. Left-hander Randall Fant has not gotten past the third inning in his last six starts. In five of his conference starts, DJ Baxendale pitched less than six innings; three times, he did less than four innings. Ryan Stanek has not recorded a W in SEC play since March 24. Nolan Sanburn got two chances to start against league competition and gave up five earned runs in four innings.
Baseball is a team game and the Razorbacks’ 13-14 SEC record cannot be blamed entirely on the pitching. Arkansas lacks punch in the middle of the lineup. The Razorbacks have hit 10 home runs in conference play — only Tennessee has less — and Dominic Ficociello smacked two of those last week against Auburn. Three times, Arkansas left the bases loaded against Louisiana Tech on Tuesday night.
The 6-5 victory was the Razorbacks’ 14th one-run game of the year. Arkansas is 4-7 in one-run games in the SEC. About one-third of the conference games have been decided by one run and LSU and Kentucky are among the best at finding a way to win the close ones. Western Division-leading LSU is 12-4 in one-run games, including 2-1 and 3-2 over Arkansas. Eastern Division leader Kentucky is 9-4 in one-run games, including 5-4 and 2-1 over the Razorbacks.
The one-run losses are a tease and frustrate all involved. Some contend a team’s record in such games indicates grit or a lack thereof. Others say it is simply a failure to make a critical play.
This evening in Knoxville, Arkansas begins a three-game series against Tennessee, one of the two teams that did not qualify for the SEC Tournament. It is a chance for the Razorbacks to finish at least 15-15 in the SEC. That might not sound impressive, but it is unlikely that more than four teams will top 16 SEC victories, a reminder that sometimes we overlook the quality of SEC baseball.
Arkansas will be helped most by moving on to the NCAA and playing outside the league, like Mississippi State did last year. Below .500 in the SEC, the Bulldogs lost two straight in the conference tournament, then won a regional tournament, before losing a three-game series to Florida in the Super Regional.
Harry King is sports columnist for Stephens Media’s Arkansas News Bureau. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.