FAYETTEVILLE — For these Arkansas Razorbacks, winning the double-elimination SEC Baseball Tournament that would last until Sunday in Hoover, Alabama, if they were finalists would be nice.
But just getting their game back defensively and offensively for next week’s far more important NCAA Regionals would be enough.
Coach Dave Van Horn’s SEC West co-champion Razorbacks, 40-15 and dropped from last week’s fourth to fifth in the USA Today Coaches poll that for this week’s top six lists only SEC and Pac 12 teams: The Pac 12’s UCLA and Stanford, first and fourth, and SEC Overall/East champion Vanderbilt second, SEC West co-champion Mississippi State, third, Arkansas fifth and SEC East runner-up Georgia sixth, start their SEC Tournament at 1 p.m. Wednesday on the SEC Network at Hoover Metropolitan Stadium against Tuesday afternoon’s winner single-elimination play-in winner between Ole Miss and Missouri.
Other than a bubble team needing to excel in Hoover to grasp a NCAA Regional berth, these games in Hoover are more for pride versus next week’s regionals marking the mandatory part towards reaching the elite eight that will play for the national championship at the College World Series in Omaha.
Presumably, Arkansas has done enough to host one of the 16 four-team Regionals next week at Baum-Walker Stadium in Fayetteville regardless how it fares in Hoover.
But exiting two and through from the SEC Tournament could jeopardize the Razorbacks rating a top eight national seed automatically hosting one of the eight best 2 out of 3 Super Regionals should they win their Regional next week.
Though finishing 20-10 in the SEC West tying the Mississippi State Bulldogs they swept in an April three-game series at Baum-Walker, the Razorbacks reel from losing three of their last four games.
They lost, 3-2 their last home SEC game to LSU after two triumphs, then after a 7-3 victory lost 6-2, and 6-1, their last two games of last Thursday through Saturday’s final SEC series at Texas A&M.
Van Horn liked his pitching against the Aggies but abhorred unexpectedly shoddy defense.
And while he would never turn down hitting seven home runs in three games like Arkansas did at College Station, striking out 44 times those three games and not getting the clutch singles and doubles and sac bunts and stolen bases marking his team’s success was not the identity these Hogs have established.
“There’s four phases of the game: base-running, pitching, defense and hitting,” Van Horn said. “The base-running was OK. The pitching was good. The other two were not so good.”
The practices Monday and Tuesday in Hoover stressed defense and going the other way making contact hitting and bunting and hit and run.
Ironically, of the Arkansas 10 pitchers used against the Aggies, the only one who pitched poorly likely starts Wednesday.
Freshman Patrick Wicklander, 5-2, only lasted 1.2 innings and 44 pitches in Friday’s losing start.
So, the lefty named to the SEC All-Freshman on Monday as was Arkansas No. 3 starting pitcher Connor Noland and left fielder Christian Franklin, has a fresher arm for Wednesday than junior staff ace Isaiah Campbell, 10-1 even though Campbell hasn’t pitched since Thursday.
Campbell threw 102 pitches through six complete innings bequeathing a 6-2 lead to reliever Kevin Kopps.
Whether in the winner’s bracket or loser’s bracket, Arkansas is expected to start Campbell on Thursday off his regular week’s rest.
Kopps, the only pitcher used twice against A&M, Saturday starter Noland and relievers Jacob Kostyshock, Matt Cronin, Kole Ramage, Cody Scroggins and Zebulon Vermillion all pitched well at College Station.
It marked the first series since back in February that Van Horn and pitching coach Matt Hobbs worked with an entirely healthy bullpen.
Keeping them working healthy and regaining momentum set back in College Station and just plain getting back to winning all seem objectives this week in Hoover.
And while it’s just for pride and there’s always a lingering fear that playing all week in Hoover can tire a team going into Regionals, the Razorbacks realize they never have won the SEC Baseball Tournament since joining the league in 1992.
“You don’t want to wear people down where it affects you in a Regional but at the same time we want to bring back a trophy,” Van Horn said. “We’ve never brought back that trophy. People are always getting on me that, ‘You don’t really want to win that tournament.’ Yeah I want to win the tournament.’ But we want to go to Omaha, too. OK? The SEC Tournament can be very exciting and it can be very draining. You have to really watch how you handle your pitching and maybe your catching.”
Regarding Missouri and No. 23 Ole Miss, meeting as this was written, the Razorbacks swept Mizzou in three nail biters, 2-0, 4-3 and 3-2 opening the SEC season in March at Baum-Walker.
Also at Baum-Walker, the Ole Miss Rebels became the only SEC team this season winning a series in Fayetteville posting 4-3 and 10-5 victories after Arkansas and Campbell opened prevailing, 5-3.
The SEC Network televises all four SEC Tournament games scheduled Wednesday and starting with Texas A&M, an elimination game winner Tuesday over Florida versus Georgia at 9:30 a.m, televises all SEC Tournament games Wednesday through Saturday’s single elimination semifinals.
ESPN2 televises Sunday’s 2 p.m. SEC Tournament championship game.