FAYETTEVILLE — The Arkansas Razorbacks and Ole Miss Rebels ought to know each other’s baseball signs like they know their own.
After all the two SEC West rivals already have played each other five times before these best two of three meetings out of conference even more important than their oh-so important SEC games.
At Arkansas’ Baum-Walker Stadium at 11 a.m. Saturday on ESPN, 2 p.m. Sunday on ESPNU and, if necessary, 3 p.m. Monday on ESPN2, coach Dave Van Horn’s nationally fifth-seeded 44-17 Fayetteville Regional champion Razorbacks and coach Mike Bianco’s, 40-25 nationally 12th-seeded Oxford Regional champion Rebels, play the Super Regional deciding which will be among the Elite Eight playing for college baseball’s national championship at the College World Series in Omaha.
“We know them and they know us after playing them that many times,” Arkansas junior center fielder Dominic Fletcher said.
Arkansas, last year’s CWS national runner-up to Oregon State, at 20-10 in SEC games shared the SEC West championship with Mississippi State compared to Ole Miss’ 16-14 fourth in the West.
However, head-to-head the Rebels for 2019 lead the Razorbacks 3-2.
Following a 5-3 Arkansas victory, the Rebels, winning 4-3, and 10-5, became the only SEC team at Baum-Walker besting Arkansas in a series.
They twice met again in the double-elimination SEC Tournament in Hoover, Alabama, Arkansas won its SEC Tourney opener 5-3 over Ole Miss but after a 3-1 loss to Georgia were eliminated 3-2 by the Rebels in the loser’s bracket.
Ultimately, the Rebels were the finalist to SEC Tournament champion Vanderbilt, also a NCAA Regional winner advanced to Super Regionals as are six of the SEC West’s seven teams also including Mississippi State, LSU, Auburn and Texas A&M.
“I’ve been saying it all year, the (SEC) Western Division is the toughest division in the country,” Van Horn said. “There’s not difference in one through six. Because I can put A&M in there. Everybody is that good.”
Certainly the Rebels are without cause to think there’s a difference unless perhaps believing they are better than Arkansas.
After, in 2016, sweeping three in Oxford from the lone losing team in Van Horn’s 17 Arkansas seasons, the Rebels in 2017 won two of three in Fayetteville against ultimately the Razorbacks’ Fayetteville Regional finalist and last year in Oxford won two of three from the Razorbacks’ eventual national runner-up.
So the Rebels, destroying Jacksonville State twice and Clemson in between at the Oxford Regional they hosted, presumably come confidently into Baum-Walker.
“They’ve done really well against us over the last five years it seems like,” Van Horn said. “So, I’m sure it does give them confidence.”
And renewed determination within Arkansas because of the opponent, what’s at stake and the confidence from a 3-0 Fayetteville Regional beating Central Connecticut, 11-5, TCU 3-1 and TCU again, 6-0.
“We have faced these guys quite a bit so if there is anybody we want to beat it is Ole Miss,” Arkansas junior second baseman Jack Kenley said. “There were a lot of outs we made against them that were uncharacteristic of us. You look at the Regional series we just had and playing a team like TCU we had never seen before and still managed to play our own game. I think that’s going to be a key in beating Ole Miss if we play like who we are.”
A key, that junior reliever Cody Scroggins said will be unlocked less on gritted teeth but with relaxed confidence.
“We’ve played them five times and we may play them seven or eight times,” Scroggins said. “It’s just about having fun now. Both teams are clicking and it’s going to be a fun weekend. Especially in this atmosphere.”
The Fayetteville Super Regional became a sellout about as quickly as tickets became available.
So much for the teams’ intangibles. What do the Rebels bring tangibly?
“On paper, we are pretty much even for the most part,” Van Horn said. “Their lineup is very explosive. They can put up some runs real quick like they did this past week. I know for their three games they hit .400 as a team which is pretty amazing.”
Batting .284 as a team, the Rebels are led by center fielder Ryan Olenek .342 batting average, flawless, clutch-hitting shortstop Grae Kessinger .332, five home runs and 47 RBI, first baseman Cole Zabowsku, .316, 11 home runs and 48 RBI, switch-hitting center fielder Thomas Dillard, .312, 13 home runs and 61 RBI, second baseman Anthony Servideo, .290 with 23 stolen bases, and power hitting third baseman Tyler Keenan .279, 14 home runs and 62 RBI.
Right-hander Will Etheridge, 7-6, 2.91 ERA, generally opens for Ole Miss, with lefty Doug Nikhazy, 8-3, 2.98 and the “best freshman pitcher in the league,” in Van Horn’s view, pitching the second game with lefty Gunner Holland, 3-2, 4.69 a likely Monday starter if nobody has swept.
Ole Miss closer Parker Caraci has 11 saves and middle reliever Austin Miller logs two wins over Arkansas.
The Razorbacks certainly hold their own starting junior ace Isaiah Campbell, 11-1, and freshman right-hander Connor Noland, 3-4, and freshman lefty Patrick Wicklander, 6-2, all coming off impressive Fayetteville Regional victories and a bullpen of now Major League drafted jurors Matt Cronin, 12 saves, Jacob Kostyshock and Scroggins plus sophomore Kevin Kopps, also impressing at the Fayetteville.
For hitters, the Razorbacks start five batting between Fletcher hitting .312 and designated hitter Matt Goodheart hitting .348 with Van Horn predicting .287 hitting Preseason All-American shortstop Casey Martin, 15 home runs and 53 RBI, will shake a slump affecting his SEC Tournament and Fayetteville Regional at bats.