FAYETTEVILLE — Substitute the New Jersey Institute of Technology for MIT as the punchline and you’ve got a George Carlin quip for Friday’s Fayetteville Regional opener at Baum-Walker Stadium.
Taking affectionate liberties with the late comedian’s sportscasting spoofs, here’s a score: Arkansas, 8, New Jersey Institute of Technology, 5 to the fourth power.
They do seem on different baseball planes at 2 p.m. Friday these 46-10 nationally No. 1 SEC champion/SEC Razorbacks before a packed home crowd against the 26-22 NJIT Highlanders awarded the NCAA Regional America East Tournament champion’s automatic NCAA baseball Regional berth because they were not in the loser’s bracket when bad weather canceled last Sunday’s tournament championship game versus Stony Brook.
So most probably take it a given that NJIT will be in Saturday’s 2 p.m. loser’s bracket game and Arkansas in Saturday’s 8 p.m. winner’s bracket game after the four-team, double-elimination tournament at 7 p.m. matching two-seeded 31-12 Big Ten champion Nebraska versus 36-10 Colonial Athletic Association champion Northeastern University.
Sunday loser’s bracket final is at 2 p.m. and the 8 p.m. Sunday championship game to follow with a winner-take-all game Monday, if necessary.
However, before indelibly cementing the Razorbacks into Saturday’s winner’s bracket, it might be wise, as Arkansas coach Dave Van Horn does, noting that coach Robbie McClellan’s Highlanders have won nine in a row and arrive not inclined to concede anything.
“They’re going to fight you,” Van Horn said. “They’re going to do whatever they need to score, whether it’s bunt or hit and run, move people around (NJIT has stolen 61 bases in 67 attempts). They’ve got a couple of guys with power. One for sure (NJIT shortstop Julio Marcano, .333 batting average, 10 home runs, 42 RBI) has got a lot of power. They’ve won nine in a row and 18 out of 22. So you know they’re hot. They have a winning feeling and I’m sure they feel like they can come in here and beat us.”
Should underdog NJIT surprise early to lead late behind right-handed starter Tyler Stafflinger, 6-5, 3.77 ERA, the perhaps by then pressing Hogs do have cause for alarm.
NJIT lefty reliever Jake Rappaport, 8-2, and 10 saves, apparently is capable of doing unto Arkansas what Arkansas SEC Pitcher of the Year reliever Kevin Kopps has done unto 20 others compiling a 10-0 record with 10 saves and a 0.81 ERA.
“Sounds like the team plays good behind him and they’re confident,” Van Horn said. “That is a lot like when Kevin is on the mound for us.”
Obviously it best behooves Arkansas, with either Nebraska or Northeastern looming, to play NJIT like they’ve played everyone else in the nation’s toughest schedule that includes having played all of the other top eight national seeds except Arizona of the Pac 12.
“Really the key for us is we need to play well,” Van Horn said. “If we do that hopefully things will go our way.”
And Kopps, named the National Player of the Year on Thursday by the Collegiate Baseball newspaper, will be unused and kept fresh for Saturday’s second round.
Van Horn trusts right-hander Caleb Bolden, 2-0, 4.43 ERA and thrust into the weekend rotation even before regular starter Peyton Pallette was sidelined with a season ending arm injury, for starters Friday.
“Their lineup is about all right-handed and we just thought it was a good matchup,” Van Horn said.
Reliever Zebulon Vermillion, sidelined with a biceps inflammation trying to pitch during last week’s SEC Tournament, won’t be on the Regional active roster but might, Van Horn said, be available for next week’s Super Regional if the Hogs advance through this Regional.
First baseman Brady Slavens, missing the last three SEC Tournament games upon spraining his ankle in the first of Arkansas’ four games in Hoover, Alabama, is on the Regional roster, Van Horn said but not apt to do more than pinch hit if that.
“I think he’s getting better every day,” Van Horn said. “But obviously swinging the bat there’s a little twist there on the front foot when you start to swing. That might be something we’re not ready to experiment with yet, so not tomorrow anyway.”
Third baseman Cullen Smith starred in Slavens’ place at first during the SEC Tournament and starts at first Friday.
Freshman right fielder Cayden Wallace, a third baseman at Greenbrier, has been playing third while Ethan Bates and Zack Gregory variously have played right and designated hitter Matt Goodheart playing left to DH the bat of extraordinary pinch-hitter Charlie Welch.
Defensively when the Hogs lead late, Jacob Nesbit and Braydon Webb respectively come off the bench to play third and left with Wallace moved back to right.
For pitchers after left-handed starters Patrick Wicklander and Lael Lockhart, Van Horn has before closing with Kopps looked often to lefty Caden Monke and right-handers Ryan Costeiu and Heston Tole and lately to Connor Noland closing last Saturday’s 3-2 SEC Tournament semifinal with a three-inning save against Ole Miss.