Baseball America Rankings: #15 Arkansas, #6 Mississippi
Game Time: Friday 6:35pm, Saturday 2:05pm, Sunday 1:05pm
Game Site: Baum Stadium at George Cole Field (Fayetteville, AR)
Weather: Friday night, Clear game time temperature of 72 degrees at game time, falling into upper 60s; Saturday afternoon, Mostly Sunny & 70 degrees at game time, holding steady; Sunday afternoon, Cloudy with rain likely & 50 degrees at game time, warming only slightly
Streaks: The Razorbacks have won 6 straight and 13 of 14 at Baum Stadium this season. Ole Miss is riding an 11-game winning streak and has won 18 of the 19 games they have played this season.
One month ago most observers would have described this weekend’s SEC opener for Arkansas as a “good test” against a “quality opponent” with the Hogs coming into the weekend as significant favorites. After four straight losses at the Coca-Cola Classic in Arizona, though, the Hogs found themselves at 7-5 on the season – a far cry from the preseason #1 team so many predicted Dave Van Horn to have this year. Arkansas rallied, though, for six straight wins and look poised to reclaim the nationally elite stature they enjoyed in the preseason.
Meanwhile in Oxford, Mississippi, 13-year head Rebel Mike Bianco has quickly rebuilt his baseball team. They’ve won 18 of 19 games this season and enter conference play with a ton of confidence, ready to show Arkansas – and everyone else – that this hot start is no fluke. With a team batting average near .310 and a staff ERA under 2.25, Ole Miss looks as good as ever on paper.
Instead of an emerging national power hosting a dark horse conference title contender, this weekend features a preseason #1 looking to right the ship against a hot, talented team that wants to elbow the Hogs off center stage.
It’s all about the pitching.
Entering the season Arkansas turned heads nationally because of its embarrassment of riches in the bullpen. Dave Van Horn and pitching coach Dave Jorn have assembled an elite group of arms. Don’t believe me? The team’s staff ERA of 1.60 should answer any doubts. The two main cogs in Arkansas’s bullpen, though, have been a drag on the staff, statistically speaking. Preseason All-American Ryne Stanek comes into the weekend as the Sunday starter with a 1-1 record and 3.71 ERA (4.24 by my scorebook; apparently I’m not as forgiving as the official scorekeeper). Fellow preseason All-American Colby Suggs is yet to record a save and sports a 3.38 earned run average.
Early this season it’s been freshman Trey Killian, Friday’s starter, and utility pitcher Barret Astin carrying the load for the Hogs. Killian has been nothing short of phenomenal this year with a 2-1 record and these gaudy numbers: 0.86 ERA, 22 strikeouts in 21 innings and a microscopic 0.33 WHIP that leads the nation.
If Killian can shut down the Ole Miss bats on Friday, the Razorbacks will put themselves in contention for a very good weekend at Baum Stadium. With senior Randal Fant scheduled to take the mound on Saturday and Astin waiting in the wings, the Hogs could very easily see Stanek taking the hill with a chance to polish of a conference-opening sweep on Sunday.
Ole Miss will counter Arkansas’s freshman phenom with veteran ace Bobby Wahl. Despite battling some blister issues on the middle finger of his throwing hand, Wahl has dazzled this year. He enters Friday’s game with a 4-0 record and looked dominant in his last outing. The Rebels follow that up with junior Mike Mayers, who has been electric in four starts this season. The Sunday starter for Ole Miss is sophomore Sam Smith, another of Bianco’s efficient and effective arms. All three starters for Ole Miss enter play this weekend with sub-2.00 ERAs.
The question for Ole Miss is whether the bullpen can hold up for all three games. It was big problem for the Rebels last season, but 2013 appears to be headed in a much different direction. Brett Huber is the Rebel closer, already accruing 6 saves on the season in 19 games. Tanner Bailey, Aaron Greenwood, and Matt Denny are Bianco’s other major bullpen weapons. The three have combined for 37 1/3 IP, and in that time they’ve surrendered only 2 earned runs. If Mississippi can continue to see solid work from the bullpen, they’ll be well suited for a big road series win against a conference rival.
Keep an eye on…
Ole Miss catcher Stuart Tanner. That kid may not be human. He is crushing the baseball (.479 with a best-in-the-nation 28 RBI) and has not given up a passed ball all year. Oh, and he’s gunned down 11 of 15 would-be base stealers. Arkansas has 25 stolen bases in 18 games, and the staff has a .191 BAA. This will be a battle to watch
Dominic Ficociello. The junior second baseman continues to battle a strained oblique injury that has cost him most of the season. The junior has only played in four games, and Van Horn does not believe he can help this weekend. Right now Ficociello can only bat right-handed because of the injury, and Mississippi plans to start three righties on the mound. Ficociello may be forced into spectator status for yet another weekend.
The weather. You couldn’t ask for better conditions on Friday night and Saturday afternoon. Sunday, though, promises to be wet and 20 degrees cooler than Friday or Saturday. The Hogs and Rebels may be forced to play a pair on Saturday. That would be the third double-header of the season for the Razorbacks.