FAYETTEVILLE - Another Southeastern Conference weekend series, another new obstacle for the No. 12 Diamond Hogs.
With two weekends left of regular season, Arkansas head coach Dave Van Horn said he won’t have to say much to the players regarding the series against No. 8 South Carolina, which has a one-game conference lead over the Razorbacks.
“They know what’s up,” Van Horn said. “But I think it’s on the line every weekend. If you don’t win during the weekend you play, you get behind the pack. We just need to play well and find a way to win the series.”
With a focus on the one-game Western Division lead over No. 14 Ole Miss and another on the overall conference race, the Razorbacks (38-11, 16-8 SEC) will look to just stay focused on the Gamecocks (38-11, 17-7 SEC).
“If you start thinking too much about the West and then the overall, you hurt yourself,” Van Horn said. “We are just ready to play.”
But with No. 4 Florida (34-12, 17-7 SEC) also tied for the conference lead, taking two-of-three this weekend for Arkansas could only do so much toward positioning for the SEC crown.
“We can’t control the other things because if we win the series, people can sweep and catch us,” Van Horn said. “I think our guys just want to win the series.”
And doing just that will start against South Carolina ace Blake Cooper, who is 9-0 with a sixth best conference ERA of 3.05 and has allowed only 67 hits in 82.2 innings while striking out 72 hitters.
“We know we have our hands full with Cooper on Friday,” Van Horn said. “He doesn’t give up a lot of hits, throws a lot of off-speed and has a good arm that can touch 91 mph. The strikeouts are not way up there, but you never get good swings on him.”
The 22-year-old right hander doesn’t touch the high speeds on the radar gun, but the ability to throw four pitches all for strikes makes the Neeses, S.C., native tough to have success against.
“There are guys out there who can light up the radar guy but get hit all over the field,” Van Horn said. “But he is a senior who mixes it up and keeps you guessing. He know what he is doing out there. If you get an opportunity to score, you need to.”
But Arkansas will counter with redshirt sophomore Drew Smyly, who last week picked up his fifth straight Friday night win while battling against a potential first round pick in Ole Miss Drew Pomeranz.
“Smyly just needs to go out and do what he has been doing,” Van Horn said. “He just needs to pitch. He has been throwing a lot of strikes while mixing it up. It will be a good pitching game Friday night.”
The rest of the rotation will include senior Mike Bolsinger making a start on Saturday after pitching eight scoreless innings last Sunday while striking out 11 hitters and a committee on Sunday that could include TJ Forrest, DJ Baxendale or Brett Eibner to close out the series.
“There are some guys that are throwing pretty good right now,” Van Horn said. “We will see what we have to use Friday and Saturday and make a decision.”
When scouting the Gamecocks, Van Horn noticed a clear difference between past pitchers and the current staff led by Cooper that has posted a conference best .232 opponents batting average.
“They’ve always had power, good defense and maybe have one pitcher and try to out hit you,” Van Horn said. “They don’t have a guy who hits 20, but they have a lot of guys with seven or 10. But this team can really pitch and play defense. They are more well rounded.”
But with the Gamecock staff averaging more than six runs per game during the last three SEC series, hitting will be a key for the Razorback offense—which could start with junior first baseman Andy Wilkins.
Entering last Sunday hitting 4-for-31 in the last three conference series, the Broken Arrow, Okla., native stepped up, hitting 3-for-4 with two runs, a home run and three RBIs to help secure the series over Ole Miss.
Wilkins then delivered on Tuesday night with a walk-off single to give the team a 5-4 come-from-behind win in the 10th inning over Louisiana Tech, showing signs the slump might be in the past, Van Horn said.
“The pitching in this league is pretty good,” Van Horn said. “But he had a good Sunday and got a big hit. He hit a ball hard Tuesday. We hope he gets rolling because we could use him in the middle of our order.”
Van Horn said the struggles had started to get to the soft spoken team captain, who is tied for a team-high 58 RBIs but had his batting average dip below .260 last weekend.
“It bothers him,” Van Horn said. “He has good numbers until you get to the batting average. You think it doesn’t match up with the numbers and he is frustrated with that. He has been a tough luck hitter but is a streak hitter, too.”
INSIDE THE SERIES: Arkansas holds a 29-19 series record over South Carolina, which includes taking two of three last year on the road.
Friday, 6:35 p.m. at Baum Stadium: South Carolina Blake Cooper (Sr. RHP) 9-0, 3.05 ERA; Arkansas Drew Smyly (So. LHP) 8-0, 2.26 ERA
Saturday, 2:05 p.m. at Baum Stadium: South Carolina Sam Dyson (Jr. RHP) 4-4, 4.30 ERA; Arkansas Mike Bolsinger (Sr. RHP) 5-2, 4.65 ERA
Sunday, 1:05 p.m. at Baum Stadium: South Carolina TBA; Arkansas TBA