Tom Murphy is a reporter for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. A graduate of Louisiana Tech University, he is a member of the Football Writers Association of America, and voter for the Heisman Trophy and AP Top 25 football poll.
Pitching gives Hogs shot at second-half surge
University of Arkansas pitcher Jalen Beeks fires a pitch against Alabama at Baum Stadium in Fayetteville March 21.
FAYETTEVILLE - Everybody is still in contention at the halfway point of the SEC baseball schedule.
The only team that isn’t within three games of .500 is Alabama, which leads the West Division with a 10-5 record that includes a 9-3 mark outside the state of Alabama.
Half of the SEC’s 14 teams are sitting at 8-7, 7-7-1 or 7-8 in league play. Five are at 7-8, including Arkansas, and that could bode well for the Razorbacks during the second half of conference play.
Arkansas has taken on the toughest schedule in SEC play, with its opponents accumulating a 42-32-1 conference record and a .567 winning percentage. The next toughest schedule belongs to Kentucky, whose opponents are 40-35 (.533) in league play.
“Every team is good,” Arkansas Coach Dave Van Horn said. “You just never know.”
The Razorbacks, who have not been swept in any series, also played three of their five series in the first half on the road. They begin the second half of the SEC schedule with home series against Vanderbilt, starting Friday, and Auburn (April 25-27).
“We play nine games of the 15 at home, and we’ve played pretty well at home this year,” Van Horn said of the remaining SEC schedule.
Arkansas’ opponents have included SEC-leading Alabama (10-5), the top two teams in the SEC East in Florida (9-6) and South Carolina (8-7), as well as LSU (8-6-1), so Arkansas has played four of the five SEC teams with winning league records. They play the other, Ole Miss, May 2-4 in Oxford.
“We’ve played some really good teams,” said second baseman Brian Anderson, the team’s second-leading hitter behind Joe Serrano (.328) with a .321 average. “… The schedule has been tough, but hopefully that’s going to be getting us ready for the postseason.”
Up to this point Arkansas, which began the season unranked in most national polls, has played much like it did last year when the Razorbacks were ranked as high as No. 1 in the preseason. Arkansas’ pitching has been outstanding, but it has struggled at times to put together big innings and clutch hits.
Last year’s team was 25-13 overall and 9-6 in the SEC on April 16; this year’s team trails that record by two games at 23-15 and 7-8.
“It’s interesting,” Van Horn said when asked to compare his past two teams.
“Some of the things are similar. Our offense has been a fight, our pitching has been pretty good.
“Last year’s team obviously had a very experienced pitching staff and was very deep. There were a lot of expectations for last year’s team. This year’s team not nearly as much. We were picked down in the league.
We’re still kind of scrambling a little bit, but I do feel like we’re getting better.
“Do we have enough?
We’ll find out.”
The weekend rotation of left-hander Jalen Beeks (5-2, 1.36 ERA) and right-handers Chris Oliver (4-3, 2.41) and Trey Killian (1-6, 3.00) has performed almost as well as predecessors Barrett Astin, Ryne Stanek and Randall Fant, who led the Razorbacks to an NCAA-best 1.89 ERA before being taken in Major League Baseball’s draft. Beeks and Oliver were key set-up men, along with Brandon Moore and Trent Daniel, for closer Colby Suggs last season.
The current team has a 2.43 team ERA, which ranks 15th nationally. Closer Michael Gunn (1-1, 0.45), who gave up his first earned run of the season Saturday at LSU, has been supported by set-up men like Jacob Stone (3-0, 0.57) and Zach Jackson (2-1, 2.22).
“Our weekend rotation is very good,” Van Horn said. “It’s one of those things where if you had one gem to win and you had all of them available, it would be hard selecting one of them because they all attack hitters and throw a lot of strikes for the most part.
“I’ve been real proud of those guys. We’ve got a young bullpen, but they’ve hung in there.”
Arkansas hit .260 last season with 27 home runs, 298 runs scored and averaged 4.89 runs per game. The current team is batting .259 with 16 home runs and is averaging 5.13 runs per game.
The Razorbacks believe they may have turned a corner on offense after scoring 51 runs in their past eight games, an average of 6.4 runs per game. They have hit seven home runs in that span.
“Everybody is having some pretty good at-bats, taking some good swings,” said shortstop Michael Bernal, who is coming off a 3-for-4 game with 3 RBI in a 7-2 nonconference victory over Stephen F. Austin on Tuesday night. “I feel like we have got it rolling a little bit.”
Van Horn agreed.
“I feel like offensively, up and down the lineup, it’s starting to get a little bit better, a little more consistent,” he said.
Van Horn pointed out that a lengthy back injury suffered by shortstop Brett McAfee, who has hit .277 in his 15 games, impacted the lineup.
“That’s taken away from our offense,” he said. “There are some guys that haven’t had the year they thought they would have, or maybe we thought they would have, but it isn’t over yet.
“That’s the thing. I figured we’d have a couple, three more guys that would be hitting over .300 - and I don’t mean .370, I mean like .310, .320 - that are hitting .260, .280. But I think that they can get back there.
“It’s still out there for us.”
The following is a look at each SEC team and the combined SEC records of the opponents they have faced this season, as well as the combined SEC records of the teams left on their schedule:
TEAM OPP. RECORD (PCT.) REMAINING OPPS. (PCT.)
Arkansas 42-32-1 (.574) 35-40 (.467)
Kentucky 40-35 (.533) 35-39-1 (.480)
Texas A&M 39-35-1 (.527) 38-36-1 (.513)
Miss. State 38-35-2 (.520) 35-40 (.467)
Auburn 38-37 (.507) 37-37-1 (.500)
S. Carolina 38-37 (.507) 36-38-1 (.487)
Florida 37-37-1 (.500) 36-38-1 (.487)
LSU 37-37-1 (.500) 38-37 (.507)
Ole Miss 37-38 (.493) 36-37-2 (.487)
Alabama 36-39 (.480) 38-36-1 (.513)
Missouri 35-39-1 (.473) 38-37 (.507)
Vanderbilt 35-39-1 (.473) 37-37-1 (.500)
Georgia 34-40-1 (.460) 40-35 (.533)
Tennessee 34-40-1 (.460) 41-33-1 (.553)
VANDERBILT AT ARKANSAS WHEN 6:35 p.m. Friday WHERE Baum Stadium, Fayetteville RADIO RSP statewide radio network.
Not all stations carry all games. Check local listings
WEDNESDAY’S GAMES The Citadel 10, South Carolina 8 Alabama 5, UAB 2 Texas A&M 20, Abilene Christian 2
TODAY’S GAME All times Central LSU at Ole Miss, 6:30 p.m.
FRIDAY’S GAMES All times Central Alabama at Tennessee, 5 p.m.
Mississippi St. at Missouri, 6 p.m.
South Carolina at Auburn, 6 p.m.
Kentucky at Texas A&M, 6:05 p.m.
Georgia at Florida, 6:30 p.m.
LSU at Ole Miss, 6:30 p.m.
Vanderbilt at Arkansas, 6:35 p.m.
SATURDAY’S GAMES LSU at Ole Miss, 1 p.m.
Mississippi St. at Missouri, 2 p.m.
Kentucky at Texas A&M, 2:05 p.m.
Alabama at Tennessee, 3 p.m.
South Carolina at Auburn, 4 p.m.
Georgia at Florida, 6 p.m.
Vanderbilt at Arkansas, 6:05 p.m.
Sports, Pages 15 on 04/17/2014