Matt Jones has been the online sports editor for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette since 2010. He is also a feature writer for Hawgs Illustrated magazine and is currently pursuing a Masters degree in journalism.
Opportunity in Oxford
Ole Miss a swing series for the Razorbacks
Arkansas coach Dave Van Horn watches from the dugout during the Razorbacks' 17-9 loss to Alabama on March 21, 2014 at Baum Stadium in Fayetteville.
FAYETTEVILLE Arkansas' chances to wow NCAA postseason voters are running out, with no opportunity any bigger than this weekend.
A trip to Ole Miss is up next for the Razorbacks, who have yet to win a road series this season. The Rebels (33-13, 13-8) are ranked No. 11 by Baseball America but are even more revered in the eyes of the NCAA, ranking fourth in the latest national RPI poll.
The Razorbacks (29-18, 10-11 SEC) would be on the bubble for the NCAA regional round if the season ended today. Arkansas has key series wins over the likes of Alabama, South Carolina and Vanderbilt at home, but the Diamond Hogs also have series losses to South Alabama and Auburn at Baum Stadium.
With more emphasis put on home losses and road wins in the all-important RPI, Arkansas could considerably help its postseason chances with a series win this weekend. Ole Miss is 21-5 at home this season with its only series loss coming two weeks ago to LSU.
"I think all games are huge, but where they're at in the RPI if we can go down there and win a few ballgames, it would be big for us," Arkansas coach Dave Van Horn said.
"We just need to get over the hump and win two out of three. We have the talent to do it and the guys are getting better, but we're going to be playing one of the top teams in the country and they're hot, they're confident and they're older, too."
Arkansas has come close to a series road win twice this season. The Razorbacks lost a pair of one-run games at Florida and another at LSU before blowout wins in the each of the series finales. Arkansas also won the opener at Mississippi State before losing two straight games.
Errors and a lack of run support have been costly for the Razorbacks on the road. In its six road losses this season Arkansas has committed six errors and scored only 10 runs.
"We need to play better defense," Van Horn said. "It seems like the pattern has been solid defense for a game or two and then we have one bad inning and it's hurt us. When you're on the road you can't make very many mistakes, even if it's a base running mistake. Those will haunt you when the games are tight."
Arkansas had been playing better and was considered a likely candidate for the NCAA postseason until a series loss to Auburn last weekend in Fayetteville. After losing their seventh 2-1 game of the year on Friday, the Razorbacks won a 10-inning game Saturday afternoon before dropping a 7-2 decision later that night to the Tigers, who are in last place in the SEC West.
The series at Ole Miss looms large for more reasons than just NCAA positioning. With a logjam in the SEC rankings and three weeks left in the regular season, Arkansas is still mathematically in the race for a division championship, only three games behind the SEC West-leading Rebels and Alabama.
On the flip side, there is an outside chance the Razorbacks could still miss out on the SEC Tournament later this month if they falter down the stretch. After the Ole Miss series, Arkansas hosts Texas A&M (28-18, 10-11) and travels to Missouri (20-24, 6-15) to finish the regular season.
"I think we all know it's there, but we're trying not to focus in on it," second baseman Brian Anderson said. "We're trying to take things one game at a time and just control what we can control.
"They have a good RPI and a pretty high ranked club. That would be awesome for us, especially mentally to know we can go into an atmosphere like that and beat teams, just like we're going to have to do in the postseason."