Matt Jones is the online sports director for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. A double graduate of the University of Arkansas, he is a member of the Football Writers Association of America and National Collegiate Baseball Writers Association, and voter for the Heisman Trophy and Biletnikoff Award.
Hogs, Tigers have exceeded expectations
Arkansas coach Dave Van Horn, left, and Auburn coach Butch Thompson are candidates for SEC coach of the year after strong starts to 2017. (Photos: Arkansas Democrat-Gazette File/Auburn Athletics)
FAYETTEVILLE Arkansas and Auburn will play this weekend in the most unlikely big series of the SEC season.
The No. 14 Razorbacks (31-8, 11-4 SEC) enter the series atop the SEC standings, while the No. 12 Tigers (28-11, 10-5) are in a three-way tie for second alongside Kentucky and Mississippi State.
The conference season is only half finished, but it appears SEC coaches misjudged the two teams in the preseason - predicting Arkansas to finish fifth in the SEC West and Auburn to tie for last in the division with Alabama. Those predictions likely were based on last season when the Razorbacks and Tigers were excluded from the SEC Tournament with a combined 15 conference wins.
"Oh yeah, definitely some similarities," Arkansas coach Dave Van Horn said about the teams' turnarounds. "Both teams struggled last year. Our struggles were really in the last month when it didn't go good for us; they (Auburn) were just kind of up-and-down all year with a new coach.
"They had some good players last year...but it probably was more of just a pitching thing. Same thing for us."
The teams have turned things around thanks to strong outings from weekend starters. Even without Auburn ace Casey Mize, the series opener will feature a pair of the SEC's best pitchers - Arkansas' Blaine Knight and Auburn's Keegan Thompson.
Knight has been a force in SEC play with a 1.36 ERA and .165 opposing batting average - both second in SEC-only games. Thompson, a junior right-hander, has the league's second-lowest overall ERA (1.29) and batting average (.187).
Thompson, who missed last season with Tommy John surgery, allowed one run in seven innings last week at Tennessee in his second start back from a shoulder injury that caused him to miss a start last month. He had struggled in his first game back against Texas A&M the week before.
"He's looked fresher, especially the last two starts," Auburn coach Butch Thompson said. "Taking a week off, the command might have went back a little bit but the velocity increased."
Mize's absence could affect Auburn later in the weekend. Like Arkansas, the Tigers do not have a deep bullpen.
"We're not a dominant pitching staff top to bottom," Thompson said. "If you just look at SEC games only, we've walked the fewest batters in conference play by a pretty large margin. I think that's our key stat. It needs to hold true against Arkansas this weekend.
"If you do an over/under on how many home runs Arkansas is going to hit this weekend in a three-game series - I don't know the answer to that and wouldn't wager a guess, but I do know it's important for us to keep attacking the strike zone and those don't turn into two- and three-run home runs."
Both coaches acknowledged the significance of the series given their place in the standings, but noted it only accounted for one-tenth of the conference schedule.
"The mindset that we've tried to set with our team going into the season is to not get too worked up about any series because, bottom line, when you get to that last week it's about what your record is and not so much who you beat or who you lost to," Van Horn said. "Obviously you want to win series and that's something you shoot for, but I think our mindset is pretty good right now. We're excited to go play, but it's not like it's do or die."
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