COLLEGE BASEBALL NO. 3 ARKANSAS (24-9) VS. GRAMBLING ST. (16-16):

Cleanup work: Hogs put focus on improving defense

By: Tom Murphy
Published: Tuesday, April 10, 2018
Arkansas shortstop Jax Biggers attempts to tag Auburn's Edouard Julien at second base during a game Sunday, April 8, 2018, in Fayetteville.
Photo by J.T. Wampler
Arkansas shortstop Jax Biggers attempts to tag Auburn's Edouard Julien at second base during a game Sunday, April 8, 2018, in Fayetteville.

FAYETTEVILLE -- Dave Van Horn held a back-to-basics practice that focused strictly on defense on the day after Easter last week.

His Arkansas Razorbacks had lost back-to-back series finales at No. 2 Florida and No. 4 Ole Miss by one run to lose each of those series by a 2-1 margin, and their defense had been shaky.

After the intense defensive focus, the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville promptly went out and committed four errors while blowing a four-run ninth inning lead before winning 10-9 in 10 innings over Louisiana-Monroe the next day.

In the four games since -- a 4-0 decision over the Warhawks on Wednesday and a weekend sweep of No. 15 Auburn -- the Razorbacks solidified their defense and got hot.

The Razorbacks (24-9) played error free the past four games and enter tonight's 6:30 game at Dickey-Stephens Park in North Little Rock against Grambling State riding a five-game winning streak. The hot Hogs jumped five spots to No. 3 in the USA Today coaches poll Monday.

Arkansas Coach Dave Van Horn said he reminded the team after the near debacle against Louisiana-Monroe about their 11-10 loss at Ole Miss, a series finale in which the Razorbacks allowed four unearned runs score thanks to a couple of errors.

"For us to come back and have a 5-0 week ... I reminded them about that game on Tuesday night when we let a four-run lead slip away," Van Horn said. "Then we came back and scored two in the bottom of the 10th and win it. We had to earn that win, and it really got us going to have a perfect week."

Outfielder Eric Cole said Van Horn has been in the team's ear about how playing strong defense could take the Razorbacks to another level.

"Coach Van Horn tells us pretty much every single day ... if we play good defense we're going to win games because they're going to be throwing strikes, the ball is going to be in play a lot, we're going to hit it," Cole said.

"Defense is always preached heavily in our practices," outfielder Heston Kjerstad said. "Because that's the separation when you come to winning one-run games."

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The Razorbacks on Sunday hung a 5-4 loss on Auburn, which was trying to salvage one victory from the weekend and jumped out to a 4-0 lead behind freshman right-hander Tanner Burns.

"I thought our guys gave it everything they had," Auburn Coach Butch Thompson said before complimenting the Razorbacks. "That's a good ballclub at home. Dave does a great job. Arkansas is super. We needed a win today. We fought our heart out and came up a little bit short."

Arkansas won a pair of one-run games against Auburn, including a 2-1 decision Friday that dealt Auburn ace Casey Mize his first loss, and Sunday's tight victory.

"Winning a game like that is never easy in the SEC, which we learned the past two weeks," Cole said. "I think those past two weeks have been a huge part of [Sunday] because those were on the road in a really tough environment both times and both were one-run games like today."

Grambling (16-16) is coming off a 2-1 Southwestern Athletic Conference series loss at Prairie View.

The Tigers are scheduled to start senior right-hander Elijah Saunders (0-3, 8.41 ERA) today against Arkansas rookie right-hander Caleb Bolden (3-0, 2.61), who threw seven innings of last week's 4-0 shutout against Louisiana-Monroe.

The Razorbacks will try to stretch their winning streak at Dickey-Stephens Park in North Little Rock to three games since a 5-4 loss to Memphis on March 24, 2015.

"We look forward to going down there every year," Van Horn said. "It's a good crowd. It's a lot of fans from central Arkansas that maybe can't get up here or maybe can get up here one time a year or something. Hopefully the weather will be good for us."

The game-time temperature is projected around 60 degrees and dipping into the low 50s under sunny skies in North Little Rock with virtually no chance for rain.

Grambling's top hitters are Marshawn Taylor (.406, 28 RBI), Rafael Ramirez (.349, 7 HR, 28 RBI) and Richard Ortiz (.330, 9, 38). The Tigers are hitting .287 and their team ERA is 7.12.

The Razorbacks, hitting .311 with 56 home runs, have five regular hitters and two other mainstays at .300 or better, led by Kjerstad (.374, 8 HR, 32 RBI), Evan Lee (.367, 2, 10), Carson Shaddy (.364, 7, 26), Cole (.348, 7, 24) and Casey Martin (.324, 7, 28).

Because Arkansas used just six pitchers -- starters Blaine Knight, Kacey Murphy and Isaiah Campbell, and relievers Matt Cronin, Barrett Loseke and Jake Reindl -- in its 2-1, 13-2 and 5-4 victories over Auburn, the staff should be prepared for a four-game week.

"It definitely frees us up to use more guys on Tuesday and then also going into next weekend, a lot of people are going to be fresh," said Reindl, who struck out a career-high nine batters in seven innings, also a career high, Sunday.

Sports on 04/10/2018

ARKANSAS BASEBALL

vs. Grambling State

WHEN 6:30 p.m., today

WHERE Dickey-Stephens Park, North Little Rock

RECORDS Grambling 16-16; No. 8 Arkansas 24-9

STARTING PITCHERS Grambling Elijah Saunders (0-3, 8.41 ERA); Arkansas RHP Caleb Bolden (3-0, 2.61 ERA)

SERIES Arkansas leads 5-0

LAST MEETING Arkansas won 3-2 on March 16, 2016, at Baum Stadium

COACHES Dave Van Horn (619-352 in 16th year at Arkansas, 1,204-592 in 30th year overall); James Cooper (172-258 in 8th year at Grambling and overall)

RADIO Razorback Sports Network. Check local listings.

TV None

SHORT HOPS

The Razorbacks hit a school-record nine home runs in their first meeting against Grambling, a 19-7 victory in the NCAA Fayetteville Regional, on June 4, 2010. … Arkansas has outscored the Tigers 48-16 in their five games. … Arkansas is No. 2 in SEC hitting (.311), No. 6 in pitching (3.28 ERA) and No. 13 in fielding (.971). … Grambling is No. 3 in SWAC hitting (.287), No. 5 in pitching (7.12) and No. 6 in fielding (.951). … Arkansas has won four consecutive games against Auburn to pull within 46-44 in their series history. The Razorbacks are 29-20 against Auburn under Dave Van Horn.

UPCOMING SCHEDULE

TODAY Grambling#, 6:30 p.m.

WEDNESDAY Off

THURSDAY South Carolina*, 6 p.m. (SECN)

FRIDAY South Carolina*, 6:30 p.m.

SATURDAY South Carolina*, 2 p.m.

SUNDAY Off

MONDAY Off

Dickey-Stephens Park, NLR

  • SEC game

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