Arkansas baseball pauses from SEC for in-state matchup

Arkansas-Little Rock's Ty Rhoades is shown during an NCAA baseball game against Belmont on Sunday, March 3, 2024, in Nashville, Tenn. (AP Photo/John Amis)

FAYETTEVILLE — When University of Arkansas-Little Rock baseball Coach Chris Curry said he’s “numb” about playing the Arkansas Razorbacks on Tuesday at Baum-Walker Stadium, he’s referring to their No. 1 ranking, not cold weather that moved the game’s start time to 3 p.m. from 6:30 p.m.

“Somebody said, ‘Hey, what about playing Arkansas? They’re No. 1,’ ” Curry said. “I said, ‘I’m kind of numb to it,’ and that’s a compliment because every year we play them they’re always top five.

“It’s no disrespect whatsoever. It’s the ultimate compliment that, ‘Yeah, Arkansas is No. 1. What else is new?’ ”

The Razorbacks (19-3, 5-1 SEC) were ranked No. 1 in the USA Today coaches’ poll released Monday for the third consecutive week after taking two of three games at Auburn last weekend.

This is the seventh time UALR (13-11, 2-1 Ohio Valley Conference) and Arkansas have played since their historic first meeting in 2019 when the Trojans won 17-7 at Baum-Walker Stadium

The Razorbacks capped the 2019 season by advancing to the College World Series in Omaha, Neb., and also made it in 2022 — when they beat the Trojans 16-8. It was Arkansas’ most recent of six appearances in the College World Series in Coach Dave Van Horn’s 22 seasons.

“We know Arkansas has got another Omaha-caliber club,” said Curry, an assistant for Van Horn in 2009-10 who is now in his 10th season at UALR. “Coach Van Horn’s the model of consistency and they can really pitch. So it’ll be another very difficult game.”

Arkansas leads its series against UALR 4-2, including a split last season when the Razorbacks won 21-5 and the Trojans won 11-4.

“They have been some good games,” Van Horn said. “They’ve beat us a couple times, we’ve beat them a few times.”

The Trojans were the preseason pick by OVC coaches to win the conference championship.

“This is definitely the oldest team I’ve ever had,” Curry said. “We returned 84% of our innings on the mound and 96% of our at-bats from last year.”

UALR’s lineup is loaded with players who have faced Arkansas, led by senior third baseman Nico Baumbach (.319 average, 3 home runs, 14 RBI) and sophomore right fielder Ty Rhoades (.316, 2, 15). Senior center fielder Tyler Williams (.258) has played against the Razorbacks since 2019.

The Trojans opened OVC play by taking two of three games against defending conference champion Morehead State at home.

“They’re a really good team,” Van Horn said. “If you’re picked to win your league, you’ve got a veteran team. That’s what [Curry] has. They’re going to give us everything we can handle.”

Arkansas sophomore right-hander Ben Bybee will start today in his season debut after being sidelined with mononucleosis and a hamstring injury. Bybee was 2-1 last year with a 7.24 ERA and 29 strikeouts in 27 1/3 innings.

“How we’re going to work it is we’re going to try to win the game, obviously,” Van Horn said. “I do need to fill in a few guys who need to get some at-bats and we’ve got some good pitchers that need to pitch.

“We need to see if we need to add them to our roster on the weekend. We’ve got some guys that have good stuff that in a couple of cases they’re coming off rehab or they’re coming off sickness and maybe we’re going to put them on the roster against LSU. It would be good to see them pitch well.”

The Razorbacks open a three-game series against No. 7 LSU on Thursday night at Baum-Walker Stadium.

UALR, which resumes OVC play at Lindenwood on Thursday, will start senior right-hander Austin Stubber (4-0, 2.04), who has been a setup man with 25 strikeouts and 1 walk in 17 2/3 innings.

Curry said the plan is for Stubber to work two or three innings.

“It’s always that tough balance,” Curry said. “I want to win the game, but I’ve got to make sure our pitching is in good shape for Thursday.”

Curry said he’s starting Stubber because of his experience and ability to throw strikes.

“In these games, where we go play at Arkansas or at Ole Miss or at Oklahoma State — any Power 5 game with some atmosphere — I’ve found it’s important that you have a calming presence on the mound,” Curry said. “Austin is going to give us that, and he also needs some work as well.”

Curry said Stubber is UALR’s version of Arkansas senior right-hander Will McEntire in terms of having command and being ready to pitch in any situation.

Stubber pitched 2 1/3 scoreless innings against the Razorbacks last season in the Trojans’ victory.

“Austin has a three-pitch mix with a fastball, slider and changeup,” Curry said. “He’s going to be 87 to 88 [mph] on his fastball.

“It’s not going to be anything ‘wow,’ but he’s an older guy with great command. What I’m hoping is he can get us off to a good start.”

McKinley Moore, who made his Major League debut for the Philadelphia Phillies last season and is now with the New York Yankees, started for UALR against Arkansas in 2019 and allowed 5 walks, 3 hits and 3 runs in 2 innings.

“I’ve thrown guys in this game in the past and they were too amped up,” Curry said. “If we can throw strikes and keep the ball down and let the game be close late, then we’ll have a chance to win it. That’s all I’m looking for.”

Curry said he’s thankful to not be facing Arkansas’ weekend starters Hagen Smith, Brady Tygart and Mason Molina, and that the Razorbacks are loaded with talent for pitching coach Matt Hobbs.

“They have so many premium arms stockpiled there, and Coach Hobbs does such a great job,” Curry said. “We know that everybody out of their pen is probably the next wave of weekend guys if they’re not already throwing on the weekend and they’re just trying to get them some work.

“We’re going to have to be ready to hit the fastball at a better velocity than probably we’ve seen all year. And we’re going to need to have really tough at-bats and eliminate the strikeouts.”