Birch: Razorbacks' Young Pitchers Must Come Up Big Against No. 2 Vanderbilt

by Brent Birch  on Friday, Mar. 25, 2011 11:30 am  

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While most of the state is caught up in the hysteria surrounding the Arkansas hoops program, the No. 13 Diamond Hogs (17-4, 1-2) welcome No. 2 Vanderbilt (20-2, 2-1) to Baum Stadium for a pivotal early spring SEC series. Vanderbilt comes to town boasting one of the top pitching staffs in all of college baseball.

All-American junior right-hander Sonny Gray (5-0, 1.34 earned run average) will get the ball Friday night. The Hogs counter with big lefty sophomore Cade Lynch (2-0, 2.70 ERA) and he will have to be sharp because Gray doesn’t give much up to opposing offenses.

The Hogs will send freshman Barrett Astin (2-0, 2.95) to the mound Saturday against lefty Grayson Garvin (3-1, 2.78). Sunday’s starter for the Hogs is yet to be named while Vandy will go with RHP Taylor Hill (1-0, 3.25). Odds are sophomore DJ Baxendale (4-0, 1.80, 2 saves) will be used a couple of times during the series if the games stay tight. His versatility and big game experience could be the difference this weekend if the starting pitching performs better than it did last weekend at Auburn. Baxendale could show up in long relief, could be the closer and could even start the Sunday game if used sparingly early in the series.

This weekend will require the Hog starters to be more effective than they were last weekend. No starters made it past the fourth inning and forced the Coach Dave Van Horn to go to the bullpen early and often in all three games. Using up the bullpen and the loss of middle reliever Geoffrey Davenport to injury likely cost the Razorbacks a series win at Auburn. Leading 5-4 in the eighth inning, the bullpen buckled and the Hogs ended up losing the rubber game of the series 8-7. The Razorbacks’ pitching staff is relying heavily on youth so predicting effectiveness week to week is tough.

Offensively the Razorbacks are riding the production of outfielder Kyle Robinson (.378, 4 home runs, 25 runs batted in), infielder Matt Reynolds (.365, 14 RBI) and infieldr Dominic Ficociello (.403, 11 doubles, 25 RBI). Vanderbilt backs up their outstanding pitching with an efficient offense boasting a .314 team batting average. In comparison, the Hogs are hitting at a mediocre .291 as a team. The Commodores main threat is first baseman Aaron Westlake (.420, 3 HR, 17 RBI) and shortstop Anthony Gomez (.363, 19 RBIs), who comes into the series riding a 17-game hitting streak. Westlake torched the Hogs last year with four home runs in four games. Both teams will run as evidenced by the Razorbacks 44 stolen bases and Vandy’s 35. Neither team is lives and dies on the long ball as the Commodores have only seven home runs compare to the Hogs 13.

The series is crucial for the Razorbacks despite this only being the second weekend of SEC play. With a series loss last weekend on the road and a road trip next weekend to Alabama, the Hogs can ill afford to fall back in the pack early. The hard part is Vandy is experienced and talented and owns a 4-0 record on the road this season. But all four games were played in San Diego over one weekend to open the season. The Razorbacks should be energized by the crowds at Baum after playing nine of their last ten games away from Fayetteville. Hopefully the northwest Arkansas crowds will try to outdo the 10,000-plus that watched the Diamond Hogs defeat Memphis in Little Rock last Tuesday.

As previously mentioned, the Hog starters will have to get deep into games and keep the runs low. Vandy’s pitching is probably the best staff top to bottom the Hogs will face all season and runs will be hard to come by. Vandy’s closer Navery Moore (3-1, 0.78 ERA, 4 saves) works in the mid to upper 90s after an awful 2010 season. A majority of the Commodores games have been close games so they are battle tested.

The Hogs are still waiting on OF Colin Kuhn (.222) to get going and someone to produce offensively in the third outfield spot. Shortstop Tim Carver (.202) has also struggled and Tuesday’s starters against Memphis might have been a preview to a more offensive lineup Hog fans may see this weekend. The infield for the Little Rock game had Reynolds moving from third to shortstop with Ficociello at third and Robinson at first.

A series sweep at home would damaging as home wins are must haves in the brutal SEC. The Razorbacks will have to play flawless, efficient baseball to get a series win against the Commodores. Capitalizing with runners in scoring position will be crucial as the expectation is those won’t be plentiful. Find a way to score with two outs may be the difference. The Hog pitching staff will have to grow up this weekend and is capable. Vanderbilt is a very sound, well coached team and is playing with a lot of confidence. Van Horn’s squad will have to do the same to keep the games manageable and find a way to win a couple of ballgames somehow, someway against a better team.

Sunday’s 1 p.m. game will be televised on Cox Sports Television and The weather is pretty decent for March in Northwest Arkansas and Baum Stadium should be rocking. Hopefully, a huge crowd shows for the Mike Anderson press conference on Saturday, then heads south to support the baseball Hogs at 2 p.m. Saturday.

Good weekend to be a Razorback fan… even better if the Hogs can knock off the Commodores.



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