Birch: Razorbacks Back In SEC West Race, Now Test Themselves On the Road At Kentucky

by Brent Birch  on Friday, Apr. 22, 2011 11:00 am  

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After a highly successful home stand, the No. 16 Arkansas Razorbacks (27-9, 8-7) take their show on the road the SEC cellar dweller Kentucky (17-21, 2-13). The Diamond Hogs come into the series winning 8 of their last 9 while the Wildcats have dropped their last four. The Hogs took advantage of the back to back home SEC series to climb back into the SEC West race and are currently tied for first with Alabama. Auburn (21-16, 8-8) and Ole Miss (23-16, 8-8) are a half game back after Auburn’s win last night 6-3.

Life on the road on the SEC can be tough, especially on a young team like the Razorbacks. Even at last place Kentucky. The Wildcats are 14-6 at home and have a very effective offense in the small Cliff Hagan Stadium ballpark. The dimensions are very favorable to the hitters with the left center gap at 365, the right center gap at 350 and the right field fence is only 310 feet from home plate. Kentucky leads the SEC in home runs (34) and doubles (84) so the Wildcat offense can be dangerous at home.

The downside to playing home games in a small ballpark is it’s hard to recruit SEC caliber pitching and the Wildcats have experienced some struggles on the mound in 2011. The team ERA of 4.51 is tenth in the SEC and the bullpen has let some games get away late including blowing an 8-2 lead over Western Kentucky last Tuesday.

Kentucky will send 6-foot-9 RHP Alex Meyer (3-5, 3.59 ERA, 71Ks in 62.2 innings) to the mound at 5:30 PM CST Friday against Hogs’ LHP Randall Fant (1-2, 3.12 ERA). Fant has been effective but in short stints as a starter. With freshman RHP Barrett Astin (4-1, 2.41 ERA) emerging as the go to long reliever, don’t be surprised to see him early if Fant struggles. The Forrest City freshman struck out all 10 outs he recorded in a game last week versus Mississippi State.

Good news for the Razorbacks as ace RHP DJ Baxendale (5-1, 1.62 ERA) will return to action Saturday after missing the Mississippi State series with a blister on his throwing hand. Baxendale will face LHP Corey Littrell (4-3, 6.13 ERA) in a 6 PM CST contest slated to appear on Fox Sports Network. The Diamond Hogs need to reestablish Baxendale in their SEC rotation and hopefully he finds his good stuff after the long layoff.

Coach Dave Van Horn has not announced a Sunday starter yet to go against LHP Taylor Rogers (2-4, 4.89 ERA). He has an allotment of capable guys to choose from depending on who gets used in middle relief during games one and two. LHP Cade Lynch (4-1, 2.76 ERA) and RHP Brandon Moore (2-1, 3.91 ERA) have each started SEC games and are likely candidates.

Offensively, the Hogs continue to rely on fantastic freshman Dominic Ficociello (.346, 31 RBI) and the team’s lone senior OF Kyle Robinson (.328, 7 HR, 33 RBI). Junior OF Jarrod McKinney (.303) has settled into the Hogs lineup and produced lately hitting .375 in the Hogs’ last ten games. Junior OF Collin Kuhn(.288, 14 SB) is also heating up after a really tough start and his hitting .357 in the last ten games. The left side of the Razorbacks infield is struggling offensively and Van Horn’s club could really benefit from 3B Matt Reynolds (.266) and SS Tim Carver (.200) to show some signs of life at the plate. The Razorbacks lead the SEC in stolen bases with 72 so look for the Razorbacks to run early and often as Kentucky is third in the SEC allowing bases to be swiped.

Kentucky has a little more balance up and down the lineup that the Hogs and are led by SS Taylor Black (.348, 12 2B, 27 RBI, 10 SB) and Thomas McCarthy (.321, 4 HR and SEC leading 15 2B). The Wildcats lead the SEC in slugging percentage and hit batters and are fourth in stolen bases. As mentioned, the Wildcats can put a lot of pressure on opposing pitchers in their ballpark and the Razorback pitchers will need to be sharp. If games get into slugfest mode, which in 2011 with the dead bats is a 7-6 type ballgame, the edge has to go to Kentucky unless the Hog offense finally hits its stride.

The difference this weekend will likely come down to the bullpens. The Razorbacks have been outstanding in relief and freshman closer Nolan Sanburn (2-1, 1.52 ERA, 8 SV) has established himself as one of the best in the SEC. Kentucky has experienced some issues in the pen and if the Hogs can knock the starters out early, have to like their chances.

Interesting note for the weekend will be Kentucky CF Brian Adams (.320, 8 SB) who is on football scholarship will play in the Wildcats’ spring football game at 3 PM Saturday, then head down the road to the ballpark to play in the baseball game that evening. Fans attending the football game will be allowed into the baseball game for free. The 3,000 seat Cliff Hagan stadium may attract a few fans but don’t count on it. The Hogs will need to find their own motivation as the opposing crowd may be nonexistent all weekend. Kentucky averages 1,500 paid and with the Cats in last place, UK fans would probably rather watch the hoopsters play a pickup basketball game than cheer on the baseball team.

This weekend and every one from here on out is big for the Hogs to stay in the hunt for the SEC West championship and a spot in the eight team SEC tournament. The West is all jumbled up with LSU the only team appearing to be out of the race half way through the conference season. The Razorbacks still have No. 2 South Carolina and No. 5 Florida on the schedule so the Hogs need to handle business in any and all winnable games.

The Razorbacks will need to stay with their normal approach at the plate and not get caught up in the hitter friendly dimensions at Kentucky. If the Hogs start trying to lift the ball out of there, it might be a long weekend for an already mediocre offense. Same goes the pitchers as they need to resist being intimidated by the Kentucky power numbers. If the Razorback hurlers pitch tentative and try to be too fine around the plate, they will play directly into the Wildcats’ hands.

Road wins are precious in the SEC but the Razorbacks need to take the approach to win all three games this weekend. A sweep will be tough but Kentucky and the Hogs will have to be solid in all three phases of the game to get it done. But it’s doable. Two of three is more realistic and almost required to keep things going forward during the tough stretch run over the next month. Weekends like this is where veterans like James McCann, DJ Baxendale, Bo Bigham and Collin Kuhn need to step up and produce.

The Razorbacks own 17 come from behind wins this season and it sure would be nice to win a couple this weekend going away easy.



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