Birch: Youthful South Carolina, Hogs Hook Up In Big Series

by Brent Birch  on Friday, May. 4, 2012 11:54 am  

Arkansas' Bo Bigham has hit better than .300 in the past 10 games. (Photo by Mark Wagner)

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After what has seemed like an eternity since the Razorbacks played a home SEC series, Coach Dave Van Horn’s ball club welcomes  No. 5 South Carolina (34-11, 14-7) to Baum Stadium this weekend.

The two time defending national champions got off to a sluggish start in SEC play with new faces at every position in the infield except first base. Since those early struggles against No. 3 Kentucky and No. 7 Florida, the Gamecocks have won 13 of their last 15 SEC games including 11 in a row.

Arkansas (33-13, 11-10) enters the weekend ranked No. 18 after winning last weekend’s series at No. 7 Florida and sweeping Missouri midweek.

South Carolina has been steamrolling the bottom half of the SEC during its recent hot streak. Not taking anything away from South Carolina; as two-time defending national champ it deserves a lot of respect. But Vandy, Tennessee, Mississippi State, Auburn and Alabama are a combined 33-51 within the league. Favorable scheduling for sure, but the Gamecocks have handled business as they should behind solid pitching and opportunistic offense.

The two teams are very, very similar statistically as neither features a high-powered offense and each has a top flight, deep pitching staff. South Carolina is hitting .274 with 33 home runs. Arkansas hits .275 and has hit 28 home runs (21 of which were hit before SEC play started). The glaring difference offensively is the Hogs have stolen 52 bases compared to Carolina’s 24. Given those factors and the teams playing in a pitcher’s ballpark, fans should look for runs to be at a premium this weekend as both clubs feature outstanding pitching. 

Speaking of fans, South Carolina’s newcomers haven’t seen a crowd quite like a packed house Baum Stadium can provide. There is a big difference between a raucous Razorback crowd and the couple hundred friends and family that show up at a Vandy game in Nashville.

The weather forecast is outstanding and with the season winding down, Hogs fans should show up in big numbers. In the latest college baseball attendance numbers released last week, Arkansas ranks second in the country behind LSU. How South Carolina’s young guys respond could be a key factor in this weekend’s series.

Both teams will go with the same rotation that produced series victories last weekend. Sophomore right-hander Ryne Stanek (6-3, 2.52 ERA) was the tough luck loser last weekend and will pitch the Friday night game against All-American left-hander Michael Roth (4-0, 2.57 ERA).

Roth is one of the top lefties in the country despite his limited number of decisions and has been a key factor on each of Carolina’s national championship teams. The Friday night game hasn’t been kind to the Hogs as they stand 2-5 and would like to get off on the right foot tonight. The Hogs are 11-4 versus left-handed starters and look to find a way to solve Roth as opponents are only hitting .192 against him.

Saturday’s game will feature a pair of lefties with junior Randall Fant (2-2, 4.05 ERA) locking up with freshman Jordan Montgomery (4-0, 3.47 ERA). Odds are each team will be quick to go the bullpen at the first sign of trouble. Van Horn and South Carolina skipper Ray Tanner both have deep, talented bullpens and aren’t afraid to use them. Tanner probably makes more situational pitching changes than anybody in the SEC.

Arkansas has the luxury of running a preseason All-American to the mound Sunday with right-hander DJ Baxendale (6-2, 3.47 ERA) going while South Carolina has not named a starter. Baxendale has hit his stride after early struggles and is coming off a stellar performance against heavy hitting Florida. The junior pitched into the eighth inning while only allowing five hits and one run in the Hogs’ 3-1 victory in extra innings. With the teams so closely comparable, the Sunday game will likely decide the series.

Offensively both teams really feature one big hitter and depend on various guys each weekend to contribute sporadically. The Gamecocks are led by first baseman Christian Walker (.349, 8 home runs, 43 RBI) while the Hogs ride the dependable shoulders of first baseman Dominic Ficociello (.339, 4  home runs, 32 RBI). Interestingly, Ficociello hit .571 against the Gamecocks last season.



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