Anonymous Coaches Help Analyze No. 1 Arkansas Vs. No. 2 Mississippi State

College baseball this weekend will get treated to a blockbuster series when No. 1 Arkansas travels to No. 2 Mississippi State for a weekend series. It will be just the 14th time in the 40-year history of the Baseball America Top 25 that the top two teams in the rankings have played in the regular season.

In anticipation of the showdown, Baseball America spoke to coaches who this season have played Arkansas and Mississippi State. They helped analyze the key matchups that will decide the series.

The series begins Friday at 7:30 p.m. ET before continuing Saturday and Sunday at 3 p.m. The first two games of the series will be shown on SEC Network+, while the finale will be on SEC Network.

Not only are these teams Nos. 1 and 2 in the Top 25, they have many similarities throughout their rosters. And the series has been dead even over the last five years. The home team has swept this series in each of the last four meetings and the teams split two games at the 2017 SEC Tournament, leaving it tied 7-7 since 2017.

How big of an edge does Mississippi State have on the mound?

Both Arkansas and Mississippi State have deep, strong pitching staffs, but statistically, this is no contest. The Bulldogs’ 2.30 ERA is the best in the country (minimum 40 innings). It ranks second in strikeouts per nine innings (13.1), third in WHIP (1.00) and sixth in strikeout-to-walk ratio (3.91).

The Razorbacks own numbers aren’t bad (3.80 ERA, 1.23 WHIP, 10.4 K/9, 2.32 K/BB), they just aren’t otherworldly. And this early in the season, a bad day or two—like Arkansas’ 16-1 loss last Friday to Alabama—can skew the numbers.

Still, at this point, Mississippi State has established itself as one of the very best pitching staffs in the country. Lefthander Christian Macleod (2-1, 1.74) has been outstanding at the front of the rotation. He isn’t overpowering—his fastball averages 89 mph—but his feel for his three-pitch arsenal and the life he gets on his fastball makes him difficult to face.

“His fastball has so much ride and carry, you have to stay on top, but then his changeup has so much fade,” one opposing coach said. “You expose yourself to the breaking ball backdoor if you’re righthanded or lefthanded, it’s expanding away. That’s the reason he’s had the success he’s had. Even though it’s not 94 mph, it’s 88-92 with the Ethan Small-type ride through the zone.”

After starting the season out due to a neck injury, righthander Will Bednar (1-0, 0.00) has come on strong behind MacLeod as Mississippi State’s No. 2. Over the last two weekends, he’s struck out 14 batters in nine innings and limited opponents to four hits and a walk. He has plenty of power in his fastball and a plus slider.

The third spot in the Bulldogs’ rotation has been more of a question mark because hard-throwing righthander Eric Cerantola (0-1, 7.71) has struggled so far. Lefthander Jackson Fristoe (2-1, 1.71) will get the nod and he has been excellent as a true freshman, attacking with a good fastball and hard slider.

“I’d be surprised if he’s not their Friday starter next year,” the opposing coach said. “He’s aggressive. He’s not scared of anything or anybody. He’s got the right temperament. I like him a lot.”

It doesn’t get any easier against Mississippi State’s bullpen. Relievers Preston Johnson (0-0, 0.00), Landon Sims (1-0, 0.66, 2 SV), Brandon Smith (3-0, 0.53, 1 SV) and Parker Stinnett (0-0, 4.15) all provide different looks and can cover a lot of outs.

Sims has perhaps been the most impressive, as he’s struck out 32 batters in 13.2 innings. He’s capable of going multiple innings or blowing it out for a conventional, one-inning save.

“His fastball is ridiculous,” the opposing coach said. “He looks like (Craig) Kimbrel. I would expect those strikeout numbers to go down a little bit just because he’s getting into the league and there are more scouting reports on him. But he’s a competitor, a bulldog. He wants to embarrass you, I’m all in on that kid. He’s the real deal.”

Arkansas will counter with a rotation of lefthander Patrick Wicklander (0-0, 2.51), righthander Zebulon Vermillion (2-0, 2.13) and lefthander Lael Lockhart (1-1, 2.38). Wicklander, a third-year sophomore, replaces righthander Peyton Pallette, a second-year freshman, who has been up-and-down this season. With Wicklander included, Arkansas has one of the oldest and most experienced rotations in the sport.

“Vermillion on Saturday and Lockhart on Sunday, they’re like total, fourth-year college guys, upper 80s, low 90s (fastballs), move the ball, compete, manage the inning, have great composure,” one opposing coach said. “They’re two older guys that know how to pitch. Wicklander looked like that guy too. He’s upper 80s, low 90s with three pitches for strikes. Just a polished pitcher.”

In later innings, Arkansas wants to put the ball in the hands of Evan Gray (0-0, 2.70), Kevin Kopps (4-0, 1.38, 1 SV), Elijah Trest (1-0, 2.16) and Jaxon Wiggins (1-0, 1.59, 3 SV). Pallette has a powerful fastball and figures to find some role this weekend, but Lockhart, Vermillion and Wicklander don’t stand out for their velocity. That provides a sharp contrast with the bullpen, which is packed with power arms.

“Two that really stood out as dudes are Kopps and Wiggins,” the opposing coach said. “Kopps is a legit SEC closer, and they don’t have to use him that way because of Wiggins. Wiggins is special. You get this 6-foot-6, 220-pound guy touching 98-99 and he had some secondary stuff to go with it. He’s a big leaguer. He’s got a different body, arm, stuff. He just looks different.”

Mississippi State’s biggest advantage on the mound lies with its starters. If they pitch deep into games, the Razorbacks may be in trouble. But if Arkansas can turn the weekend into a battle of bullpens, it matches up more evenly.

Can either offense break through?

With so much talent for both teams on the mound, runs are likely to be at a premium throughout the weekend. The offenses have impact potential as well, but will they deliver on it this weekend?

Arkansas has consistently had a high-powered offense over the last few years, anchored by the likes of Heston Kjerstad, Casey Martin and Chad Spanberger. While veteran DH Matt Goodheart (.292/.404/.500, 3 HR) has a lot of experience in the middle of the order and newcomers Brady Slavens (.304/.364/.638, 6 HR), a junior college transfer, and Cayden Wallace (.294/.395/.574, 5 HR), a true freshman, both have brought power to the lineup, they haven’t yet established themselves as those kinds of hitters.

“I like some of these guys but usually Arkansas has a dude-dude in the middle,” one opposing coach said. “I’d love to have Goodheart or Slaves or Wallace, they’re really nice players, they’ve got some strength and power, but after the last few years, they don’t have a Kjerstad. No one does.”

Arkansas may not have a Kjerstad, but it does have a pair of Preseason All-Americans in center fielder Christian Franklin (.290/.424/.536, 4 HR, 4 SB) and second baseman Robert Moore (.253/.337/.440, 4 HR, 5 SB), as well as catcher Casey Opitz (.364/.426/.545), a 2020 Preseason All-American. Opitz is the team’s leading hitter and Franklin has been a constant presence in the lineup. Moore comes into the series in a slump—he went 0-for-11 against Alabama and is 4-for-35 over the last two weeks.

One potential X-factor for the Arkansas offense is that it has hit righthanders (.926 OPS) much better than lefthanders (.745) this season. With two lefthanders in the Mississippi State rotation, improving those splits could take on greater importance.

Ultimately, however, these are nit-picks for a team with an impressively deep lineup—Opitz typically hits sixth—that is averaging 7.16 runs per game.

“We’re poking holes in a top-five team here,” the opposing coach said.

Like Arkansas, Mississippi State also lost two key offensive cogs from recent years to the 2020 draft in infielders Justin Foscue and Jordan Westburg. And, like the Razorbacks, whatever it lacks in star power in the heart of the order it makes up for with depth and an aggressive approach.

“They’ve got good team speed, they’re aggressive on base paths,” one opposing coach said. “They’re not afraid to get after it, go first to third, make you make plays. There’s not a lot of juice in the lineup but they compete, and they refuse to strike out.”

Veteran right fielder Tanner Allen (.329/.407/.443, 6 SB) leads Mississippi State in hitting, second-year freshman infielder Kamren James (.321/.360/.538, 4 HR, 8 SB) has impressed and DH Luke Hancock (.277/.455/.538, 5 HR) is a tough out.

The Bulldogs have a good combination of speed, power and veteran hitters that puts pressure on opposing pitchers. The key to slowing down their offense may simply be to not fall behind them. Mississippi State leads the SEC with 30 stolen bases and if an opponent can take that part of its game away, it has to work that much harder to produce runs.

“If you can get up on them, you can shut down some of the stuff they want to do with the steals and stuff,” the opposing coach said. “You can take away some of the stuff they want to do offensively when you don’t have to call pitches based on whether they’re going to steal.”

The Bulldogs are averaging 7.19 runs per game, however. Slowing them down is obviously easier said than done.

What are the X-factors to watch?

Arkansas leads the SEC in fielding percentage (.984) and has one of the strongest combination of up-the-middle players in the country. Opitz is an excellent defensive catcher with a strong arm—which will help the Razorbacks curtail the Bulldogs’ running game. Shortstop Jalen Battles and Moore are a slick double-play combination and Franklin chases down balls in the outfield as well as anyone.

“They’re fielding .984 and it is beautiful,” one opposing coach said. “It is like poetry watching Battles and Moore turn double plays pregame and watching Franklin float in the outfield. They could play with two in the outfield and five infielders and they’d be all right.”

For Mississippi State, the X-factor remains the same as it has for several years now: the Bulldogs play with an incredible belief. They already have three walk-off wins in 2021 and are 4-2 when their opponent scores first. Playing at home, in front of what will likely be a boisterous crowd, the Bulldogs will be able to feed that belief.

“They’ve got energy, they’ve got juice,” one opposing coach said. “I think they know they need to have it. They’re not going to hit a lot of home runs.”

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