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Off The Bat: Arkansas Leaves No Doubt, C-USA Play Opens

Patrick Wicklander Andyaltenburgergetty
(Photo by Andy Altenburger/Getty Images)

Arkansas Sweeps Away Any Doubt

I was wrong about Arkansas.

I was wrong in the preseason when we ranked the Razorbacks No. 14 and I worried about the rotation and how they would replace All-American slugger Heston Kjerstad. I was wrong last week when I said Mississippi State had the edge on Arkansas thanks to its homefield advantage and starting rotation. About the only thing I’ve gotten right on Arkansas so far this season was saying the Razorbacks are the most exciting team in the country.

After watching Arkansas sweep Mississippi State on the road in a showdown between the top two teams in last week’s Baseball America Top 25, I’ll stand by that assessment, as well as the decision to keep the Razorbacks No. 1 a week ago even in the wake of a three-game skid. The Razorbacks aren’t just the most exciting team in the nation, they’re also having the best season.

Both of those things were reinforced this weekend in Starkville. No. 1 Arkansas (19-3, 5-1) started the series Friday with three first-inning home runs and never looked back. The Razorbacks won the opener, 8-2, stormed back from an early deficit for an 11-5 victory Saturday and completed the sweep Sunday with a 6-4 victory. It was a comprehensive weekend for Arkansas.

Both Arkansas coach Dave Van Horn and Mississippi State coach Chris Lemonis came to similar conclusions after the weekend.

“We knew coming in all hype was about their pitching staff,” Van Horn said. “We thought we were up to the challenge. You never know how it’s going to go. We feel like our pitchers did a better job than theirs and we played better defense. Our offenses are probably similar, we hit a few more home runs right now. Our pitching staff outdid them.”

“We got manhandled by a good team,” Lemonis said. “In all phases of the game, we got beat and that includes coaching. We got beat in every phase. We’ve got a good team, but we just didn’t show up and be ready to play this weekend.”

Arkansas came ready to play. Mississippi State came into the weekend with the best pitching staff statistically in the country. All the Razorbacks did to that staff was score 25 runs on 30 hits, including nine home runs, and 15 walks.

DH Matt Goodheart homered in all three games and has now homered in four straight. Center fielder Christian Franklin homered three times in the first two games. Up and down the lineup, the Razorbacks got solid production throughout the series.

While Arkansas may not have a superstar like Kjerstad to anchor the lineup, it has a deep lineup that can strike quickly. The Razorbacks scored three runs or more in an inning five times this weekend. That’s thanks in no small part to the ability of the whole lineup to drive the ball out of the park and Arkansas’ 40 home runs this season rank second in the nation. Hitting coach Nate Thompson has built another premium offense in Fayetteville.

Arkansas’ pitching staff stepped up as well. Van Horn and pitching coach Matt Hobbs made a change in the rotation, inserting veteran lefthander Patrick Wicklander to the rotation as Friday starter in place of righthander Peyton Pallette, a second-year freshman, who had struggled the last couple weeks. Wicklander and Pallette wound up combining for a strong effort Friday, with Wicklander throwing five innings and Pallette taking the next four.

Righthander Zebulon Vermillion and lefthander Lael Lockhart both only went 3.1 innings Saturday and Sunday, leaving a lot of innings for the Arkansas bullpen to cover. But the Razorbacks’ bullpen flexed its depth and power to hold the Bulldogs to four runs in 16.1 innings on the weekend.

Arkansas also this weekend played the same brand of premium defense it has all season. The Razorbacks are still fielding .984, the best mark in the SEC. They turned five double plays in the series and Franklin flew around the outfield making remarkable catches. On a weekend when Mississippi State committed four errors and dropped a couple costly fly balls, the difference was stark.

The Razorbacks are not a conventionally built national championship contender. They are not built around aces in their rotation. They don’t have a top-10 draft prospect anchoring their lineup. What they have is elite depth on the mound and in the lineup, a stout defense, some star power sprinkled in throughout the roster and an unfailing belief that they will win.

“This team’s confident,” Van Horn said. “Even if they lost today or had won only one of three games, they’d be a confident bunch. They don’t get too high or too low.”

With that mentality combined with the depth and talent that Arkansas has, there’s no ceiling for this team. There are eight difficult weeks left on the schedule and tough series to come—a trip to No. 3 Mississippi (20-4, 6-0) looms in two weeks—but nothing is going to be too much for the Razorbacks. If it plays to its potential, Arkansas has what it takes to win its first national championship in program history.

Exciting First Weekend For Conference USA

Conference USA opened its conference slate and if the first weekend of play is any indication, the league is in for an exciting season. The weekend was highlighted by Louisiana Tech’s thrilling series win at Southern Mississippi and that result was just one of a few significant ones around the league.

Louisiana Tech established itself as the CUSA favorite and an early dark horse in the hosting race. The Bulldogs came into a showdown in Hattiesburg on a six-game winning streak that included wins against Arkansas and Mississippi and a sweep at Tulane. Facing Southern Miss, which has won the regular season or conference tournament title in seven of the last 10 CUSA seasons, on opening weekend of conference play gave it a chance to test itself against the league’s best.

Louisiana Tech (17-6, 3-1) didn’t miss its opportunity. It won the first two games of the series, 3-2, on Friday night and 4-0 in Game 1 of a doubleheader Saturday. Southern Miss won the nightcap, 14-6, but Louisiana Tech bounced back Sunday for an 8-7 victory to secure a huge road series win. The victory also propelled the Bulldogs into the Top 25 at No. 23, their first appearance in the Top 25 since May 18, 1987.

The series win leaves no doubt that the Bulldogs have what it takes to win a conference title, something they haven’t done since 1987 as a member of the Southland Conference. CUSA is rating well early in RPI—it ranks sixth in conference RPI—and that, combined with wins against Arkansas and Ole Miss, bodes especially well for Louisiana Tech. A strong record in conference play figures to keep it in the hosting race, which would mean even more for the Bulldogs. They this season reopened J.C. Love Field after a devastating tornado in 2019 ripped through Ruston, La., damaging the stadium.

Don’t sleep on Texas-San Antonio. The Roadrunners (11-8, 3-1) continued a strong start to the season with a series win at Rice. They outscored the Owls, 39-18, in four games, including a 16-4, run-rule shortened victory Friday.

Led by fifth-year senior Griffin Paxton (.389/.500/.639, 4 HR), UTSA is averaging 8.58 runs per game. All eight of UTSA’s losses this season have come by three runs or less and five of them are against Baylor, Louisiana State and Texas Christian.

UTSA hasn’t made the NCAA Tournament since 2013, when it was a member of the Western Athletic Conference, but now in its second season under coach Patrick Hallmark looks like it will get in the mix in the West Division race with Louisiana Tech and Southern Miss.  

Old Dominion stays hot. The Monarchs won their series against Florida International and broke out the bats in a big way, scoring 45 runs in four games. ODU (17-5, 3-1) is off to a strong start to the season and has shown it has plenty of offense, averaging 8.36 runs per game.

The East Division favorite remains Florida Atlantic (14-9, 4-0) and Charlotte (14-9, 3-1) is sure to also be in the mix. But ODU has staying power and has what it takes to both compete for the division title and its first NCAA Tournament bid since 2014.

Arkansas Ncstate Superregionals

Fayetteville Super Regional: Anonymous Coaches Break Down Arkansas, NC State

Highlighting the strengths and weaknesses of Arkansas and NC State ahead of their super regional matchup.

Eight for Omaha

Arkansas, Louisville, Mississippi, Mississippi State, Notre Dame, Texas Tech, UCLA, Vanderbilt

This is a tricky week to try to pick a College World Series field. Florida and Mississippi State, two teams that last week were ranked in the top five, got swept. East Carolina, a team solidly in the top 10, didn’t look great while going 1-2 against North Carolina and Elon. Georgia Tech and Texas won a series but did so while fighting through familiar flaws. South Carolina and Tennessee looked excellent and are clear contenders, but how many SEC teams can I reasonably jam into this field? So, in the end, UCLA replaces Florida. Something about the Gators just isn’t right at the moment. I still really believe in the talent, but they’re going to have to show a little bit more consistency to get to Omaha. UCLA has confounded me all season long—its series losses against Cal Poly and San Francisco don’t make any more sense today than they did at the time—but it now has two strong Pac-12 series wins against Arizona and Southern California. The Pac-12 looks like it has some real depth this year. At least one team from that conference is going to Omaha. So, I’ll ride with the one that seems to be playing the best right now.

Weekend Standouts

Jack Leiter, RHP, Vanderbilt: Leiter on Friday against Missouri did his best Johnny Vander Meer impression for the Commodores. After throwing a no-hitter last week against South Carolina, Leiter was again unhittable. He threw seven hitless innings, striking out 10 batters and walking two in an 11-3 victory. Leiter, a second-year freshman, is 6-0, 0.25 with 59 strikeouts and 13 walks in 36 innings. He has held opponents to just seven hits.

Northwestern: The Wildcats (9-5) won a series at in-state rival Illinois and bashed 15 home runs in three games along the way. Northwestern hit nine home runs in a 16-14 victory Saturday and on Sunday added five more in a 12-6, series-clinching victory. Infielders Anthony Calarco and Shawn Goosenberg both hit three home runs in the series, helping to power the Wildcats to fourth in the Big Ten standings.

Oregon State: Led by ace Kevin Abel, the Beavers on Friday threw a combined no-hitter in a 3-0 victory at Washington. Abel started the game with six hitless innings before turning the game over to the bullpen. Relievers Joey Mundt, Chase Watkins and Jake Mulholland all threw an inning each to complete the no-hitter, which was Oregon State’s fifth since 2007.

UC San Diego: The Tritons, who are in their first season as a Division I team, won their first Big West series, beating perennial contender Cal Poly three times on the road. UCSD (6-10, 3-1) was led by second baseman Jackson Kritsch, who went 6-for-16 on the weekend, and got a solid performance from its pitching staff, which held the Mustangs’ potent offense to 18 runs in four games.

Youngstown State: The Penguins won a series against Wright State, which had come into the weekend 12-0 this season in Horizon League play. Youngstown State had not won a series against Wright State since 2015. The Penguins (11-12, 6-6) on Sunday erased a six-run deficit in a wild, 11-10 victory.

Looking Ahead

Notre Dame at Pittsburgh has serious implications in the ACC and hosting race. That’s a 100% true sentence that exactly no one saw coming even a month ago. But Notre Dame (11-4, 10-4) and Pitt (12-8, 8-7) are both top-20 teams and are contending for their respective ACC divisions. This weekend’s winner is going to come out with another quality series win on its resume and a couple more important conference wins.

American Athletic Conference play begins. The American this weekend becomes the last major conference to begin its league slate. It’s been a tough start to the season for the conference. East Carolina (17-5) has climbed into the top 10 and Central Florida scored a series win at then-No. 1 Mississippi, but only three teams—ECU, Houston (12-11) and Wichita State (12-8)—have winning records, which does not bode well for the conference’s NCAA Tournament hopes. ECU appears to be head and shoulders above the rest of the conference, but perhaps with the start of conference play, another team can reset and emerge as a contender.

Florida returns home looking to bounce back against Ole Miss. A week ago, this series looked to be a top-five showdown. But with the Gators coming off a sweep at South Carolina, a bit of the shine has come off the weekend. Instead, Florida (16-8. 3-3) returns to Gainesville with something to prove against Ole Miss (20-4, 6-0). The Rebels, meanwhile, are off to their best start in SEC play in more than 50 years. At minimum, the matchups on the mound between Florida’s Tommy Mace, Jack Leftwich and Hunter Barco and Ole Miss’ Gunnar Hoglund, Doug Nikhazy and Derek Diamond are worth the price of admission.

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