Chris Murray: New Start, Tough Test for Hogs in SEC Opener

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The season is just a few weeks old, and already league play is beginning in the Southeastern Conference, with the Arkansas Razorbacks featured in the marquee pairing.

Arkansas (13-5, ranked no. 15 by USA Today) starts the SEC opener slated tonight by hosting Ole Miss at Baum Stadium, where the Razorbacks have won 13 of 14 games. That includes the Hogs’ last six games. Since returning from a disappointing 0-4 trip to Arizona, Arkansas has taken care of inferior competition, including scoring 33 runs in two wins over Alabama A&M.

The Rebels, ranked no. 8, enter the weekend with the best record in the SEC at 18-1. Ole Miss opened the season with a sweep of TCU, and its lone loss came to Memphis. Catcher Stuart Turner leads the SEC with a .462 batting average, and has also driven in 28 runs. The Rebels boast an impressive rotation, including Bobby Wahl, a preseason all-American who is 4-0 with a 1.99 ERA. Wahl is expected to start tonight.

Trey Killian gets the honor of making his first SEC start a Friday-nighter against a highly ranked opponent. The hard-throwing freshman from Mountain Home, has been lights-out for the Hogs. Killian tossed seven no-hit innings against San Diego State last weekend, and has obviously earned confidence of Dave Van Horn.

In a bit of a surprise, Randall Fant gets the Saturday start, and Ryne Stanek is bumped to Sunday. Fant has been sharp in limited work this season, while Stanek – a potential first-round draft pick – has underwhelmed at times. Arkansas coaches have been careful with all starting pitchers, limiting their pitch counts and sticking to it. With SEC play beginning, perhaps Van Horn will be more willing to let the starters stretch out. Then again, Van Horn has earned his reputation for having a quick hook.

And perhaps the Razorback lineup is ready to break out, just in time for SEC play. Redshirt freshman outfielder Tyler Spoon, who leads the Hogs with a .388 average, 3 home runs and 22 RBIs, is not likely to see as many fastballs as he has seen in non-conference. Third baseman Brian Anderson had six hits in the two midweek games, and Dominic Ficociello returned to the lineup and drove in three runs on Tuesday. Arkansas needs more slugging from Anderson, and Ficociello’s presence in the lineup this weekend. An educated guess, but I’m thinking the Hogs are able to flip the switch for SEC action, and take two of three this weekend.

Tonight’s game is set for a 6:35 start, with a 2:05 start on Saturday and 1:05 on Sunday.

Arkansas State and Arkansas-Little Rock switch their rivalry to the baseball diamond, as the two teams play a three-game set at Gary Hogan Field in Little Rock to begin the Sun Belt Conference schedule. Both teams have been inconsistent in the early going, with the Red Wolves out to an 11-6 record and the Trojans 10-7. ASU took all six games from UALR in 2012. The teams play at 6 tonight, Saturday at 4 and Sunday at 1.

Southern Arkansas has jumped out to the front of the pack in the Great American Conference with a 10-2 record. The Muleriders are 1.5 games up on second-place Arkansas Tech, which is 7-2. Henderson State is percentage points behind Tech at 8-4. SAU hosts Harding this weekend, while Tech travels to UA-Monticello and Henderson State hosts Southwestern Oklahoma State. Tech and SAU are scheduled for a potentially huge series next weekend in Russellville.

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