Arkansas and South Carolina – both battling for championships in their respective divisions – will meet this weekend in Columbia for a key three-game set.
The Friday night opener – televised by ESPNU at 7 p.m. – features a prime-time pitching match-up with the No. 16 Razorbacks (32-15, 12-12) and star hurler DJ Baxendale (7-1, 1.58) facing the No. 4 Gamecocks (39-10, 18-6) and ace Michael Roth (10-1, 1.23).
South Carolina is the defending national champion.
"This is pretty much the same group in the field as they only lost one or two players," Arkansas head coach Dave Van Horn said. "They have most everybody back. They have a new ace (Roth) – who is 10-1 and second or third in the country in wins and his ERA, well there is not much to it…He just can really pitch."
The Razorbacks come in with a wealth of confidence after taking two of three from then No. 4 Florida last weekend in Fayetteville.
Arkansas come into the series – which also has games Saturday at 3:30 (Fox Sports South) and Sunday at 12:30 p.m. (Cox Sports) –tied with Alabama (30-20, 12-12) atop a bunched-up SEC West race that has five teams within a 1 ½ of the lead.
Mississippi State (31-18, 12-13) is now in third after a 7-6 Thursday night win at Ole Miss while Auburn (26-23, 11-13) and the Rebels (27-22, 11-14) still have a shot with two weeks left in the regular season.
Auburn and Alabama play this weekend so there could be some separation or just more confusion.
"Nothing surprises me anymore when it comes to baseball," Van Horn said. "I think we are all about the same. It seems to me like the West was really effected by the draft and lost a lot of different players."
While Vanderbilt (41-6, 19-5) leads the SEC East, South Carolina is just a game back and tied in second with Florida (37-12, 18-6), who lost two of three at Arkansas last weekend.
The defending national champs are led at the plate by Christian Walker, who is hitting .372 with nine homers and 50 RBIs.
The Razorbacks are led by true freshman Dominic Ficociello (.346, 4 HRs and a team-leading 43 RBIs).
The Gamecocks are 20-3 at home this season, including a pair of wins this week over Presbyterian (6-1) on Tuesday and Charleston Southern (11-1) on Wednesday.
"South Carolina has a beautiful ballpark," Van Horn said. It is probably the newest baseball park in the league or at least one of them. It's a fun place to play, but not easy to win there. It is probably like teams coming in here to Baum Stadium when the weather breaks in the second half of the season and there are a lot of fans."
Van Horn knows his team faces a big challenge with Roth on the mound.
"He was a guy last year that they worked out of the bullpen until they got to Omaha, where he came in and closed a game," Van Horn said. "They ended up starting him there and I think he may have thrown a shutout and a complete game and he hasn't looked back since then. He has a great change-up and a lot of movement.
"He doesn't give up very many hits," Van Horn added. "He doesn't strike out a ton of hitters, but he gets easy outs or ground balls and choppers. You just don't center up his pitches too good. You don't hit him very hard."
Van Horn feels like Arkansas is still in the hunt to host an NCAA Regional.
"I think if we won the West, we would," Van Horn said. "If we win the West, that means we would have won the last couple of weeks – probably three or four games and four would probably give us a good shot. Then our RPI is going to get better with the people you are playing. We would be in the (SEC) Tournament and if we win a couple of games there, we'd have a good shot."
But Van Horn knows the Razorbacks have to seize the moment and can't let games get away from them as they did after leading in the final two games at Georgia and the finale against Florida while going for the sweep.
"When we have a chance to win, we need to win," Van Horn said. "We have let three games slip from us the previous three weeks really. We have had a chance to close out games and we didn't. We have just got to do what we've got to do."