DJ Baxendale had a simple explanation when asked about the importance of the first game in the Ole Miss series Thursday night.
It reminded of what my uncle Bill, a golf professional and my mentor as a teenager, told me about why you should birdie the first hole; if you don't birdie No. 1, you can't birdie all 18 and that should be the goal.
Baxendale said, "You want to win that first game because if you don't, you can't sweep the series."
The Hogs may need a sweep to win the SEC West. Arkansas is tied for the lead at 13-14 with Auburn, Alabama and Mississippi State. Ole Miss is one game back at 12-15. LSU is at 11-16.
Technically, all are still in the running for one of the eight berths in next week's SEC tournament. As SEC West champ, Arkansas could also play host to an NCAA regional. Currently, the Hogs are No. 14 in the RPI, a big tool used by the NCAA selection committee.
I could try to lay out all possible scenarios with the SEC matchups this weekend, but I'm going to give you the biggest matchup, Baxendale against Ole Miss lefty starter Matt Krouse.
The numbers suggest the Hogs have the advantage. Baxendale, superb the last month since rehabbing a popped blister on his throwing hand, enters with an 8-1 record and a 1.57 ERA. Crouse is 6-4 with a 3.56 ERA. Their numbers in SEC games tilt to Baxendale, too. The Arkansas ace is 4-1 in conference games with a 2.32 ERA. Crouse is 2-4 -- with four straight losses -- and a 4.83 ERA in SEC games.
It took some digging on the SEC digital website to find another set of numbers that could bode well for the Hogs in the opener. The Hogs are batting just .226 against righthanders in SEC play, but they are hitting .315 against SEC lefties.
Crouse can pitch. His strikeout to walk ratio is excellent. But he's not having the year some of the SEC pitchers that Baxendale has won against this season.
Baxendale was the closer when the Hogs beat Vanderbilt ace Sonny Gray, 2-1. Baxendale came on in the eighth, the Hogs got to Gray for two runs in the bottom of the inning and that was the Hogs' only victory of the weekend.
Baxendale got a no decision in the Friday night shutout victory over LSU. He pitched five scoreless innings but left after throwing two pitches in the sixth when the blister popped. The Hogs won it with single runs in the sixth and seventh.
The sophomore righthander tried but couldn't go the next two weekends before giving up just one run in seven innings to get the Friday night victory at Georgia.
Then Baxendale outdueled Florida ace Hudson Randall to get the ball rolling two weekends ago. The Hogs won, 4-3, on Thursday night with Baxendale allowing just two earned runs in a complete-game victory. The Hogs won that series to jump 12 spots in the RPI.
Baxendale had the right stuff again last weekend against South Carolina ace Michael Roth at Columbia. He went six innings, allowing just one run in a 6-2 UA triumph. Roth (10-2) might win SEC pitcher of the year.
Unless Baxendale does. That isn't his focus right now. He just wants to get his team off on the right foot Thursday night.
"I love these matchups, the first game of the series," Baxendale said. "That first game is so important. The best pitchers are going so you know there might not be but one or two runs scored and so you know every pitch is important. That's a lot of fun. You know your team needs that first game.
"You can't help but look at the numbers guys like Gray, Hudson or Roth are posting. You want to go against those guys."
Baxendale thinks he may have gotten a slight advantage with the time off for the blister. Everyone else was wearing out their pitching shoulder and arm while he sat in the dugout gnashing his teeth. He said, "My arm and shoulder might be fresher."
UA catcher James McCann said, "Anytime you put a competitor on the bench, it upsets them. I think it makes you hungry and appreciate what was taken from you. You get back out there, you give it a little more. I think it did that for DJ.
"He's been good all year, but his command got better in the second half of the season. He went more on top with his motion and it gave him more movement on his breaking pitches. He's working both sides of the plate.
"Guys like Gray, Roth and Alex Meyer (at Kentucky) might light up the radar gun a little more, but no one is pitching any better than DJ right now.
"When someone gets on base with DJ, I see a change in his eyes. He bears down and he gets really good."
Baxendale admits a change in arm slots that he tried for the first time against LSU has been a boost, too.
"That was the first time I came more over the top," he said. "That gave me slightly more velocity and it helped my curve ball. That gave me two breaking pitches and that's always good.
"When you are flatter with the arm slot I might have had more movement on my fast ball, but my breaking balls were flat. That's changed now and it's helped."
Baxendale is looking forward to the weekend, but it has nothing to do with the four-way tie in the SEC West. It's just another chance to play the game.
"I'll be honest, I don't focus on the standings," he said. "I just want to go out there and battle, compete and play. We do know there is a lot at stake and the West title is on the line. But you don't know what you need. You don't know if two is enough or it will take a sweep. I think if you just focus on winning every game you can it will work out."
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