Hogs head to Starkville

Arkansas has won three of four SEC games to fight back to 3-3, but will face a tough Mississippi State team on the road Friday night to open a three-game series.

Arkansas and Mississippi State are hitting exactly the same, .268. The Razorbacks pitch slightly better with a 2.19 team ERA, against 2.85 for State. The Bulldogs play better defense, .984 to .969 in fielding percentage.

It would be accurate to say this will be another battle of well-matched SEC West baseball clubs when the Bulldogs host the season's third conference series beginning at 6:30 p.m. Friday night at Starkville. The Saturday start is set for 2 p.m., with a 1:30 start Sunday.

Arkansas will go with their same SEC rotation – Jalen Beeks, Trey Killian and Chris Oliver. Killian and Oliver were lights out last weekend as the Hogs won the Alabama series, 2-1. Oliver was lifted after a rain delay, perhaps the deciding factor in Alabama's 17-9 victory in the opener.

Arkansas coach Dave Van Horn toyed with the idea of moving Killian to the Friday night spot after Beeks has had two straight less than great outings after starting the year with outstanding command and breaking ball.

"It doesn't really matter, though, because Trey's going to pitch sometime," Van Horn said. "Doesn't matter if it's Friday or Saturday. We'll keep it the same and just go try to win a tough SEC series.

"State is outstanding at home and we know it's going to be a big crowd with a great atmosphere. The key is to get ahead and keep them quiet. But you know they are going to be on you and be loud. You just have to go play and make it fun."

Mississippi State is 15-5 at home. Arkansas is 2-5 on the road, but the Hogs have won three of their last four SEC games. Their only losses were a pair of one-run decisions to open SEC play at Florida.

The Hogs have thrown four shutouts this season, three in their last four games, including Sunday against Alabama, 1-0. Van Horn said he'd just as soon win a few the other way.

"I like shutouts," he said after the Hogs posted a 3-0 win Wednesday night against Mississippi Valley State. "But I'd rather win them 10-2."

That wasn't going to happen Wednesday night. There was a strong wind blowing in at Dickey-Stephens Park, with spacious dimensions in the outfield.

The Hogs manufactured all of their runs without much hitting. They pulled a double steal for their first run, with Tyler Spoon delaying his move at first perfectly. Joe Serrano scored. Two bunts played prominently in a two-run rally later in the game.

"Our bunting has been pretty good," Van Horn said. "We put a lot of work into our bunting. We weren't a very good bunting team two years ago, but we improved last year and it has been good this year. You have to figure out how to manufacture runs with the bats and balls that we are using today."

The Hogs set up a pitching machine behind the batting cage for bunt practice during every batting practice session. Hitters take their swings in the cage, then move to the bunt station for more work. The conditions Wednesday night in North Little Rock -- brisk wind and a light rain -- called for other tactics besides bunting, too.

"We knew you had to hit it on the ground in this one," Joe Serrano said. "We crushed some in batting practice and they didn't go anywhere."

No one has gone anywhere so far in the SEC standings. State is tied with Ole Miss and Auburn at 4-2. Arkansas is one of eight teams at 3-3.

The Bulldogs went deep in the College World Series last year after getting hot late in the year, just after the Hogs won a series in Fayetteville. They were ranked high in preseason, but underachieved mainly on the mound. They've reshuffled their weekend rotation since SEC play began and the Bulldogs might be hitting their stride.

State will probably go with third-year sophomore righthander Preston Brown (3-0, 1.12) Friday, fourth-year junior lefty Ross Mitchell (4-1, 1.66) Saturday and junior righty Trevor Fitts (2-1, 3.13) Sunday.

Brown began the year as a midweek starter. He moved into the rotation on Friday last week. Brown is a sinker ball man, allowing very few balls in the air.

Mitchell came out of the bullpen into the Saturday starting position to open SEC play. His ERA in his two SEC starts is 1.65.

Fitts has been outstanding, aside from one shaky road nonconference outing. In his two SEC starts he has given up 2 runs in 11 innings for an ERA of 1.64.

The Bulldogs are led at the plate by Zack Randolph (.364) and Brett Pirtle (.353). First baseman Wes Rea, clutch in State's drive to the CWS last year, has struggled. He's been limited by injury and has hit only .211 in 19 at bats.

The Hogs are likely without backup catcher Blake Baxendale for the early part of the weekend. He was hit with a bat on the left arm in Tuesday's game.

"There's a nasty bruise," Van Horn said. "The doctors think he's fine, but said he needs to rest it for three or four days. We'll see how it goes."

Shortstop Brett McAfee did not make the trip, out with a back injury. He's missed the first two SEC series. Michael Bernal has filled in with outstanding play at shortstop.

Serrano said the Hogs are excited about the road trip.

"It's a big weekend, they all are in the SEC," Serrano said Wednesday night. "We know they are very good. We look forward to the challenge."

Brian Anderson said, "It's still early in the season and there is a lot of SEC baseball to play, but this is a big weekend. They were a College World Series team last year and they were picked high. We know it's an important series.

"I think you can pull up the stats and try to figure things out, but really at this point, they don't mean a lot. We just know it's going to be a hard-fought series and both teams are good."

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