Van Horn: Wide Open Race

Dave Van Horn knows the Hogs have to make some hay while they are home to start the second half of the SEC schedule beginning Friday night against Vanderbilt. This story is free courtesy of Northwest Arkansas Honda Dealers. Click on the banner for more details.

The first half of the SEC baseball season didn't produce any separation, leading Dave Van Horn to predict that there could be as many as "10 or 11" teams from the conference to make the NCAA tournament.

Van Horn thinks it's as good as he's seen in his 12 seasons as Arkansas head coach. He's been around long enough to know if the Hogs want to be in that 10 or 11, they need to take care of business the next two weekends with Vanderbilt and Auburn coming to town.

Game time Friday night is 6:35 p.m. Saturday's first pitch is scheduled for 6:05 p.m. The Sunday game will be at noon for an ESPN broadcast.

The Hogs, like Vandy, finished the first half of the SEC campaign with a 7-8 mark, but they are still close to the leaders. That's unlike last year when Vandy rolled to a 26-3 SEC record for the league championship. It's still wide open now.

"I think so," Van Horn said Thursday morning as he previewed the Vanderbilt series. "Last year Vandy ran away with LSU, with a pretty good team, chasing. What Vandy did may never be matched."

Alabama (10-5) is the leader in the SEC standings. Florida and Ole Miss (9-6) are next. Van Horn knows the Hogs have a shot with three of five series at home in the second half of the league slate.

"I think there are a lot of coaches in the league that think, you stay around .500 in the second half and make a run, you can get to the tournament. It's because the pitching is so good. It's as close as I've seen it, because of the pitching. There are a lot of teams that are running out a Friday night guy on Saturday."

There's little doubt that Van Horn knows the next two weekends are big.

"We play pretty well at home," Van Horn said. "We can take some pressure off if we do well in these two series. At the minimum, we need to go 4-2. It would be nice to go 6-0 and leave here a little over .500. That would be good."

Van Horn thinks the offense is taking hold. He likes what he's seen from freshman Blake Baxendale in the designated hitter role. Baxendale, coming off a hand bruise, exploded with a grand slam and a double against LSU on Sunday and then a three RBI game Tuesday. He's probably solidly on Van Horn's lineup card in the DH slot.

"He's earned it," Van Horn said. "He had the big game at LSU and another RBI day in midweek. He's got confidence. He earned that spot.

"The last couple of games definitely have helped his confidence. He's battled injuries and issues, but he's gotten better the more at bats he's gotten."

Baxendale missed his freshman season last year with Tommy John surgery, then had two wrecks last fall to miss time. One of them was when a truck knocked him off his scooter. He sustained a hand bruise last week in a catcher's interference play.

The Hogs are still hoping to get shortstop Brett McAfee back this year, but it won't be this weekend. The junior is out with a lower back injury.

"I don't know when he'll be back," Van Horn said. "He's better, but with a lower back, you might be better but you go out there and do some baseball movements, run, throw and twist that lower half, that's the problem. We just want to make sure and maybe we get him back at some point."

Van Horn likes the progress Eric Fisher has made at the plate. He hit three home runs at LSU.

"He's bouncing around good," Van Horn said of the lefty first baseman. "He looks good in batting practice. You see a lot of confidence right now. It's good to see. We need him, a lefthanded bat in the middle of the order."

Vanderbilt is one of the SEC's better hitting clubs with four regulars hitting over .320.

"They have some major league talent," Van Horn said. "They have some holdovers from that team last year and they are very, very talented. They present a big challenge."

Dansby Swanson (.364), Bryan Reynolds (.338), Xavier Turner (.331) and Vince Conde (.320) lead the Commodores at the plate. Tyler Beede (3.23, 5-4), Jared Miller (2.59, 6-1) and Tyler Ferguson (2.88, 5-2) have been weekend starters.

Vanderbilt hasn't pitched as well in SEC games, with just a 4.03 team ERA in conference games. The Commodores are last in the league in defense, with a fielding percentage of .952 on 29 errors in 15 league games.

The Hogs have improved defensively, fielding at .972 in league games. That defense, combined with a team ERA of 3.05 in SEC games, is the UA strength.

Center fielder Tyler Spoon has made some spectacular plays on defense. Van Horn was asked to compare Spoon with some of the fine recent UA center fielders.

"He's definitely one of our better ones," Van Horn said, noting the Hogs have had a good run with the likes of Jacob Morris, Brett Eibner and Craig Gentry during his time.

"It's hard to rank them. Morris had big-time major league ability on defense. Gentry is in the big leagues and Eibner might be there soon. Tyler may not run as well as some of those, but he definitely has the same instincts of all of them. He does a great job of getting a jump, reading the ball off the bat.

"Our defense has been huge. We are better than last year."

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