State of the Hogs: Stretch Run

There may not have been many predicting Arkansas to play in an NCAA regional one month ago, but Dave Van Horn has his team rounding into form as the start of the second half of the SEC season arrives.

It's the mid-point of the SEC baseball season and it looks like Arkansas is in position to make a run over the last 15 games after winning the last three series in the first half of the league schedule.

Arkansas starts the second half of the SEC slate just like the first half, when they opened with teams in various No. 1 slots in the national polls, Vanderbilt and LSU. Texas A&M is currently in some No. 1 spots, or has been of late. The Hogs play three at College Station on the weekend.

That's the bad news of the second half of the SEC slate. The good news is that the surging Hogs don't have to play many contenders the rest of the way. They play host to Mississippi State and Tennessee in the second half, with road trips to Alabama and Georgia.

There are signs that the Hogs can handle that kind of a second-half schedule. Nothing is ever easy in the SEC, but the pitching is coming around and there is solid hitting and defense to give the Hogs a decent chance to make another run at an NCAA tournament berth. Head coach Dave Van Horn has not been shut out of NCAA tournament play in his previous 12 seasons at Arkansas.

The Hogs (20-16, 7-8) have the nation's hottest hitter in centerfielder Andrew Benintendi. The sophomore from Cincinnati, Ohio leads the nation with 13 homers. He hit six in six games before Kentucky pitched almost exclusively away from him in the last two games of the weekend series. Benintendi leads the Hogs with a .359 batting average. He's tops in RBI with 39.

Benintendi has some company in the hot hitting department. Tyler Spoon (.336), Bobby Wernes (.333) and Clark Eagan (.323) have made it tough for the opposition to avoid pitching to Benintendi. The UA team average is a lofty .293, fourth in the SEC.

“We've got good support around Benintendi,” Van Horn said. “Teams can't just pitch around him. Kentucky pitched him outside on Saturday and Sunday, but he went the other way. He's not chasing any bad pitchers, staying in the zone.”

The pitching was an issue for most of the season, especially the bullpen. And, the Hogs were hardpressed to find a third starter after Zach Jackson was pressed into duty as the Friday night bullpen. He's finished several games on the opening night of the SEC series, generally with success (after a few shaky first innings).

Trey Killian and Dominic Taccolini have been mostly steady in the opening two starting slots, although Taccolini lost his control and lasted only three innings on Saturday in a 16-4 loss to UK. But Keaton McKinney picked him up with a complete game on Sunday in a 7-3 victory.

Pitching coach Dave Jorn has quietly worked his staff into shape. Josh Alberius, Lance Phillips, James Teague and Jackson Lowery have the best out of the bullpen. If and when Jacob Stone returns to last year's form, the Hogs might have one of the league's better bullpens again.

It's still a strange situation with no weekend help from the left side. Kyle Pate, the only lefty on the SEC roster, did pitch twice last week in midweek. The Hogs would like to have him for a lefty situation on the weekend, but it's not clear if Pate is ready for that assignment yet. Maybe he'll get another look in midweek against Stephen F. Austin. SFA plays the Hogs at 6:35 p.m. Tuesday and 3:05 p.m. Wednesday.

“I think we've regained some confidence,” Van Horn said. “I know we might have a little run in us. We have played better. I think we leave this weekend with more confidence than we left Auburn with. We keep getting better.”

The defense has been superb, fielding at a .976 clip. That's championship caliber. Anything over .970 is great. The infield is rock solid. Most of the bad errors have come from the pitching staff. Wernes might play the best third base in the country. Michael Bernal and Brett McAfee are solid at short. Rick Nomura has turned into a reliable double play combination with both shortstops with Bernal sometimes moving to second.

The catching has been interesting, with Van Horn rotating Russ Pennell, Alex Gosser and Carson Shaddy. There were some errors early, but all have rounded into form. Pennell has thrown out nine of the 13 runners who have attempted stolen bases.

The pitching might be the key to a stretch run. Killian has gotten stronger after missing the first three weekends in his recovery from arm tendinitis. McKinney was drafted in the 28th round last summer as the top prospect in Iowa. He had not pitched much over the summer because of an injury and was slow to round into form in the fall and this spring. But both Killian and McKinney have had more velocity of late.

If they continue to get stronger, the Hogs might again have one of the better one-two starting punches in the SEC. Taccolini wasn't close to his best form this weekend, but he's been good for most of the season. That's a good weekend starting staff, potentially.

The Hogs have slowly improved their RPI. It's 80th in a couple of the various rating indexes available on line. If they can do some damage this weekend at Texas A&M, fourth, they should make another jump.

For sure, things don't look as bad as they did one month ago when they opened with a 1-5 start in SEC play and were having a tough time in midweek games, too. It looks like Van Horn is working his magic again. It's clear that he can coach and that he's getting his team into typical form. There may not be a lot of teams that won't to face them going down the stretch.

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