State of the Hogs: No Let Up

Finishing strong is the goal for the Arkansas baseball team before a trip to Alabama. Dave Van Horn doesn't want any let ups.

In baseball, the toughest pitch to hit is the let up. Well, they call it the change-up now. But in the day that I played baseball, we called it the let up. It's that nasty pitch that freshman starter Keaton McKinney mastered at an early age and has befuddled the SEC more times than not.

But a let up can be nasty for a team's momentum. That's what Dave Van Horn doesn't want to see as the Arkansas baseball team hits the stretch run in the SEC baseball series, starting with a Thursday through Saturday series against Alabama at Hoover. Van Horn thinks he may have seen a little let up in the Hogs on Sunday when they wasted a great chance to sweep Mississippi State.

The Razorbacks got solid starting pitching from Keaton McKinney, but didn't capitalize in other areas. A rare poor defensive performance combined with an offense that could not produce a timely hit. The result was a 2-1 loss to State's Bulldogs and a little lost momentum.

Van Horn, always a straight shooter, was clear that it was not one of his team's better performances. The Arkansas head coach said Sunday afternoon that State outplayed his team.

"I just think that maybe we didn't come out and play like we had been playing," Van Horn said. "You try to let the team stay loose, keep the same type of routine, but I didn't. I saw a little bit different approach maybe before the game, a little looser than normal.

"I'm OK with that if it works, but obviously that day it didn't. Some of it had to do with Mississippi State. They pitched extremely well, their relievers did a good job against us.

"But we made a couple mistakes we hadn't made in a while. It's going to happen, but I didn't quite see what I thought I wanted to see and that was just a little more want-to, I guess, a little tougher attitude.

"I know that's in there because I've seen it because we've got a tough team and they come to play most every day. I think they did Sunday, I just think when it came right down to it there was a little bit of let-up. They didn't realize it, but I think we could all see it."

There's been a lot of praise for the Hogs. They started the SEC season at 1-5, giving away a couple of games at Vanderiblt to open the slate. There was a victory over No. 1 LSU, but it all added up to a tough start in the first two SEC series.

Since then, the Hogs have been tough to handle. They have won five straight SEC series, starting with Ole Miss. They have come from behind four times against Auburn, Texas A&M and MSU.

It adds up to an 11-10 SEC record, for sixth place. Alabama is at 8-13, sixth in the SEC West. The last two SEC foes, Tennessee (7-14) and Georgia (6-14), sit sixth and seventh in the SEC East.

There is the feeling that the Hogs have turned the corner, but Van Horn knows there is not much room for error if his team hopes to make it to NCAA tournament play. He said the Hogs, with a 26-18 overall record and some ugly midweek losses, must finish strong if they have any chance.

"You've got to," Van Horn said. "I told them after the game 'we haven't done anything yet.' What have we done? We're in the middle of the pack. We're one bad weekend being right back where we were.

"Can't start patting yourself on the back. I don't think they were doing that. I think they needed to be reminded of that. We still have nine games left against teams that are behind us that want to get in front of us and it's going to be tough."

It's a strange weekend for the Hogs. With Alabama's home park under construction, the games are being played in Hoover, the site of the SEC tournament. The good news is that many on the Arkansas roster have played in the spacious park. The fences are deep and there is a lot of area in foul territory. Van Horn was asked if it was good for the younger players to get a preview of what it will play like in Hoover for the SEC tournament.

"I guess it could be," he said. "The surface is really nice It's a big ball park. Hit doubles and triples there. It's a little different atmosphere. It's big.

"Most of the guys on our team that traveled with us over the last couple years to the tournament, so they've seen it. I think the new guys will enjoy it. It's an awful big stadium. Probably doesn't have a real home crowd feel unless they have a lot of people there."

Van Horn doesn't pay attention to the streak of five straight series triumphs in SEC play. It's not like he talks about the team going for six. It's more about getting the tiebreaker for the tournament against each foe. Either way, winning a series is important.

"It's big," he said. "I don't look at it as six straight, I look at it as another series. You want to go in there and try to win a minium of two. Any time you get - you win a series against a team you get the tiebreaker over them, that's the way I look at it. I think it'd be good, obviously put it on your resume when you're trying to get to a regional."

Sophomore catcher Alex Gosser said it was a bummer to let the potential sweep get away, but thinks the team will move forward and that there's still momentum in the Arkansas dugout.

"I feel like we're a mature team," Gosser said."Winning two took a lot of pressure off us Sunday. We didn't get the win. Didn't play as well as we wanted to. But getting our first Saturday win after a Friday win, it felt really good. Just kind of took a little pressure off. I think we'll be ready this weekend. Have a good practice today, try to knock the dust off a little bit. I think we'll be fine.

"Mood of the team is just take it day by day. We're riding momentum right now and I feel like we're peaking at the right moment. We had a rough start. Some teams start hot early and slow down. I feel like we're just accelerating up into the postseason. Hopefully we can just keep that momentum going."

The Hogs hope the only let ups (or change-ups) are going to be thrown Saturday afternoon by Keaton McKinney.

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