Arkansas is desperate for help in the Ratings Percentage Index. The Razorbacks sit a paltry No. 112. Help is on the way in the form of a brutal schedule down the stretch. Better to embrace it and see the opportunity, according to head coach Dave Van Horn.
After losing four straight SEC games, the Hogs play host to the nation's top RPI team, the Florida Gators. The series begins at 8 p.m. Thursday at Baum Stadium. The game is set for ESPN.
"It's a big-time RPI series," Van Horn said Wednesday. "Florida is the preseason No. 1 and they are as good as advertised."
The rest of the season, Van Horn said almost "everyone we play is a top 30 RPI team." So the Hogs still have a chance to improve their RPI to gain notice in a bid to keep alive a streak of 14 straight trips to the NCAA tournament.
"I told the team you can either run from it or embrace it," Van Horn said. "If we do (well), the RPI will be where we need it to be. Or, we get what we deserve."
The Hogs will try to match the talent-rich Gators with a return to their normal weekend rotation after an experiment backfired in a three-game sweep at Ole Miss last weekend.
Dominic Taccolini and Keaton McKinney had been weekend starters all season, but pitched out of the bullpen last weekend. Taccolini will start on Thursday night, McKinney on Friday. Zach Jackson also started last weekend after pitching out of the bullpen all season. He'll go back to the bullpen.
Asked why he changed the rotation back, Van Horn said, "What we did last weekend didn't work. Dominic has a lot of experience. We gave him a chance to figure it out in the bullpen. He did alright except for a couple of mistakes."
Van Horn said Jackson would be ready in the bullpen to open the series. He said the Saturday finale would remain undetermined.
As far as the bullpen, Van Horn said, "Everyone is available."
That could mean Blaine Knight pitches out of the bullpen, too. He's done better there than as a starter, his position to start the season.
"He got off to a good start, then kind of reverted back," Van Horn said. "He had some freshmanitis. He's been better and he's making a comeback."
Florida (30-5, 8-4) is expected to start lefty A.J. Puk on Thursday after skipping a start on Sunday because of stiffness in his back. Puck blanked the Hogs, 10-0, in the SEC tournament, a game stopped after seven innings because of the tournament's run rule.
"We'll get Puk on 10 days rest," Van Horn said. "He's pretty electric."
Puk is 1-2 with a 3.38 ERA in seven starts. He's got 36 strikeouts in 29 innings. The Gators also feature top prospect Logan Shore as the Friday night starter. Shore is 6-0 with a 2.66 ERA with 53 strikeouts in 47 innings.
Jackson knows them well. They played together last summer on USA Baseball's tour, along with Gator sluggers J.J. Swarz and Buddy Reed. The most feared Gator might be Peter Alonso with a .347 batting average and seven homers.
The Hogs (21-12, 4-8) have played from behind much of the last two weekends and often over the last month as far as SEC play.
"It would be great to get a lead," Van Horn said. "It seems like five or six games since we've had a lead. We have been behind a lot.
"So it's not just on our pitching. We need to score early. The pitchers we've faced have made big pitches early in the game when we've had runners on base."
Playing from behind has forced Van Horn to move away from bunts, hit and runs and steals.
"They calling it stealing because it's a gamble," he said. "You are behind, you don't want to give up outs. So we have had to get away from some things.
"What has happened is that we haven't gotten some breaks and the other team has made some plays. The Ole Miss shortstop made a big play in a critical situation last weekend. We had the something similar happen in the Missouri series. That's baseball. Maybe some things will begin to fall our way."
Van Horn did not call it a must-win weekend.
"We don't want to put pressure on our guys," he said. "We want to avid that. We want them to go play.
"We've got some guys who have not been in situations at this level before. They are getting their feet wet at this level. They may already be putting too much pressure on themselves."