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State of the Hogs:
When Arkansas completed its three-game sweep of national power LSU last weekend in Baton Rouge, La., many thought it sent an important message around the college baseball world. The simple translation: Dave Van Horn's young team had arrived and would be a contender this season in the powerful SEC West.
Yes, the Hogs could be a force in college baseball's toughest division, but they have work to do before that's a fact. One weekend does not make a season.
Van Horn, the Hogs' second year coach, knows that all too well. He remembers the late-season swoon that took his team to the back of the pack last year after a promising start. The Hogs hope to avoid that and think they will with a little more depth and a team that should continue to improve.
"I don't think we have peaked," Van Horn said. "We ran out of gas last year. I thought this team would keep getting better every week because of the amount of youth in the lineup. That has proven to be true. Every week it seems we make improvement in a new area."
Just because the Hogs won at LSU doesn't guarantee a series sweep this weekend at Vanderbilt. The Commodores, 18-1 at home this year, are extremely talented on the mound. For sure, the Hogs won't hold any edge in talent this weekend. They will have to scrap and find a way to win, just like they have the last three weekends when they have outplayed South Carolina, Alabama and LSU.
"The LSU series was real important as far as perception of our program for our fans, especially the local fans," Van Horn said. "But the fact of the matter is that we don't have the most talented players in the league. If you look at us on paper, we don't really match up with the talent they have at LSU, South Carolina and Florida.
"I've been told through the (coaching) grapevine that the (scouting) report about us to the other teams is that we are not real talented but you better play well against them or they will beat you. I take that as a complement for our players and coaches. They are playing hard and they will scrap.
"We may not have anyone on our team who ends up as a first-team, All-SEC player this year. We may have some who make a freshman All-America team, but we are still pretty much a blue-collar team."
These Hogs are still far below the talent level that Van Horn left behind at Nebraska. He doesn't have the flyers at the top of his lineup or the bombers in the middle of the lineup that took the Cornhuskers to the College World Series under Van Horn.
"We have some good players," Van Horn said. "But we don't have the ideal lineup – yet. Some of these guys are going to be what we had at Nebraska and we signed some real speed in our fall class and what we should sign this spring. It takes time to get all of the pieces together. We just don't have eight guys who can flat out hit just yet."
The arms on the pitching staff don't throw as hard as most of the staffs around the SEC. They are getting it done by avoiding walks and hitting their spots.
"Our staff doesn't have great stuff," said Dave Jorn, the pitching coach. "But we can make quality pitches. My philosophy is that you have to locate the fast ball even if it is at 84 mph. If you do that and then change speeds, you will be alright."
The Hogs have yet to follow Jorn's pitching plan for an SEC series. And, they may not do it all year.
"Ideally, we'd be able to get to Sunday and have Jay Sawatski available to start," Jorn said. "He is a conference starter. But, he's got a little more durability than some of our other top pitchers and we've had to use him out of the bullpen late on Friday and then again out of the pen some on Saturday. We have not had the luxury of using him on Sunday so far."
Sawatski, named the SEC's pitcher of the week after the LSU series, is a lefty from Little Rock with a great baseball pedigree. Carl Sawatski, his late grandfather, played 10 years in the big leagues. His father played four years in the minors.
"Jay has really good stuff," Jorn said. "He's got the best breaking ball on the staff and he has the best fast ball. He's stronger than last year. He had a really good fall. He was awesome his first time out this spring, basically unhittable.
"But sometimes he over competes and gets out of sync. He let his arm drop some and then he was hittable. He's got his arm up high again and he's much better. He's back on track. It's a feel thing. You can't be thinking out there."
Jorn considers junior catcher Brady Toops the pitching staff's biggest asset.
"Brady works closely with me," Jorn said. "He has a great feel and can tell me what's going on. I trust his eyes and what he tells me. I'm calling the pitches from the dugout, but the angle I have doesn't lend itself for telling exactly what's happening. I have to have Brady to know what's going on out there.
"Brady doesn't pull any punches. I'll ask the pitcher where the pitch was and he may tell me this or that. Brady interjects, ‘No, it was up, or it was out.' I know he's telling me the truth. If I'm calling for the pitch to be out and we position the outfielders a certain way, and the pitch isn't there, but you don't know it – well, you can start to question your scouting report. With him, you can be comfortable when you are making adjustments during the game.
"Let me just say that without Toops, things would be much different. He's great behind the plate. He's throwing out runners and handling our pitchers great. I'm biased, but he's the best catcher in the league behind the dish. I'm with him every day and see what he does for our club and I think he's very, very good."
Toops, who was at .278 before the Vandy series, hasn't hit for high average. Hence, he probably won't be on any of the all-conference lists. But he is one of the big reasons the Hogs are winning. He's been hit by pitches 11 times, by six the most on the team. He's thrown out 18 of 35 runners trying to steal.
Toops plays in typical Van Horn style. He scraps and finds a way to get the job done.
"I'm proud of our team," Van Horn said. "We have a lot of heart. We play with courage. This bunch is not scared. Some say this team is a reflection of our coaches. I do think they are fearless."
That may not be enough to hold on in the SEC West. The Hogs entered the weekend tied for first with Ole Miss atop the division. But it is sure to be fun watching them try.