Hogs Host Talent-Rich Tigers

FAYETTEVILLE -- The road to the Southeastern Conference Championship almost always runs through LSU, the team Arkansas hosts for a three-game series beginning at 7 tonight in Baum Stadium.

Since 1990, the tradition-rich Tigers have won seven SEC titles and nine Western Division titles. The Tigers' worst year in that span was a 17-12 third-place finish in 1995. But overall champ Tennessee didn't have to face LSU, which won a league-high 52 games that year.

On top of that, LSU has played in more College World Series (13) and won more CWS titles (5) than any team in the league since 1986.

"We try not to talk about one team more than another as far as the importance, because it's not, they all count the same," said Arkansas coach Dave Van Horn. "But naturally, you're playing LSU and the fans are going to recognize that name a lot more ... So I imagine the crowd is going to be great."

Last April, the Razorbacks became the first SEC team to sweep the Tigers at home since 1988 before winning the Western Division outright and a share of the league title.

Halfway through this season, No. 20 LSU (26-13 overall) is tied for last in the Western Division with a 7-8 conference record while No. 14 Arkansas (31-8) is tied for second with an 8-7 mark.

One game ahead of the Hogs and two games up on LSU is Alabama with a 9-6 record.

"We are struggling right along, the good thing is we don't have many injuries," said LSU coach Ray "Smoke" Laval. "All in all, to me it's a no-brainer that there should be a 12-team SEC Tournament (instead of only the eight teams with the best records).

"It should be fun the rest of the way."

The key matchup within the series will be between Arkansas' hitters against LSU's three left-handed starting pitchers. Lane Mestapay (5-5, 3.41) will start tonight despite losing his last five starts, including a 14-8 loss against Ole Miss last Friday when he was tagged for five runs on six hits in 1 2/3 innings, his shortest career outing.

The Hogs have hit left-handers better than right-handers, but had trouble scoring runs against Tennessee freshman southpaw James Adkins during an 8-2 loss last Saturday.

"Early, we hit lefties good," Van Horn said. "We didn't do well last Saturday against a good left-hander that had a good curveball. (The Tigers' pitchers are) going to feature they're breaking ball a lot and a lot of off-speed stuff and then try to bust you with that fastball because it looks a little quicker when you've got that good off-speed stuff.

"But we know what we're getting. We know what LSU is all about."

Expect the Razorbacks to stay with more of a defensive lineup against LSU. They may even go against the percentages and start left-hand hitting catcher Brian Walker in all three games against the Tigers' southpaws. He leads the league in percentage of runners caught stealing by throwing out 14 of 25 runners (56 percent) attempting to steal.

Walker, who homered twice including a grand slam off a left-hander in Tuesday's 9-4 win at Southwest Missouri State, also has been pivotal in helping the Hogs' struggling starting pitching along. He called most of the pitches in Nick Schmidt's start a week ago, when the freshman left-hander allowed no runs on three hits in 5 2/3 innings of a 4-1 win against the Vols.

"Walker is the guy," Van Horn said. "He's kind of like the leader on the field. The key is a left-handed hitter against left-handed pitching. He can stay over left-handed pitching, it's just a matter of him swinging at strikes."

Schmidt (5-1, 2.73) will start tonight's game against the Tigers' talented offense, which is putting up 7.5 runs per game behind seniors Blake Gill (.333, 5 homers, 35 RBIs), Ryan Patterson (.397, team-high 16 doubles, 13 homers), Clay Harris (.405, 8 homers, team-high 42 RBIs) and Nick Stavinoah (.359, 37 RBIs, 10 homers).

"The experience is good. What's good is they are having good years," Laval said. "What happens is the pressure barrier, when they come to their draft year, they play a little bit different. All they are trying to do is live up to the expectations. It wears on you and you are constantly reminded."

Van Horn said his team's only focus will be trying to put some distance between the Hogs and the Tigers in the standings.

"Definitely want to win the series because you can go out of here a couple of games ahead of them and maybe put another team or two behind us," Van Horn said. "Ole Miss has got the same record (as LSU) and they're both great teams with a lot of returning players.

"Really, what we just focus on is trying to win one game at a time and trying to win a series.

"A lot of teams at this time of the year kick it into gear .. Or, they might go the other way.

"You just never know."

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