Schmidt, Hogs Eye Top-Seeded Florida

HOOVER, Ala. -- The ball is in Nick Schmidt's large and very capable left hand for another important game today when Arkansas (37-18 overall) opens the Southeastern Conference Tournament against Florida at 5 p.m. in Hoover Metropolitan Stadium.

The 19-year-old true freshman has started every series opener of league play including a complete-game, seven-hitter in a 4-1 win against Florida three weeks ago.

Joking around and generally looking loose as a goose during eight-seeded Arkansas' practice Tuesday evening in the Hoover Met, Schmidt's showing confidence heading into his first postseason start today against the top-seeded Gators (38-18), winners of the overall conference title.

"I just remember going right after Florida last time and that's what I need to do again," Schmidt said. "And really, we need a big win. We need to start off 1-0. We can't go 0-1.

"A lot of good things can come off of a win."

Schmidt said he's confident because the coaching staff has shown confidence in him. The one thing he said he has learned over the course of the season is how to be a pitcher, instead of only a thrower.

His demeanor is not like that of an average freshman, but Schmidt is certainly not average. He was selected to the SEC's All-Freshman team by league coaches and named SEC Newcomer of the Year by SEBaseball.com this week. Hogs freshman outfielder Clint Arnold also was named to the coaches' and SEBaseball.com's All-Freshman team.

"You can't go in with doubt that you're going to succeed or you won't in baseball," Schmidt said. "You've got to be confident and loose and be free to believe you can do anything ... Confidence is key."

Facing Schmidt in the opening round isn't exactly the reward Florida coach Pat McMahon had in mind when his Gators won the overall league title.

"(Schimdt) pitched outstanding this season, so we have plenty of respect for him," said McMahon, who was named SEC Coach of the Year by his peers. "I really love Arkansas' program and their coach. They're always well prepared and they play hard and played us tough for three outstanding games at their place."

In this double-elimination format, a No. 8 seed can take over the benefits of being the No. 1 seed -- such as playing cooler games in the evening and a middle seed in the second game -- if it stays in the winner's bracket. It's the same setup of the eight-team College World Series next month in Omaha, Neb.

If the Hogs win today, they'll play the winner of No. 5 Alabama vs. No. 4 Ole Miss at 8 p.m. Thursday. Should they lose, they'll play the loser of that matchup at 1 p.m. Thursday.

"We've been struggling winning ball games, so I'm glad we're here," said Arkansas coach Dave Van Horn. "It's a great experience for our young guys, but more than anything, we've just got to try to go out and get a win (today).

"I told the players that we're going to have to shuffle the lineup around and play the hot player whether they've been playing all year or not.

"We're going to do all we can to win."

The Gators are riding as high as ever winning their final two regular season series, including a three-game sweep at Vanderbilt over the weekend. They'll start freshman left-hander Stephen Locke (5-1, 3.42), a mid-week starter, in today's tourney opener.

"Our starters are acclimated to go week to week, say Friday to Friday," McMahon said. "The significance of last weekend was really important, but it put us in a little predicament as far as pitching. But we've started Stephen in a couple of tough mid-week games so he should be ready for this game."

Arkansas had lost seven of its last eight SEC games heading into Schmidt's start against the Gators, but rallied with back-to-back series wins against Florida and Alabama, which helped earn the Hogs the spot in the tourney since they're still in after being swept by Ole Miss at home over the weekend.

The last time the Razorbacks lost a regular-season finale at home was against LSU in Van Horn's first season in 2003 and they ended up losing both SEC Tournament games before playing in an NCAA Regional in Austin, Texas.

But the regional ramifications of how the Hogs play in this year's SEC Tournament may be even more meaningful.

"It could help us stay in our region for sure," Van Horn said. "Win three games or get to the championship, we still might host a regional. If not, I think we might be in a regional, but they might send us to Timbuktu.

"It's been such a tough year, we're just glad we're still playing."

Three Razorbacks, seniors Clay Goodwin and Scott Hode and fourth-year junior Charley Boyce, are in the SEC Tourney for the fourth consecutive season.

"I'd like to get on about a four-game winning streak, we haven't done that down here," Goodwin said. "We just want to have fun and try to get hot going into the postseason. And there's probably no better time to do it than in the SEC tournament, because these are the best teams in the country.

"So we're planning on turning it on and playing our best ball of the season this week."

On the injury front, Hogs freshmen Shaun Seibert (right elbow) and Ben Tschepikow (back) practiced Tuesday, but remain questionable for the tournament. Seibert, a right-handed pitcher, played catch at full speed and even threw a few breaking balls with no pain, but likely won't pitch unless Arkansas can win a couple of games and make it to the weekend.








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