Mississippi State coach Ron Polk didn't concede anything. It's too early in the SEC season.
But as he scanned the upcoming Arkansas schedule, the veteran Bulldog skipper thinks things look good for Arkansas in terms of the overall conference race. He did add the obligatory "if they stay healthy" disclaimer, appropriate after the Hogs had to move ace Nick Schmidt from Friday night to Sunday because of an ankle turn.
Polk doesn't see anyone in the SEC with the overall pitching strength to match Arkansas with Schmidt, Jess Todd and Duke Welker.
"If they had kept Shaun Seibert healthy, they would have had the best staff in the SEC I've seen in a long time as far as numbers of solid pitchers," Polk said. "If they stay healthy with what they've got right now, they have a chance to win it all. There are no gimmes in the SEC, but they are going to get some teams at home soon that aren't .500."
That's a lot from a coach that had a chance to sweep the Hogs at home as things began on Sunday morning. No doubt, that's why UA senior Danny Hamblin called the series finale "the biggest game of the year for us." He said it may be one the Hogs look back on in weeks to come as a critical game.
And, with Schmidt and Todd handcuffing MSU's salty hitters for the most part and the UA bats coming alive, the Hogs came up with their best performance of the year when you consider all phases of the game In Sunday's 9-3 rout of the Bulldogs.
Along with the good hitting and pitching, there was great base running and fantastic defense, highlighted by center fielder Jake Dugger's diving, across-the-body catch deep in the power alley in right center.
"I got a good read on it," Dugger said. "You see the catcher move outside and you figure the hitter is going that way. That's how you get a good jump."
Hamblin can't remember a time when Dugger didn't get a great jump.
"I've played with Jake for four years and he's made some great catches like that, but I'm not sure any were as good as that one," Hamblin said. "The timing was perfect. It was a two-out catch that saved one run and maybe more. Who knows how many they get that inning if that one gets down. What a jump. It's like he knew where it was going before the hitter swings."
Arkansas coach Dave Van Horn didn't argue with Hamblin's assessment. He also ranked it tops among Dugger's many web gems.
"I'd like to see that one frozen with his body stretched out and his glove across his body," Van Horn said. "Jake gets a great jump all the time, but that one was his best. When it left the bat, I thought, ‘There's another two-out RBI. The ball was crushed. It might have backed up to him a little bit, kinda slicing. But it was an unbelievable catch."
Perhaps the best news of the day was the way Hamblin crushed the ball. He tagged three solid shots before a towering popup fell near the pitcher's mound in the seventh for a rare infield double to end his day. It gave him three doubles on the day and his third four-hit game of his career. He went 9 for 19 (.474) over the last six days after a three-hit game on Tuesday. In that span he had four doubles, two homers and four RBI.
The highlight of the day for Hamblin was a rope double off the wall down the line in left to end a 10-pitch at bat in the third inning. Everyone tabbed it as Hamblin's best at-bat of the season.
"I told (batting coach Todd) Butler this morning that my swing felt the best it's felt all season," Hamblin said. "A hitter can feel it coming. Today was a breakout day. That one at bat was the best I've felt all season. I was fouling off pitches that had been getting me out and I wasn't swinging at the ones in the dirt I'd been missing. I felt like I could hit any pitch he brought. I came back in the dugout and told Coach Butler it was my best at bat. You want to be a tough out and I felt like I was today."
Van Horn sees Hamblin's confidence growing week by week. He was hitting .119 after the Hogs lost to Ole Miss in a tournament in Minnesota at the beginning of March. He's been hitting better every since.
"He hit three balls hard today and one of them was just crushed," Van Horn said. "He had a couple of other balls that were crushed this weekend. So that was good that the one that no one touched in the infield went for a hit. You deserve one of those the way some of his shots were caught earlier this year.
"He got us going today. He got on base to start things off several times. That one at bat was the sign of a great hitter. He fouled off pitch after pitch, then centered one up and crushed it. He hit some balls really hard this week."
Hamblin couldn't hold back a smile when his infield double was mentioned.
"You want to say you earned one with some things that have happened earlier this year and with as much as you've put into the game," he said. "That's how it goes in baseball sometimes.
"The most important thing is we won this game. There is just so much difference between being 7-5 and 8-4. We hadn't lost two in a row all season and we needed to respond today and we did. It was a huge test for us. We needed to see how we were going to react to losing back-to-back. Yes, it was a huge, huge game."
It was enough to leave an impression on the opposition brain trust. The Bulldogs won two of three, but they got on their bus thinking they may have just seen the SEC's best.
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