Hogs Come Close

Arkansas still leads the SEC West, but the Hogs find themselves one game behind Vandy in the overall chase after winning just one game on the weekend.

Close only counts in hand grenades, atom bombs and horseshoes. It sure doesn't count in baseball. It won't matter that No. 7 Arkansas was so close in its two losses to LSU this weekend.

Hence, the national scribes and coaches -- the men who do the national rankings -- will only look at the scores from the weekend baseball series at Baum Stadium. They'll note two wins for LSU and one for Arkansas.

Friday night, it was LSU, 6-5. Saturday, it was Arkansas, 5-0. And, Sunday it was LSU, 5-3.

What does it all mean? LSU is probably going to make both the SEC and NCAA tournaments under first-year coach Paul Mainieri. Arkansas is going to have to fight to the wire to earn the right to be one of the nation's top eight seeds in the NCAA tournament, a key to hosting both a regional and a super regional in the NCAA tournament.

For the first time this season, I thought Arkansas looked a bit tight. I thought the Hogs looked hungry every other time I've seen them this season. Perhaps they know what is at stake as they try to stay with Vanderbilt in the SEC's overall chase.

They'll have to get back to their hungry selves before they head to Alabama this weekend for the next to last SEC series. They still have a comfortable lead in the SEC West, but they trail Vanderbilt by one game in the overall standings.

They must find their bats before they get to Tuscaloosa.

"Jeff Nutt swang the bat pretty well this weekend, but we were pretty average after that at the plate," said Arkansas coach Dave Horn said Sunday.

"We've hit all year, but our offense wasn't there this weekend."

Danny Hamblin had two hits on Sunday. He blasted a solo homer in the top of the ninth to provide some hope. There was even more hope when pinch-hitter Jacob Julius cracked a liner into the teeth of the southeast wind with a man aboard. Centerfielder Jared Mitchell raced to the wall and made a leaping grab to end the game, bringing the LSU bench out of the dugout in celebration.

"We were just a foot short all weekend," Hamblin said. "We shouldn't have let it come down to that at the end. We've got to score more than three runs if we are going to have a chance to win."

True. Van Horn and Hamblin were both on target.

First, give LSU's pitching some credit. They took advantage of that unusual wind blowing in all weekend. They pitched on even terms with a very good Arkansas staff almost all weekend. The exception was the beautiful work turned in by Jess Todd on Saturday.

"I thought Duke Welker gave us good pitching today," Van Horn said. "He made only one real mistake. He hung a first pitch slider for a two-run double right after we threw a guy out at the plate. That was a mistake. The pitch was called to be low and away and he hung it. Otherwise, he was very good."

No, it was more the lack of offense than the lack of pitching on this weekend.

"I let the team down," Hamblin said. "I'm an RBI guy and I left men in scoring position in key at bats all weekend. I didn't have a very good weekend. I left too many guys on and I'm very frustrated right now. It was not a very good weekend.

"I'm not going to take anything away from LSU, though. They pitched good and played good defense."

No doubt about that. The Tigers entered as one of the league's poorest defensive clubs, but they made all the clutch plays including some big-time catches by Mitchell, perhaps the SEC's top athlete. A wideout and kick returner for the LSU football team, he went to the wall for some big catches several times on the weekend. His play to end the game wasn't his only big-time play.

Hamblin was doubled off first on Brian Walker's hot shot to first earlier in the game.

"We hit some balls well, but they didn't fall for us today," Hamblin said. "Baseball is like that. Sometimes the difference between winning a series and losing it is very close. We just have to go back to work."

With no mid-week game, it will be hard work every day in the cage and in the field under the watchful eye of Van Horn. Practices will be built around final exams, but Hamblin knows he and his teammates will be at the park long hours this week, even if the coaches are not.

"We will put in the time this week," he said. "We are going to work hard this week. We are going to do what it takes to win a championship. We have two weekends left and we are going to prepare for them. We are willing to do whatever it takes."

Coming close is no fun.

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