FAYETTEVILLE — Talk about an upgrade in competition.
Coming off a three-game cakewalk against overmatched Siena this past weekend, Arkansas is about to turn in the patsies for national powers on its 2008 baseball schedule.
And beginning today, the biggest giant of them all awaits the Razorbacks.
In hopes of better preparing his Diamond Hogs for Southeastern Conference play, coach Dave Van Horn filled the nonconference schedule with several meaty opponents this season. None more so than top-ranked Arizona State, which hosts Arkansas in a two-game series at Packard Stadium today and Wednesday.
First pitch for both games is set for 8:30 p.m., central time.
"I wanted to play those guys early, because I knew we were going to have a younger team this year," Van Horn said. "A couple of years ago, I looked at our freshmen and sophomores and looked at who would be vacating professionally and I just thought it would help us prepare for league play.
"And on the other hand, it gave us an opportunity to get some real quality games here in 2009. Then I knew some of our guys would be a little bit older, that young team that we have this year. So it's worked out because we've taken care of business up to this stretch where we have Arizona State, at Nebraska, at LSU and I don't know who comes after that, that's enough."
So far, the Razorbacks (11-1) have been very impressive with the bats — led by a thundering start from senior Aaron Murphree — and decent effort on the pitching mound as well. But Arkansas hasn't come close to facing competition like Arizona State (12-0). In fact, the only opponent close to the Sun Devils was Texas A&M, and the Aggies handed Arkansas a 15-7 defeat.
"It's tough on the road, and we showed what we couldn't do against Texas A&M and they were a big team, and it was at their place," Van Horn said. "But I think that A&M tournament really got us better and the guys really grew up a lot. You got like 15 guys on the roster traveling for like the first time and I think it was an eye-opener to them and they learned what it takes a little bit.
"You know, Arizona State is No. 1 in most polls and No. 2 or No. 3 in some others. I think we're excited about going there. It would be nice if we were playing them here, but going and playing them there will give us an opportunity to get ready to play on the road in a couple of weeks at LSU."
While Arizona State is still a couple of weeks away from conference play and can therefore throw top pitchers in this series, the Razorbacks must hold back arms for SEC action. With Georgia coming to town this weekend, Arkansas will pitch freshmen Brett Eibner and James Mahler in the two-game set.
"They have the advantage because they had an east coast team come in this weekend and they've been able to set up their rotation for these midweek games," Van Horn said. "We have to throw our young guys against guys who will be pitching in Pac-10 games. But if our young guys do well, that will be a big positive for us and then maybe they can help us out in the SEC."
Win or lose, Arkansas is ready to tussle with the big boys.
"I'm ready to start playing some really good teams and I think we've got a really good team," Murphree said. "So we'll just meet head up with Arizona State and see where we stand right now."
But if things don't go the Razorbacks' way this week in Tempe, Van Horn said that's no big deal. After all, the pressure — for once — is all one the other guy.
"We're going in there confident," Van Horn said. "We have nothing to lose. Let's just go in there confident, just go in there and play and when you go play, anything can happen."
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