As a redshirt freshman in 2009 the left-handed Smyly had pitched well, including a pair of stellar performances in the postseason. First there was a near no-hitter against Oklahoma in the Norman Regional in which Smyly came within two outs of being the first pitcher to throw a no-hitter in a regional since 1960.
Then after not being needed in a two-game sweep of Florida State in the NCAA Super Regional, Smyly responded with a strong performance in an elimination game against Virginia at the College World Series, a game the Razorbacks went on to win.
"I think that shot his confidence up and it obviously opened the coaching staff's eyes to how good he could be," Van Horn said. "We weren't sure we were going to pitch him on that Sunday against Oklahoma until after the game on Saturday. We could have gone with someone else but we went with him and he did a great job."
"All summer he knew he should be our ace," Van Horn said. "I think he thought he was going to be the Friday night guy but right away it didn't happen for him and I think he finally got a little more hungry and went out and got it."
It wasn't easy. Smyly struggled with a nagging blister injury early in the conference season. It was so bad the regularly scheduled Saturday starter at the time was pushed to Sunday against Alabama and then unable to make that start.
"Since I had the blister on my fingertip it was hard to even play catch for a little while," Smyly said. "It might have helped me in the long-run since I was able to rest my arm in the middle of the season."
Since the return from the setback Smyly has been outstanding. He pitched seven innings in a 10-1 win over Kentucky in his first game back on April 3 and was moved to the Friday night role the next week against Mississippi State.
He has been especially impressive since taking over on Fridays, including a 10-2 complete game win over Georgia three weeks ago in front of a national TV audience, out-dueling Florida left-hander Alex Panteliodis in Gainesville and tossing another complete game last week against Auburn.
"He's pitched as good as any Friday night guy we've had here, and that includes Nick Schmidt," Van Horn said. "This guy has gone nine innings two of the last three weeks and I'm keeping his pitch count under 120. That's pretty impressive.
"We don't expect him to do that every time out and we don't expect him to do it Friday. But he has been a little better than we expected, though it doesn't surprise me."
|Ole Miss pitcher Drew Pomeranz is among the nation's best.|
The series will pit the two teams tied atop the SEC West standings and two teams that are competing for a national seed in the upcoming NCAA Regionals.
"They're a typical SEC team with good pitching and just solid all the way around," Van Horn said. "They're on a roll right now and our focus is to try and figure out how to solve Drew Pomeranz."
Pomeranz, who is projected to be the first left-hander taken in next month's MLB Amateur Draft, is undefeated this season and leads the SEC in both ERA (1.85) and strikeouts (104).
Smyly has been just as dominant, winning each of his last five starts in which he has averaged 7 2/3 innings on the mound and seven strikeouts per game. But the best stat for Smyly has been his walk total. After walking 22 batters in his first seven appearances this year he has walked just one batter in his last five starts.
"He walked a lot of people early last year and that was the same pattern this year," Van Horn said. "That's why we didn't start him early on this year because he was up-and-down. I think it was a lack of focus or maybe wasn't in good shape yet. But now he's filling up the zone and attacking.
"I think he appreciates being able to get on the mound now. I mean there he was with a little ol' blister keeping him out of the rotation, so he's not taking anything for granted. He knows this is a big year for him. He knows he's the ace of our staff and if he gets us off to a good start on Friday we've got a lot better chance of winning the series. He's got a real positive attitude going right now. You can tell he's enjoying playing the game."
No. 14 Arkansas (35-10, 14-7) at No. 11 Ole Miss (33-13, 14-7)
When: Friday at 7 p.m., Saturday at 7 p.m., Sunday at 1:30 p.m.
Where: Oxford-University Stadium (10,323)
TV: Friday, Saturday - ESPNU; Sunday - None
Radio: Razorback Sports Network
Series Record: Arkansas leads 33-27
Pitching Rotations: Arkansas - LHP Drew Smyly (7-0, 2.19), RHP DJ Baxendale (0-0, 3.79), TBA; Ole Miss - LHP Drew Pomeranz (6-0, 1.85), RHP Aaron Barrett (6-2, 3.72), TBA.