FAYETTEVILLE - Arkansas begins the 2010 SEC Tournament tonight on a positive but not without trouble.
The No. 15 Razorbacks (40-16) are coming off a weekend series win at Vanderbilt and will face the No. 24 Commodores for the fourth time in less than a week at Regions Park. Last week's win likely assured Fayetteville will host an NCAA Regional and a good showing in the SEC Tournament could put the Hogs in the mix for one of eight national seeds on selection day.
But Arkansas is banged up and will go through the tournament possibly without three of its best players.
Third baseman Zack Cox (back) is unlikely to play at all in the double elimination tournament after missing most of last week, left-handed pitcher Drew Smyly (blister) won't start the Razorbacks' first game tonight and might not play in the tournament, and center fielder Brett Eibner (wrist) was listed as day-to-day earlier this week by Arkansas coach Dave Van Horn for an injury he has played through for the last three weeks.
"It's like a half-loaded gun," Van Horn said. "Those are the guys that have been with this program and they're our frontline guys. You're talking about a couple of your middle of the order hitters and your No. 1 pitcher."
All three were named all-SEC on Tuesday by league coaches with Cox earning first team honors while Smyly and Eibner were each named to the second team. While not having them at the SEC Tournament might be viewed as detrimental by some, Van Horn said it's best for the Hogs in the long run.
"Those three guys for us are key, but they're a key for us to win a regional," Van Horn said. "We need to win a regional and that's our goal. League play is already over and we can't do anything about that. Yeah, the tournament is there and we'd love to win the tournament and stick around until Sunday, and we might be able to do it, but we'll need some guys to step it up.
"Our goal is to play in Omaha and win a national championship. The best chance to do that is to get those three guys healthy."
The injuries aren't without precedence. Arkansas limped into the SEC Tournament last season with a pair of starting middle infielders on the shelf with injuries. That gave reserves like Bo Bigahm the opportunity to start and the Razorbacks won two games in Hoover, Ala. Bigham eventually became an every day starter at second base and was a key cog in Arkansas' run to the College World Series.
Van Horn hopes he can find a similar story this year as Cox' and Eibner's injuries could give freshmen like Matt Vinson, Kyle Atkins and Derrick Bleeker the opportunity to earn more playing time later in the postseason. Freshman infielder Matt Reynolds, who has been hampered the last two months with a shin injury, could also see playing time.
Smyly's injury allows the Razorbacks to work on developing a needed fourth starter in the pitching rotation. Senior Jeremy Heatley will make his first career start against the Commodores.
"This could be a good thing in terms of getting some guys ready - maybe not to win an SEC championship but getting some guys some experience before the regional," Van Horn said. "It'll also give some guys some experience for the future."
Arkansas and Vanderbilt have an estimated first pitch at 8 p.m. tonight. The game will be televised by CSS and simulcast on Cox Sports.
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