Dave Van Horn generally does not point to a series as big early in the year. He talks about baseball being a marathon, not a sprint. He says the SEC is a grind and that the way to put up good numbers and make it to postseason is just to grind.
But that's not the way the Arkansas head baseball coach talked after the Hogs lost to Nebraska on Wednesday. With South Carolina coming to town, Van Horn used the word "must" to describe what the Hogs needed against the Gamecocks, No. 1 in some of the polls and in the top spot in the all-important RPI.
Obviously, the Hogs took the challenge, won two of three from the Gamecocks to win the series. They helped their own RPI by about 20 points, to jump to No. 84 in the Boyd's World system, a mirror of what the NCAA uses. They'll get a chance to do more good in the RPI with their next four foes -- No. 13 UNLV, No. 24 LSU, No. 85 Stephen F. Austin and No. 7 Vanderbilt.
What about those midweek comments?
"We were behind the eight ball," Van Horn said. "The last game at Mississippi State was one of our worst. We missed some signs and didn't play well. We had a tough Nebraska team midweek and we were in a position we couldn't use some pitching with a series (with Carolina) set for Thursday.
"I knew it was time for us to get over the hump. It was just a big series. We needed to beat a good team and South Carolina may be as good as anyone. We just needed that for us, mentally. We needed to play well and get some confidence."
It doesn't get easier and the Hogs are still just 20-12 overall, but Van Horn doesn't care.
"Yes, there is no break," he said. "UNLV is a top 14 team. Then we head to LSU and they are always good. Stephen F. Austin just beat up on an SEC team. Then, it's Vandy.
"But these guys in our locker room, I hope that's why they came to Arkansas to play these type games and aren't all giddy about what we did this weekend."
There are some things going right for the Hogs. Joe Serrano is coming alive at the plate and Van Horn thinks a new lineup with Tyler Spoon hitting leadoff has sparked the club at the plate.
"Joe is starting to feel comfortable," Van Horn said. "He's hitting it all over the field, going the other way and pulling some, too. Joe is a good hitter. I think he's like some other guys in our lineup, he didn't hold up his end of the deal, maybe was pressing early. But he's getting comfortable. I'm starting to see guys getting it going."
The players don't seemed fazed by the tough stretch ahead. Catcher Jake Wise doesn't think the Hogs will be over matched. There was no intimidation factor with Carolina in town with the No. 1 ranking.
"Not for us because we don't expect to lose or we don't feel over matched in any series we take," Wise said. "Every time I've stepped on the field here we felt like we could take any series. But when you do beat a No. 1 team it is going to add a little confidence and stuff like that.
"I know the pitchers are going to use that momentum, knowing they shut down a really good offense. We just have to play like that every time, like every team is the No. 1 team in that nation."
The Hogs swept Carolina last year and almost did it again this year. The only loss was 2-1 on Friday, after taking a 1-0 lead into the eighth. It's the only time the Hogs have lost a lead after the seventh inning this season. Do the Hogs have a little extra for South Carolina?
"I don't really know," Wise said. "We try to take every series the same way, but maybe we don't. Maybe we come out with a little fire because they're always up there. Ever since I've been here, four years, they've always been in the top 10 every year I can remember. Maybe we just need to take that same mentality to every weekend."
Either way, the Hogs are on an upswing now.
"It's definitely a confidence booster taking two of three from the No. 1 in RPI," Brian Anderson said. "It's a stepping stone. Coach (Dave) Jorn was telling us we're starting to see some guys starting to stay in the zone on offense. I feel like that was a pretty good defending team and they made a decent amount of errors on us.
"It's going to be critical. We just hit that .500 mark in the SEC. Every team in the SEC is good. You can't overlook anybody. That's teams coming in in the midweek or guys on the weekends. They come to play. When they come to Baum Stadium, they know it's going to be a challenge and they throw their best at us."
The Hogs allowed only three runs on the weekend to Carolina.
"Giving up three runs to that team, so one run a game, it's pretty remarkable," Wise said. "Since I've been here, South Carolina is probably one of the better hitting teams in my four years.
"I know we swept them last year but I don't think we pitched as well as we did this weekend. If a couple breaks go our way in the first game, we're able to sweep them. But the pitching staff, I like to see the growth every week. And you can actually see pitchers grow and learn and trust themselves, which I really like to see."
The 6-6 SEC record was notable to Van Horn.
"To get to .500 is big," he said. "Coaches in our league, that's what we talk about. Win a series, stay around .500. Get to 15 wins by the end of the year. That's a good target."
The Hogs are at .500. Now the battle is to stay there with a tough stretch of foes coming up.
Van Horn: Getting to .500 Important
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