No. 3 LSU (41-14-1) vs. No. 7 Arkansas (37-21)
Time: 4:30 p.m.
Location: Hoover, Ala. – Hoover Metropolitan Stadium
TV: Cox Sports Television
Pitching: Aaron Nola (9-1, 1.42 ERA) vs. Colin Poché (3-0, 2.55 ERA)
HOW DID THEY GET HERE?
LSU made a big statement in its opening game of the SEC Tournament, routing Vanderbilt, 11-1, in seven innings, shortened due to the mercy rule. The Tigers' offense continued to stay hot, as LSU rocked the Commodore pitching for 15 hits, including seven for extra bases. Alex Bregman led the way, driving in five runs on a 3-for-4 day at the plate. Jared Poché was dominant on the mound in his SEC Tournament debut, limiting Vanderbilt to one run on five hits in a complete game.
Arkansas began the tournament Tuesday in single-elimination play, surviving against Texas A&M with a 4-0 shutout. The Razorbacks went ahead early on a solo homer by Eric Fisher then pulled away with a three-run seventh. Arkansas starter Trey Killian struck out five and held the Aggies scoreless through six innings, and Zach Jackson maintained the shutout with three perfect innings of relief.
That dominant Arkansas pitching reappeared Wednesday, leading the Razorbacks to a 2-1 upset victory against SEC West champs Ole Miss. Starter Chris Oliver surrendered only an unearned run in 6 1/3 innings, while the offense spotted him a 2-0 lead with a run in each of the first and six innings. Relievers Michael Gunn and Jacob Stone worked around three hits and held Ole Miss scoreless through the final 2 2/3 innings.
WHAT'S ON THE LINE?
It's possible LSU already locked up a regional host spot with that big win Wednesday against Vanderbilt. The Tigers entered the day on the bubble according to most projections, but a decisive win against a Top 10 team in the RPI should go a long way with the selection committee, especially considering that it evened the season series between these two squads.
But another win Thursday certainly wouldn't hurt, and it would likely remove any doubt that postseason play will return to The Box. LSU's RPI is still at No. 16 after the Vanderbilt win, according to WarrenNolan.com, but getting to the weekend undefeated should secure that regional host.
For the Razorbacks, they have little to gain as it pertains to their NCAA Tournament projections. Arkansas was likely locked in as a No. 2 seed heading into the SEC Tournament, and the two wins would be enough to make sure they don't drop to No. 3. But there are too many teams ahead of them in the conference and in the RPI for them to have a shot at hosting a regional.
Winning Thursday would be a big boost for either team's chances of winning the SEC Tournament. A victory would give the winner a much-needed off day on Friday before Saturday's game to decide who heads to the championship game.
Aaron Nola will take the mound Thursday for his 2014 SEC Touranment debut. The junior ace had tremendous success against Arkansas earlier this season, striking out a career-high 13, while surrendering two runs on only four hits. Nola also faced Arkansas in the SEC Tournament last year, giving up only one run with eight strikeouts. But LSU was no match for Razorback pitcher Ryne Stanek, as they fell 4-1.
Nola's been on fire entering this year's tournament. In his last two starts, both victories, Nola has only surrendered one run in a combined 16 innings against Auburn and Alabama with 18 strikeouts.
Arkansas' already thin pitching staff will certainly be tested Thursday. The Razorbacks entered the tournament without their top starter, Jalen Beeks, who's out with soreness in his throwing shoulder. That means sophomore Collin Poché — no relation to Jared Poché — will get the nod against LSU.
Poché has primarily been used as a reliever this season, though he does have seven starts in midweek contests. He has been used for long outings in these last couple weeks with Beeks out of the rotation.
He took over for Dominic Taccolini last week against Missouri, but he had a rough go at it surrendering four earned runs on four hits with four wild pitches in 2/3 inning. He was a bit sharper in his previous appearance, working around two walks for a hitless inning of relief.
But expect Arkansas to trot out several pitchers Thursday as Poché likely won't work more than three innings against the Tigers.