The Final Countdown

It's an SEC West race like never before. All six teams have losing records in the league heading into the final three contests of the 30-game war. Any of the six can claim the Western Division title.

Arkansas, Alabama, Auburn, and Mississippi State are all tied at 13-14. Ole Miss is fifth at 12-15, while LSU is last at 11-16. The Razorbacks host the Rebels, the Bulldogs host LSU, Alabama hosts South Carolina, and Auburn is at Tennessee.

One area Arkansas has an advantage over Ole Miss in the big picture is non-conference action. The Hogs were 21-3 in non-SEC games this season, while the Rebels were 17-8.

Overall Arkansas enters the game at 34-17, coming off its final non-conference game of the season, a 6-2 win against Tennessee-Martin Tuesday night.

The Rebels are 29-23 after a 10-6 win against Southeast Missouri State Tuesday night. Matt Smith returned to the Rebel lineup for that one after missing two weeks. It was a fast return following a broken bone in his left hand on May 4 against Arkansas State and surgery the next day to insert a plate.

But the fifth-year senior wanted to get back to play in his final home game which he did against SEMO, going 4-for-4 with 3 RBI and a walk in five at-bats. He also said the Rebels know what they have to do this weekend in Fayetteville, and that's win two games, at least, if they want to play baseball next week at the SEC Tournament.

"We're at a point in the season where we've got to do it now," he said. "We know what we have to do, that's for sure. It's not one of those things where we don't know. I feel like we've been playing pretty good the past couple of games. We're just going into it trying to stay positive, not dwell on it too much, just go play and play hard. At the end of the day all we can do is play hard and play our best baseball right now."

Fayetteville is a place where the Rebels have played well in recent trips. They swept the Hogs in 2005 and 2009 and won two of three games in 2007.

A case could be made that the Rebels are playing their best baseball of this season right now. Some of that assessment is because there hasn't been a real stretch of superlative play by the ballclub this season.

Had they been able to close out the game against Mississippi State a week ago tonight rather than losing – they led 5-4 after seven innings but lost the game 7-6 – then they could be considered on some type of roll.

Matt Smith
Bruce Newman
The Rebels had won the final two games of the series against South Carolina and ended up winning the final against MSU and then the SEMO game. But with a series loss against the Bulldogs last weekend, it's been more of the same for an Ole Miss team that hasn't had its sights lately on any kind of title but on surviving to play next week in Hoover, Ala.

That being said, three wins in Fayetteville this weekend and they could claim the SEC West crown, or some combination of it.

"The season's on the line. We really want to keep going," said junior DH Matt Snyder. "We know if we play like we did (in the finale) against Mississippi State and we play like we did the last two games against South Carolina, we'll have good shot to go far. This weekend is big for us."

Ole Miss Coach Mike Bianco said as for Smith, it was great to see him back in a game in such a short period of time. And he needed it for several reasons.

"Really the reason we wanted to get him in (vs. SEMO) was, yes we needed him, but more importantly we wanted him to see some pitching," Bianco said. "It's one thing to not hit for two and a half weeks. It's another thing not to see the pitching. That's the thing you worry about. He saw some left-handers, he saw some right-handers, he saw some low three-quarter guys. It was a good night for him in a lot of ways."

As a team, Arkansas is batting at a .271 clip and is led by freshman Dominic Ficociello who is hitting .363 with four home runs and has a team-leading 47 RBI. Kyle Robinson has a team-best eight home runs for the Razorbacks. The pitching staff holds a 3.25 ERA and is led by Thursday night start D.J. Baxendale. He has an 8-1 record with a 1.57 ERA with 59 strikeouts and 14 walks with a .230 batting average against.

Tonight's game, with LHP Matt Crouse again starting for the Rebels, begins at 6:35 p.m. and there is no TV coverage. Friday's 6 p.m. game is on CSS, while the Saturday game at 2:05 p.m. is on CST.

Crouse is 6-4 on the year with four no decisions and has struck out 58 batters while walking only 17 in a team-leading 83.1 innings of work. Crouse has allowed two earned runs or fewer in nine of his 13 starts this season and has tallied eight quality starts on the season. Opponents are hitting at a .265 clip against the southpaw who took no decision in his last outing against Mississippi State. He has posted a pair of complete games and a pair of shutouts this season.

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