Preview: Key SEC match-up in Fayetteville

After eight weeks of SEC play the conference race will come down to two key series. For the Gamecocks, it all starts Friday night as they travel to Arkansas for a key three-game match-up.

(37-11 overall, 26-5 at home, 16-8 in the SEC)

National Polls: Baseball America Poll...#8 South Carolina; #12 Arkansas. USA Today/ESPN Poll... #12 South Carolina; #10 Arkansas. NCBWA Poll... #13 South Carolina; #10 Arkansas. Collegiate Baseball Poll... #7 South Carolina; #14 Arkansas.

NCAA Men's Baseball RPI Ranks: South Carolina #19 (#14 last week), Arkansas #7 (#7 last week). South Carolina is currently in a tie with Florida for the #1 position in the SEC and SECe. Arkansas can wrap up its #1 position in the SECw if they can take two of three from Carolina. Carolina can put itself in the proverbial "catbird seat" if they take 2 of 3 from Arkansas, and can produce similar results (2 of 3) against Florida next week. Right now, the three best teams in the SEC will face off in a two week period... with a lot of pride on the line. We should thank our players for the special efforts made this year to be one of the three "special" SEC teams... all of our coaches deserve recognition for their work and efforts with this team.

Arkansas pitcher Mike Bolsinger gets accolades this week from the home office of the SEC in Birmingham. Bolsinger was selected Pitcher of the Week in the SEC for last weekend's effort against the Ole Miss Rebels in Oxford, Mississippi. Bolsinger has been used as a relief pitcher most of this year and has done really well, giving the Hawgs excellent (long and short) relief in mid to late innings.

Bolsinger was given the nod as a starter for Arkansas's Sunday game and had himself a fine performance. He tossed a career high 8 innings against The Rebs, registered 11 strikeouts with 10 of them swinging. He gave up just two hits with no one advancing beyond second base and struck out the side twice. His effort on the bump gave Arkansas its second shutout of the season and first in conference play. No doubt, there is little question who the Yardcocks will see this coming Sunday on the mound for Arkansas.

They needed Bolsinger to step up as one of their weekend starters. Randall Fant (L-L, LHP, Fr.) has run into a spot of trouble. Fant was arrested mid-April (4/12/10) for public intoxication. He was walking home (in Fayetteville) along a road the evening after his first road win (against MSU). The arresting officer almost hit him as he was walking down the road, going home. This was Fant's second arrest this academic year (first was driving while intoxicated, 9/22/09). Fant got two starts after the 4/12 incident, against Florida (Saturday game) and Auburn (Saturday game). Both games were losses for the Razorbacks. Fant has not taken the mound since 5/1.

Arkansas lost some very productive bats last year when Ben Tschepikow, Scott Lyons and Chase Leavitt graduated. Tschepikow and Leavett maintained an on-base-percentage of .396 and .450, respectively; Scott Lyons reached bases .332 of the time at bat. Only LSU's pitching could better the Arkansas bats and only the LSU bats could hit the Arkansas pitching, as LSU sent Arkansas packing in Omaha last year. LSU stuck around to win it all... it could very easily have been Arkansas.

Coach Paul Mainieri of LSU was asked what it took to beat Arkansas (in '09)... "you've got to have pitchers that throw high velocity pitches. They absolutely destroy mid to upper 80's pitching... you've got to beat them with good fastballs that are well placed". It is not much different in 2010 with the Arkansas batting order... you also need some effective left handed pitching to counter some very good left-handed hitters (Zack Cox in particular) during key late inning situations in close games.

Andy Wilkins (.442 obp), Collin Kuhn (.369 obp) and Zack Cox (.345 obp) were a huge part of the overall contribution to last year's run production and have continued the trend this year. Wilkins and Cox had double-digit homerun totals for '09 and the team effort was one between its senior leadership and Freshman/sophomore brawn. Their team batting average in 2010 is .322, the second highest team average in the SEC (behind Auburn's .352); S. Carolina's team B.A. is sixth best in the conference at .305. They will make a pitcher work once they are on base; every starter has at least 2 attempts at a stolen base this year.

RF Collin Kuhn leads off for the Razorbacks and is hitting .354 with eight home runs.
The trio of Kuhn, Cox and Wilkins still produce for the Razorbacks. Cox's .440 batting average is the ninth best (highest) in the nation and number one in the SEC for batters having over 100 at bats. Cox also leads the conference in total individual hits (87) and runs scored (59)... Whit Merrifield is second in runs scored within the conference (58). Their utility player (DH/CF/RHP), Brett Eibner, is tied with Hunter Morris of Auburn for home runs (17). Colin Kuhn is third ... behind Cox and Merrifield... in the nation for runs crossing the plate (Kuhn has 55). Wilkins follows Eibner with home runs hit; he currently has 13. Offensively, this Arkansas team scores its points as a team. You could point out what Cox and Kuhn provide in the way of hits, but up and down their batting order, all of their hitters produce. Let's take a look at their numbers:

#25, Collin Kuhn, RF (R-R, So.). Lead-off hitter; .354BA, 189AB, 55r, 87h, 8HR, 46RBI, 33w, 27k, 11SB (stolen bases).

#12, Bo Bigham, 2B (R-R, So.). 2nd slot; .304BA, 161AB, 35r, 49h, 2HR, 24RBI, 10w, 23k, 15SB.

#7, Zack Cox, 3B (L-R, So.). 3rd slot; .446BA, 195AB, 58r, 87h, 8HR, 46RBI, 33w, 27k, 11SB.

#24, Brett Eibner, CF/P/DH (R-R, RHP, Jr.) 4th slot; .333BA, 165AB, 49r, 55h, 17HR, 58RBI, 31w, 36k, 2SB.

#17, Andy Wilkins, 1B (L-R, Jr.) 5th slot; .280BA, 175AB, 40r, 49h, 13HR, 58RBI, 33w, 29k, 2SB.

#9, Monk Kreder, DH (R-R, Jr.) 6th slot; .287BA, 165AB, 24r, 49h, 2HR, 32RBI, 20w, 22k, 1SB.

#16, Travis Sample, LF (R-R, Jr.) 7th slot; .400BA, 90AB, 13r, 36h, 3HR, 18RBI, 8w, 16k, 1SB.

#18, Tim Carver, SS (R-R, So.) 8-9 slot(s); .309BA, 175AB, 29r, 54h, 4HR, 34RBI, 12w, 19k, 8SB.

#27, James McCann, C (R-R, So.) 9-8 slot(s); .305BA, 164AB 27r, 50h, 6HR, 26RBI, 13w, 15k, 3SB.

Others that will see playing time and rotation within the batting order (SEC play only):

#1, Matt Vinson, rf (S-R, Fr.); .217BA, 69AB, 20r, 15h, 2HR, 12RBI, 12w, 19k, 2SB.

#19, Tom Hauskey, ph/C (R-R, Sr.); .500, 12AB, 4r, 6h, 1HR, 7RBI, 2w, 4k.

#21, Kyle Adkins, pr/lf (R-R, R.S. Fr.); .250, 8AB, 7r, 2h, 2RBI, 1w, 4k, 4SB.

Arkansas pitching helps fuel their offensive fire... Drew Smyly (L-L, LHP, R.S. So.); 8-0, 2.26ERA, 71.2IP, 58h, 23r (18e), 24W, 77SO is the Razorbacks Friday starter and he has been spectacular this season. Rebounding from Tommy John Surgery in his Freshman year (Fall 2008), he is currently second in the SEC in individual pitching statistics (2.26 ERA), behind Drew Pomeranz (2.17). To benchmark Drew's success, Blake Cooper is currently 6th with a 3.05 ERA. Smyly is not an overpowering pitcher - he has average velocity and an improving breaking ball. He gets his fastball in around 90-92 mph, downhill with sinking action. He has very good presence on the mound and excellent command of his fastball, with a nice collection of pitches to get K's.

LHP Drew Smyly (8-0, 2.26 ERA) is the Razorbacks' Friday starter.

Namely, Smyly's slider and change-up pitches which he is very capable of using and throwing... thus prolonging his outing on the bump, well beyond his second visit to the side of the opposing order (his pitch counts are beyond the 110's, often into the 130s). He also possesses a four seam fastball that has good sink and dive to it. He has had two complete games (UGa and Auburn), both were played in Fayetteville. Good size for a lefty at 6'3", 190 lbs., he is not too short but not tall enough to cause mechanical errors. He is a very solid Friday night starter that Blake Cooper will face. Unlike the Cooper/Pomeranz duel, Blake will face Smyly on Smyly's bump in Fayetteville.

If Brett Eibner (R-R, RHP, Jr.); 3-4, 4.30ERA, 52.1IP, 62h, 31r (25e), 9W, 47SO is a starting pitcher, which could be the case on Saturday...then it does throw the batting order into turmoil. There are many position shifts that are made to cover his defensive spot at centerfield... moving Collin Kuhn from RF to CF, Bo Bigham to RF from 2B, Zack Cox from 3B to 2B, Andy Wilkins from 1B to 3B and Monk Krieder from DH to1B. Eibner has lost two games, one to Florida (Sat. start) and the other to Auburn (Sunday start), two very good clubs that can cause defenses to work hard to get three outs. Having that many position changes can cause problems in the field defensively, so I would suspect that Eibner will see more action coming from centerfield to pitch out of the bullpen as late relief or as a closer in our series. They will need his bat in the fourth slot against us, no doubt.

Eibner possesses a nice fastball that comes in @ 93 mph, but he has thrown it in the 96 mph range with good accuracy. He has a very nice slider and has developed a very nice feel for his change-up pitches. Eibner has had four SEC starts for Arkansas, the position shifts in the outfield and infield may provide him more chances as a reliever or closer than a starter... only Coach Van Horn knows for sure. Mike Bolsinger (Sunday) and D.J. Baxendale (Saturday) have been the starters of record since Eibner and Fant's movement within the pitching staff. They will need Eibner's ability to register K's once Smyly has had his day; Bolsinger seems a natural to start. Baxendale.. the jury is still out. Lord knows if we will (or could) see Randall Fant... as Coach Van Horn really hasn't given any direction on his future at Arkansas (pending his day in court).

It is tough for Coach Van Horn to sit Randall Fant (L-L, LHP, Fr.); 3-1, 3.38ERA, 32IP, 23h, 15r (12e), 9W, 23SO. Coach Van Horn has used Fant since his second arrest (4/12)... against Florida (4/25, game #3) and Auburn (5/1, game #2), both starts were losses. Fant has three pitches that he can mix and throw for strikes... fastball, change-up and a curveball. Not having Fant in the starting line-up for weekend pitching duties could be a problem; he provides the Hawgs with a true left-handed threat outside of Smyly. Fant possesses excellent longevity as a starter and as an early reliever.

D.J. Baxendale (R-R, RHP, Fr.); 0-1 (7SV), 4.29ERA, 42IP, 42h, 21r (20e), 12W, 34SO has recently been used as a Saturday starter (against Ole Miss). His first start was not that overwhelming (1.2ip, 4h, 3r(3e), 2w in 38 pitches, 11 batters faced); indeed, it makes me wonder if we will see him against our order this weekend. He is typically the pitcher the Hawgs have called on for early relief and for closing out games (7 saves). His endurance is usually @ 3 innings and not much more. Baxendale is a power pitcher that reaches 92 mph with his fastball, possesses a good slider with control. His role as a closer (one which has given him the most success this year) is for a good reason... he attacks hitters with fearless abandon and pitches with confidence. With Fant's situation, Coach Van Horn is struggling a bit to find that solid, stable Saturday starter.

Mike Bolsinger (R-R, RHP, Tr.Sr.); 5-2, 4.65ERA, 60IP, 60h, 39r (31e), 15W, 59SO had his first shot as a starter last weekend against Ole Miss and he made the most of it. He was named the SEC's Pitcher of the Week for his efforts. Gamecocks that batted against him last year will remember Bolsinger; he made two appearances in relief against the Yardcocks, going 8.2 innings allowing only one run on three hits and striking out nine. He has really worked hard to break out of the role as reliever from the Hawg's pen in his senior year. Coach Van Horn seems to like his role as a reliever, stating: "he saved us (last year) out of the pen... Mike would hold people down. He just had a knack for it...". Part of the knock on Bolsinger was he needed to expand his pitching arsenal. He has a solid fastball and slider, but no consistent change-up pitch. Maybe with last Sunday's performance he has found something that can keep batters from hitting his pitches in later innings.

Arkansas has some excellent relief coming from their Hawgpens... Geoffrey Davenport (L-L, LHP, So.); 2-2, 3.51ERA, 33.1IP, 34h, 17r (13e), 14W, 34SO. Davenport is a middle reliever that comes in for a couple of innings or to face left -handed batters in late innings. He is a competitive strike-thrower and is a lot like Mike Bolsinger in that he is confident in his pitches and wants to develop/start at some point in his career. Davenport can throw an 87-90 mph fastball and he has very good command of a three pitch mix. He will typically come in from the bullpen and work off of his fastball on his first pitch... which cost him a round-tripper against Auburn in Fayetteville on a Saturday.

Jordan Pratt (R-R, RHP, Tr. Jr.); 2-0 (1SV), 3.38ERA, 29.1IP, 23h, 12r (11e), 10W, 39SO and T.J. Forrest (R-R, RHP, Tr. Sr.); 6-0 (1SV), 2.97ERA, 33.1IP, 36h, 13r (11e), 9W, 28SO are both very effective early relievers for the Hawgs. Pratt has been very valuable to the Hawgs pen as a short reliever in recent conference outings. He closed games one and three against the Ole Miss Rebels last weekend. Forrest actually started his college career at LSU, but struggled due to Tommy John Surgery that he had as a high school senior. He enrolled at Bossier Parish C.C. after his freshman year as a Tiger. Forrest is capable of providing 2-3 innings of middle relief, most recently against Ole Miss in last Saturday's game. He pitched 4.1 innings throwing 61 pitches to16 batters, giving up just 3 hits, 0 runs and striking out 5 Ole Miss batters. Forrest has worked his way up into the weekend as a closer by performing well during weekday games this year.

In conclusion, this Arkansas team is very stout. Their only "weakness" is in fielding, where they are currently ninth in the SEC fielding percentage (.964); Carolina is sixth in the same category. These two teams match-up well; both swept UGA; The Hawgs lost two to Auburn (Baum Stadium) and we took two of three from Auburn (Auburn). We lost two games to Kentucky (Lexington) and they won two against the Wildcats (Baum). They swept MSU (in Starkville) and Alabama (Baum Stadium); we lost one to both of them (Carolina Stadium). They had two losses out of three games to LSU (Baton Rouge) and Florida (Gainesville), two teams we have not faced as of today.

They play excessively well at home. Perhaps this weekend they will suffer their first 2 out of 3 game loss to a capacity crowd at Baum Stadium... since Auburn visited them in early May. Yardcock fans can only hope.. it would be a sweet way to wrap up the "away" portion of our regular season schedule. Gamecock hitting will have a lot to do with our team's fate and as always, we need to score first and score often. That could be one reason why so many of our Yardcock hitters got looks at the diamond during our weekday home stand against Wofford and Chas. Southern. It could also explain why so many infield and outfield player combinations were tested... to get the best batting order in front of aggressive Hawg pitching, when needed.

Senior RHP Blake Cooper will match wits with Drew Smyly on Friday night in what will be the most watched SEC pitching match-up of the weekend.

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