Vanderbilt and Arkansas are both without a pair of key offensive cogs heading into tonight's 7:05 opener. The Commodores (20-7, 5-4 in the SEC) lost Tony Mansolino and Matt Zeller to injuries while Scott Bridges and Casey Rowlett were suspended indefinitely from the No. 14 Razorbacks (24-6, 4-5).
All those losses came within the last 10 days.
"We know it hurts and it's tough when you lose two guys of that magnitude," said Vanderbilt coach Tim Corbin. "Mansolino and Zeller both did the same thing (strained rib cage muscles), but Mansolino did it running and Zeller did it swinging a bat. Mansolino made the trip this weekend, but doctors say he's still a week or so away.
"Both have the same odd injury at the same time. Never has that happened in my coaching career."
The Hogs still have Bridges and Rowlett (their top-two hitters who were suspended for violations of an unspecified team policy) on their minds, but do seem to be moving on thanks to a coaching staff that has kept pushing them on.
"They let us know that we're not going to give up," said Arkansas senior Clay Goodwin. "It's tough from here on out. It's tough enough, anyway, losing those guys, but everybody is doing their part to step up and doing everything we can to play flawless baseball from here on out by doing all the little things right."
Vanderbilt is unranked but, like Arkansas, peaked at No. 8 this season before being swept by a tough Baylor team. After opening the SEC season by losing two of three at Mississippi State, the Commodores won two of three against Ole Miss and SEC Western Division-leading Alabama the past two weekends.
"They always play hard, and I really like the coaching staff," said Arkansas coach Dave Van Horn. "They feel real good about their team and their pitching staff - it may be the best in the league, so we're going to need to have a big weekend from four or five of our hitters because we need to start winning some series."
As Van Horn noted, the battle to zoom in on this weekend will be between Arkansas' hitters and Vanderbilt's starting rotation, which is led by today's starter, Jensen Lewis (5-1, 0.96), a junior right-hander. Saturday's starter is Ryan Mullins, a 6-foot-6 left-hander and preseason All-American who was suspended earlier this season after his arrest for driving under the influence of alcohol near campus.
"They've been consistent," Corbin said. "We normally get a pretty good outing form Jensen, and Mullins has done well when he's available and not suspended. We've been pretty competitive and we feel like we've got some guys to go to out of the bullpen."
Matt Buschmann, another junior right-hander, is the top arm in the bullpen, sporting a 1.62 ERA in 33 innings. David Price, the probable Sunday starter, has a 1.19 ERA in 30.1 innings.
Van Horn will be looking for production from guys like Goodwin, Danny Hamblin and Jake Dugger, who homered three times to help the Hogs win two of three games at Vanderbilt last season.
"We like challenges," Dugger said. "We've been hearing their pitchers are pretty good, some of the best in the league and everything, but we don't really worry about those kinds of things when it comes down to it.
"We just focus on what we're trying get done, pitch-by-pitch."
Vanderbilt's offense relies mostly on contact hitting to manufacture runs. Mike Baxter leads the team in batting average (.388), doubles (9), triples (3), homers (5), runs (25) and RBIs (26). Warner Jones (.328, 6 doubles, 4 homers) is another one to watch. They're both considered free swingers as Baxter leads the team with 20 strikeouts and Jones has been walked only once.
Hogs, Commodores Shaking Off Key Losses
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