No. 2 Arkansas and No. 8 Kentucky set tor diamond clash on Derby Weekend


Kentucky might be hosting horse racing’s annual Run for the Roses with this weekend’s Kentucky Derby, but the state is also hosting a race for the SEC baseball crown.

No. 2 Arkansas (39-7, 16-5) and No. 8 Kentucky (33-9, 16-5) will meet in a three-game diamond clash of the league co-leaders beginning Friday at 5:30 p.m. in Lexington.

Razorback ace Hagen Smith (8-0, 1.35 ERA) is set to face Wildcat Trey Pooser (3-0, 3.754) on the mound in the opener.

Razorback head coach Dave Van Horn is trying to not overhype the series, one of three regular season ones Arkansas has left.

“To me, the series all count the same,”
Van Horn said. “It’s one win or one loss every time you play. You want to try to win two out of three so you have a tiebreaker. You win a couple games every weekend, you’ve got a chance to win the league.

“It’s a big deal, but it’s not a big deal. It’s another SEC series. The next weekend we’ve got Mississippi State, the last one we go to Texas A&M, so they’re all big.

“Teams are all good. Our focus is to go down there and get ready to play Friday and try to find a way to win.”

The two teams will also play at Kentucky Proud Park Saturday at 1 and Sunday at noon with all three games streamed via SEC Network +.

Kentucky head coach Nick Mingone is expecting sellout crowds this weekend just as the Wildcats had for Tennessee’s visit two weeks ago.

“Super excited,” Mingione said. “This will be two consecutive home weekends where we are sold out. It’s what we envisioned when we had this park. When you look back toward the end of last year, you started seeing the crowd pick up.

“I’m excited to get all of the people out, create that home field advantage we have and put on a good show for our fans.”

Kentucky started 14-1 in SEC action with a three-game lead on Arkansas before losing a the final two games to visiting Tennessee and then dropping 2 of 3 contest at South Carolina last weekend.

Mingione is happy with the way his team has handled the recent adversity, including a 10-0 shutout loss in its last game at South Carolina.

“They’ve been so consistent, that’s been the beauty of them,” Mingione said. “We’re a pitch away this past weekend from winning the series and we’re a couple of pitches away from the weekend before.

“They’ve been great. They’re a resilient group, they understand the importance of each day, the importance of wins and losses expiring. They’ve handled everything great.”

Van Horn is impressed with what he has seen from Kentucky.

“I think they have a really good team,” Van Horn said. “They swing the bat extremely well, they pitch, they field the ball good and if you let them get on a roll, they can get on a roll. So we know we have our hands full.”

Van Horn and Arkansas last played at Kentucky’s Proud Park five years ago right after it opened.

“It’s nice,” Van Horn said. “We haven’t been there since, I think, 2019. I don’t remember exactly, but it’s been a while. Might have been sooner than that, but it seems like it. It’s really… I mean, it’s brand new. All turf, kind of like Vanderbilt’s field. It can be quick and lively.

Kentucky’s field is a turf one, similar to what Arkansas has in its indoor workout facility.

“Pretty much the same turf,” Van Horn said. “So we don’t get all caught up in it. It’s still a baseball field. It’s just a little different surface.

“Now it can get bouncy in the outfield. If the ball hits, it might jump up and you get a double on what should be a single. Just little things like that.

“These guys have grown up playing summer ball and high school ball on these type of fields. I’d say most every guy on our team’s played on this type of surface many a time. It’s just a nice ballpark. They built it four or five years ago and it’s one of the top fields in the league.”

Arkansas second baseman Peyton Stovall, now hitting a team-leading .350 after going 5 for 5 in Wednesday’s 12-7 win over Missouri, agrees with his coach’s sentiments about turf.

“It’ll be a little different, but I think our indoor facility helps a lot, just being able to practice in there as much as we have, just always taking ground balls in there,” Stovall said. “But like Coach Van Horn said, it’s pretty similar turf.

“We’ll go, fly out tomorrow (Thursday), probably take some ground balls, hit on their park. But it’s going to be fun, looking forward to it and just play good baseball.”

Kentucky does steal more bases than most SEC teams, having been safe on 92 of its 114 attempts so far this season while its foes are 23 of 29.

“From a catcher’s perspective, just mixing in some picks, quick picks, hold picks and stuff,” Arkansas backstop Parker Rowland said. “On the mound, those guys switching up their timing and stuff and switching their leg lift, going slide step every once and awhile, just kind of keeping them off balance.”

Van Horn is used to Arkansas playing in Kentucky on Derby weekend in Louisville and battling the weather while the Razorbacks are in Lexington.

“I know it is,” Van Horn said. “Seems like every time we go there the Derby’s going. And it usually rains.”

Photo by John D. James

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