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Top-ranked Razorbacks take aim at visiting Rebels this weekend

By DUDLEY E. DAWSON

FAYETTEVILLE – A week after hosting the 2023 national champs, an Arkansas squad hoping it is driving toward a 2024 title will host the last team standing back in 2022.

No. 1 Arkansas (23-3, 8-1) will meet Ole Miss (18-12, 3-6) in a three-game series beginning Thursday night at 6 p.m.

Thursday’s game will be streamed by the SEC Network while Friday’s 6:30 p.m. game and Saturday’s 2 p.m. contest will be on SEC Network +.

The Razorbacks are rolling, having won a Baum-Walker Stadium school-record 18 straight home games.

“It’s great,” Arkansas head coach Dave Van Horn said. “We’ve played pretty well at home. We’ve played in some great weather and some cold weather. A little in between. We usually play pretty well here. Proud of them.

“Sometimes when you play at home or play at home a lot, guys get a little complacent. But our guys haven’t done that. They just go out and play hard. It’s paid off for us.”

The Rebels have lost four straight – getting swept at home by Kentucky last weekend and losing at Memphis 9-4 on Tuesday.

Ole Miss also dropped a 4-2 mid-week game back on Feb. 21 to Arkansas State, a team Arkansas blasted 13-0 on Tuesday.

But Van Horn is sure his team won’t overlook Ole Miss, who eliminated the Razorbacks in the 2022 College World Series and then won it all.

In fact, after starting 2-4, Ole Miss had won 16 of 20 games before running into a red-hot Kentucky club.

“Oh they have good players,” Van Horn said. “It can turn around real quick…“There’s no looking at the record and saying, ‘Oh, they’re this or they’re that, we should be fine.’ If you do that, you’re going to find yourself behind real quick.”

Arkansas has swept Missouri, won two of three at Auburn and swept defending national champion LSU last weekend.

“You hope the mindset is, ‘this is another SEC series, let’s go find a way to win Game 1,’” Van Horn said. “Because if you don’t start thinking that immediately and wait until game day or after the first pitch or two, sometimes that’s too late.

“But so far so good on that. I feel like they show up and know what they need to do. They need to play well, pitch well and field. If you do that, you’ve got a good chance.”

Van Horn and Ole Miss head coach Mike Bianco go all way back to playing against each other in 1982.

“I don’t look at it any differently than any other SEC games,” Van Horn said. “It’s just that we’ve run into each other a lot in postseason it seems like.

“I mean, our relationship I think is probably better than ever. I have a lot of respect for him and his program, what he’s done there.”

There have been many dramatic contests between the two.

“The games seem to be very interesting usually and the series are really competitive,” Van Horn said. “We know each other a little bit as far as maybe the way we think.

“Again, I don’t get all caught up in who we’re playing as much as it’s an SEC game. Obviously maybe the fans do a little more.

“I truly believe at the end of 30 (SEC games), you’ve played 30 and they all count the same. But you know a lot of respect for Mike. He’s done a great job there. Yeah. And here we go again.”

Arkansas will send lefty Hagen Smith (5-0, 1.54 ERA) to the mound on Thursday night, lefty Mason Molina (3-0, 3.00) for Friday night and righty Brady Tygart (3-0, 2.51) will open Saturday.

Ole Miss lists Riley Maddox (2-2, 1.24) as Thursday night’s stater, but has not announced starting pitchers for Friday or Saturday from a Rebels’ staff that has a 5.62 ERA – the 13th highest of the 14 SEC teams.

Ole Miss three starters combined for just 9 innings against Kentucky with Maddox pitching 5 2/3 of those in the first game.

Tygart will be third in the Arkansas order again after previously going second before last weekend.

Tygart hurled four innings while allowing five hits and four runs, fanning three and not walking any in his team’s 7-5 win over LSU.

“Well, I hope so,” Van Horn said Tygart of getting right. “We gave him, as you said, rest and then gave him an extra day’s rest and then didn’t throw a lot of pitches last weekend because it wasn’t his best outing. His stuff was good.

“Then going again in game three (this weekend) will give him a little bit more rest.

“Then we came make some decisions after this weekend because it starts where we flip back to Friday, Saturday, Sunday if we want to keep it the same or go left, right, left or whatever.”

Van Horn doesn’t believe who Tygart is facing is much of a factor.

“I don’t think it matters to Brady who the other team is,” Van Horn said. “He’s just motivated to do well. I don’t think the motivation is an issue at all. It is just about getting a couple of things straighten up and, like I said, maybe a little bit of rest. Hopefully he will have a really good outing for us.”

Ole Miss is batting .279 as a team and has slugged 45 home runs with Brayden Russell’s 11 leading the way and four players with five blasts or more.

“They can hurt you real quick,” Van Horn said. “If you give them free passes, they can hit the ball over your head a lot. And they have a couple guys that can run real well. They’ve got some options on the bench if they want to pinch hit or bring a lefty to hit.

“They’re hitting almost .280 as a team. It’s week to week. You just have to go do what you can do as a team. It’s nice to know what the other team is doing, but we just focus on what we can do.”

The Rebels have stolen 37 bases in 41 attempts while Arkansas has 23 thefts in 29 tries and has allowed 19 in 23 attempts.

“You look at the numbers and we haven’t run a whole lot, maybe tried 30 times, so they have only run maybe 15 to 20 more times than we have,” Van Horn said.

“So it’s not like it is a huge part of their game, what they do is they just pick and choose and if you fall asleep on them or you are not paying attention, they are going to take a base on you and they have the ability to do that.

“If they had 80 steals in 85 attempts, then that would be a major, major concern. If it is definitely a concern. We do have some left handed pitchers that can slow that down.

“Tygart has got a really good move and he is fairly quick to the plate and our catchers throw accurate.

“So it is something that we talk about and we actually go over those and already have looked that those numbers these morning. So that is just another weapon that you have on offense if you can steal a base when you need one.”

Photo by John D. James

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