After the letdown against LSU 2 a week ago, there was a possibility that the Hogs would let that disappointment seep into this week's performance. And, for 4 and 2/3 games, that seemed to be the case. If you think that sounds like it's leading into a story about the Hogs losing games, you'd be wrong. The Razorbacks were a perfect 5 for 5 this week, although it wasn't always pretty. Their first 4 wins were by only a run each, and they had to come back from deficits of 3 or more in every game against Alabama. It was also full of "interesting" occurances, such as a failed attempt at an inside-the-park HR, Arkansas pitcher TJ Forrest notching 3 wins in less than a week, and the Hogs facing off against a familiar face in former South Carolina QB Chris Smelley, who now plays left field for the Crimson Tide. Plus, Zack Cox earns SEC Player of the Week honors for his performance in the 'Bama series. Over the weekend, he batted .556 with 8 hits, 2 of them pivotal home runs. He crossed the plate 6 times himself and hit 8 RBIs, with a career-high 6 of them coming in Friday's matchup. He's also on a 23-game hitting streak, the longest of any player under Coach van Horn.
I didn't get to watch the McNeese St. series, so its coverage will be a little lax. The Arkansas Sports Information Department does a fantastic job of live stats for home games, but they rely on other schools to reciprocate for aways games. In this case, McNeese St. doesn't provide live stats, so I'm relying on secondary sources for this report. The Diamond Hogs win Game 1 3-2. After going up 2-0 in the 3rd, McNeese St. chips away to tie the game in the middle innings. The Hogs would hit the game winning in the 8th, but not without some 9th inning drama. A HBP puts the game-tying run on base with one out, but the Hogs turn a DP to end the game. TJ Forrest gets his first win (out of 3) in this game, and Jeremy Heatley gets the save. The offensive production was a bit better in Game 2, with the Hogs winning 7-6. The Razorbacks left plenty on base this game, a habit that's becoming too familiar. Collin Kuhn has a bit of an embarrassing moment as he's thrown out at home trying to nail an inside-the-park homer. Middle relief pitching was a problem in this game, also, as the Hogs led 4-0 and 7-4 in this game before finally winning 7-6. Christian Kowalchuk gets his first win of the season, and DJ Baxendale gets his 5th save. This was hardly the way everyone expected the Hogs to bounce back after the letdown in Baton Rouge, but wins are wins, no matter how shaky.
The Hogs have a bad start in Game 1 of the 'Bama series. After starting pitcher Mike Bolsinger walks the first batter, back-to-back errors by shortstop Matt Reynolds loads the bases. A ground out and single on the next two plays drive in a pair of runs for the Tide. A wild pitch brings another runner in, pushing the lead to 3, before finally retiring the side. More trouble in the 3rd inning, as the Tide would load the bases on 2 walks and a HBP, with no outs. The Hogs would turn a 4-6-3 DP to get 2 outs, but a run would still score. 'Bama would add another RBI in the 5th inning to push the lead to 5-0. After looking lifeless on offense for 4 innings, the Hogs would finally get their heads on right in the 5th. Reynolds and Brett Eibner would both get on base with singles, and then Zack Cox knocks a 3-run homer to put the Hogs back in the game. Monk Kreder and Andy Wilkins would then hit a back-to-back double and HR to tie the game, and just like that, in the span of an inning, it's a whole new ballgame. At this point, 'Bama would go to the bullpen, and Tim Carver's fly out and James McCann's groundout would end the inning, but not before erasing the Crimson Tide's advantage. Bolsinger would make it through 2 outs in the next inning before being pulled for Jeremy Heatley. Bolsinger has an "okay" outing: 4 hits, 2 ER, and 5 Ks though 5.2 innings. 'Bama strikes first to retake the lead in the 7th. After a no-call on batter interference while McCann was trying to pick off a runner stealing 3rd, he scores on a sac fly. A HBP and a single later, Heatley is done: 2 hits, 1 ER, and no strikeouts through 1 inning. Geoffrey Davenport doesn't fare much better, as he allows an RBI single through on his first batter, pushing the Alabama lead to 2. 'Bama would add another run with a suicide squeeze in the 8th, and that would end Davenport's day: 3 hits, 1 ER, and no strikeouts through 0.2 innings. TJ Forrest would come in at this point, and at the time, it looked like the Hogs were just grasping at straws. However, the Hogs would take advantage of Alabama's inability to throw strikes in the 8th, as they load the bases on three consecutive walks. The next batter, Cox, would make them pay with a bases-clearing double that would tie the game at 8. On the play, the 'Bama shortstop can't field Kreder's grounder, and Cox himself scores from second to give the Razorbacks their first lead of the day. Pinch runner Atkins gets picked off trying to steal second to end the inning, but the damage had been done. Baxendale come in for the save. After walking the leadoff batter, he gets the next to popout, and the next hits into a 6-4-3 DP to end the game. Hogs win, 9-8. TJ Forrest gets his second win of the week, and Baxendale gets his 6th save of the season.
Game 2 was haunted by a rainy day in Fayetteville. Starting pitcher Brett Eibner was shaky on the mound all day, giving up a ton of hits. The Razorback defense was solid, though, as they end the first 2 innings on double plays. The Tide threatens in the 5th with a standup triple, with one out. Matt Reynolds manages to hold the runner on the next groundout, but 'Bama's next batter hits a double that scores the runner on third easily. A flyout on the next play limits the damage to 1 run. Hogs are playing catchup again, but they've come back from worse... and it would get worse in the 6th. A double and an error put two 'Bama players in scoring position, and a single brings them both home for a 3-0 lead. The next batter flies out to end the inning, but the damage has been done. Bama's pitcher has a no-hitter through 5... which mercifully, I jinxed by taking notes about it, as Kuhn hits a single to end the no-no as the leadoff batter in the 6th. You're welcome, Diamond Hogs. In a scary moment, Eibner takes a HBP to the head in the bottom of the 6th. He appears to be okay, and insists on taking the base himself, but that's something that could have been much worse. The 7th inning ends up being big for the Hogs, just as it has been all season. Bo Bigham and Matt Vinson both hit singles to start the inning, and two batters later, Collin Kuhn's single scores Bigham. A wild pitch advances the runners, and then Tim Carver's groundout scores Reynolds, followed by Zack Cox's single to center field that scores Kuhn. That single extends Cox's hitting streak to 22 games, and runs Bama's pitcher off the mound. Andy Wilkins' single would push Cox to third, but Eibner's line out would end the inning. All told, Hogs tie the game at 3. Eibner's day ends with 11 hits, 3 ER, and only 1 K. Jordan Pratt comes on in relief, and the Hogs get out of the top of the 8th with yet another DP. With the game tied 3-3 in the bottom of the 9th, Kuhn hits a standup double to lead off the inning. Carver grounds out, and Zack Cox is intentionally walked to put 2 on, with one out. Wilkins flies out, but pushes Kuhn to third. At this point, Coach van Horn calls in pinch hitter Thomas Hauskey (HOW-ski) for Eibner. Hauskey had been a successful pinch hitter in the 2009 campaign, but he'd only had 2 at-bats so far this season, neither resulting in hits. It wouldn't matter, though, as Hauskey bloops a hit to center field and pushes Kuhn over the plate for the game (and series) win. Jordan Pratt gets the W, no save required.
Game 3 started much like Game 1, i.e, the Hogs fell behind early. After a single and an error by the shortstop put 2 on base, 'Bama 2B Ross Wilson (brother of former Crimson Tide QB John Parker Wilson) knocks a 3-run homer, with no outs. A walk, a sac groundout, a single, and a sac fly later, Chris Smelley (former South Carolina QB) crosses the plate for another Tide run before the inning ends on a groundout. This time, however, the Hogs wouldn't wait to start chipping away at the Crimson Tide lead. Brett Eibner's single and Zack Cox's walk put men on first and second in the 1st inning. Andy Wilkin's single would score Eibner, and then Tim Carver's single scored Cox, to halve the deficit. The Razorback defense shows up again in the 2nd, ending the inning on a DP. Unfortunately, they've also already notched 2 errors on the day. Blown opportunity in the bottom of the 2nd, as the Hogs end the inning with bases loaded. Not only that, bad base running by Collin Kuhn likely kept a run off the board. On a lighter note, Zack Cox extends his hitting streak to 23 games. The Hogs would also leave the bases loaded in the 4th inning. TJ Forrest relieves starting pitcher Randall Fant in 6th. Fant ends the day with 4 hits, 2 ER, and 1 K through 5 innings. The Hog longball returns in the 6th, as Collin Kuhn blasts a solo shot to center, cutting the Tide lead to 1. Two batters later, Cox hits his own solo shot, and the Hogs have tied the game after falling way behind for the third game in a row. This forces a pitching change for 'Bama, but it would be for naught. After Monk Kreder's single (which was big for him, as he'd been responsible for leaving the bases loaded twice in this game), Andy Wilkins hits his own homer. Tim Carver would ground out to end the inning, but only after the Hogs take a 6-4 lead on 4 runs in 4 hits, 3 of them homeruns. Regular followers of the Diamond Hogs may have noticed the glaring absense of ace pitcher Drew Smyly, the usual Saturday starter, during this series. He developed a blister that limited his outing at LSU, and unfortunately, it hasn't satisfactorily headled yet. The coaching staff is hoping that a few innings of pitching will harden his blister up, so he comes on as a reliever in the 7th. Forrest ends the day with 2 hits, no runs, and a strikeout in 1.1 innings. 'Bama starts grasping at their own straws in the bullpen for the 7th. They're now on their 5th pitcher of the day, and after their starter Wolfe went 5 innings, no other pitcher has gone more than 0.2. Immediately after the pitching change, Kuhn extends the lead to 3 with an RBI single that scores McCann. 'Bama's woes would continue, as Eibner then knocks a three-run homer to put the Hogs up 10-4, still with just one out in the inning. Cox and Kreder get quick outs to end the inning, but the Hogs have taken control of the game with back-to-back 4-run innings. Jeremy Heatley comes in to replace Smyly, gets one out, and is then replaced himself by Baxendale, who closes out the 8th. 'Bama leads off the top of the 9th with a single, but CF Taylor Dugas hits into a DP. Dugas is the SEC's leading hitter, and he's hitless in this game, with no walks. Baxendale then throws the last batter out to seal the Razorback victory (and sweep). TJ Forrest gets his second W of the weekend, and third of the week, while Bax picks up his 7th save.
Though struggling with McNeese State and requiring a major comeback at home against Alabama isn't exactly how everyone envisioned the Hogs bouncing back, it's hard to argue with a 5 game sweep. Overall, the Hogs had a pretty good performance on the field. Errors are still a concern, but the middle relief seemed to have progressed some. Not having Smyly for a weekend also required other members of the pitching staff to step up, which helped them gain valuable experience. The offense was a bit more balanced, too, with a good mix of power hitting and "small ball". Despite the sweep, Alabama is a quality opponent, ranked as high as 16 in some polls. This series also served as revenge for the Tide's sweep of the Razorbacks last season. It also marks the first time the Razorbacks have even won the series with Alabama since 2006. For now, the biggest concern with this team is leaving runners stranded. This will likely be addressed by shuffling the lineup (and maybe replacing Kreder at DH), but I won't speculate further.
The Hogs move to 18-5 (4-2) on the season, and move up to #10 in the Rivals poll. They've also cracked the top 10 in 3 of the 5 major polls, and they're in the top 15 in one of the remaining two. Only the Collegiate Baseball poll is holding out, as they have the Hogs at 19. The Hogs are back at Baum all week, with a mid-week series against Centenary on Tuesday and Wednesday. The Kentucky Wildcats visit over the weekend, and they're reeling from dropping their last two SEC series: losing 2 games to 1 at home against Ole Miss and getting swept at Vanderbilt. The next 3 weeks have the potential to be a very exciting time, as the Hogs are at home for 12 of their next 15 games and could easily be up to 30 wins by the time they face off against Florida the last weekend in April. Woo Pig Sooie!