Everything has come down to the final two series of the regular season. Arkansas plays host to newly ranked Texas A&M this weekend in its final home set of the year, then travels to conference bottom feeder Missouri the following weekend to close out league play.
There's no question if Arkansas wants to extend its 12-year NCAA Tournament appearance streak they need to close out the regular season strong then make a statement in the conference tournament to put to rest any lingering doubt, which might be tough to do given their inconsistency. And that's been with Jalen Beeks, who I'll get to later.
This Arkansas team has been hot and cold the entire season. Think about it, this team was swept in a doubleheader by South Alabama (21-26 as of this weekend) in Baum Stadium, but took two of three games from the No. 1 and No. 11 teams in the nation.
We're talking about a team that has also been ranked on three different occasions, but never higher than No. 24. Anytime this club has had the opportunity to assert and separate itself it hasn't, and it's, in my opinion, a major cause for concern. Oh, and then there's the bevy of one-run losses throughout the course of the season. They know how to shoot themselves in the foot better than anyone it seems. The opportunities have been plenty, but would it really be Arkansas athletics if it was easy?
And now, Dave Van Horn announced this week that starting pitcher Jalen Beeks would be skipping at least one start to rest his sore throwing arm. Then, on Sports Talk with Bo Mattingly Wednesday, DVH said Beeks would miss this weekend and "probably not" start at Missouri in the conference series finale.
Beeks (5-4, 2.11 ERA) is one of the four pitchers on Arkansas' roster with starting pitching experience outside of Trey Killian and Chris Oliver. The plan is to get Beeks some rest after throwing a team-high 76 2/3 innings, being in the weekend rotation all season long, and getting roughed up at Ole Miss, but you can't help but notice the timing. It's do or die for Arkansas starting this weekend and they will be without their No. 1 guy possibly for both series.
LHP Colin Poché (who I feel is the guy in this situation), righty Alex Phillips and James Teague are the only other pitchers with starting experience and seem to be the only viable options to replace Beeks for a start or two. But the issue is these three have been mostly limited to mid-week nonconference opposition. How would they hold up against SEC opposition for the first time in a huge spot?
Also, Jake Wise is still a game-time decision for Friday night's contest, and will have to pass concussion tests in order to play after being elbowed (?) in the head at Ole Miss. Wise's backup and DH Blake Baxendale will also not be available, meaning if Wise cannot play then catcher Alex Gosser will have his redshirt removed and see the first action of his career.
Arkansas' margin for error will be small this weekend. Texas A&M enters Fayetteville in hopes of taking their third consecutive road series in SEC play (Vanderbilt, Miss. State). The Aggies will send Daniel Mengden to the hill Friday, who pitched for the USA Baseball Collegiate National team last summer and ranks third in the SEC in strikeouts with 80 and sixth in innings pitched with 81. And on Saturday Texas A&M will send Grayson Long to the mound, who has held down the offenses of Vanderbilt and Kentucky this season as a sophomore.
The Hogs will then face Missouri (6-18 SEC as of Friday) to close out the season. It seems like just the series Arkansas needs to close out its season, but the Razorbacks are just 5-10 in true road contests. Dropping two of three in COMO would all but put their season to rest.
Arkansas' remaining schedule favors a strong finish with the tougher of the two series being in their own park, but going about it without arguably your top pitcher and one of the top arms in the league could be troublesome. And now with Wise questionable and a power bat in Baxendale out this weekend, you're taking a serious hit at the plate and with your battery.
Can Arkansas finish strong? Sure they can. Van Horn's clubs are typically tough-minded, and really, there's no reason to question DVH's track record. But given the circumstances heading down the stretch, it's hard not to get nervous and wonder if the Hogs might be in some trouble.
- SEC Baseball Power Rankings: May 6
- Arkansas Razorback Football Will Be Better In 2014, But How Much Better?
- Arkansas Razorbacks NFL Draft Profile: Travis Swanson
- Arkansas Basketball Draws Iowa State In SEC/Big 12 Challenge
- Razorbacks Internet Chatter: May 6 - Hogs in NFL Draft, Trey Flowers, Brandon Allen, Joe Johnson