Welcome to Around the Van Horn, a possibly weekly series where I play Monday Morning Pitcher and tie up whatever odds and ends concerning the Arkansas Razorbacks baseball team that I did not cover in the game recaps.
Because I have to write the summaries as soon as the games finish, I often don’t have the time or space to cover every storyline about what happened over the weekend, but now that we are approaching the most important part of the season, I suppose it is as good a time as ever to throw out a few thoughts after having covered the team for a while. This will be a bit of a casual freeform blog of watercooler talk, and based on my schedule, posts will be sporadic. However, in an effort to cover the best college baseball team in the country here at SB Nation, I feel it’s necessary to give these guys at least a little bit of the extra coverage that they deserve.
The Razorbacks won another SEC series this past weekend against the Georgia Bulldogs as they still have not lost a three-game series all season. It was another hard-fought victory against a side desperate for some wins, but the No. 1 team in the country continues to prove why they are in the top spot in all of the polls this Monday.
The Hogs managed to outlast the Bulldogs on Friday night in a 3-0 victory behind Patrick Wicklander and Kevin Kopps. However, they would lose game two in a frustrating affair that saw their bullpen get outplayed by Georgia’s relievers in a 7-3 loss. Despite the loss, Sunday’s game three would go to the Hogs in comeback victory as Kevin Kopps shut down Georgia, and the Razorbacks scored the game’s final five runs.
With that in mind, what did we learn?
Georgia is a really good team
I was very impressed with the Bulldogs this weekend. Even though they were unranked and only 10-11 in the SEC coming into the series, they were still a very dangerous team who pushed us harder than most opponents this season. Keep in mind, Georgia only fell out of the Top 25 of the USA Today Baseball Coaches Poll last week, and they had won two out of three on the road against Vanderbilt a few weeks ago.
Against the Hogs, they proved to be a smart, scrappy side who were fighting for a spot in the postseason. The Bulldogs hung around through most of game one due to the pitching of freshman Liam Sullivan who made the first start of his career on Friday, although you wouldn’t have known it based on his performance. They also made some spectacular plays defensively to beat the Hogs in game two on Saturday including this gem:
The Bulldogs attempted to take game three of the series by saving their ace Ryan Webb for Sunday while the Hogs did not name a starter until the day before the game. Arkansas hitters have struggled against left-handers, and Webb held down our offense until we were finally able to get going in the fifth and rally for the victory. Still, teams should watch out for the Bulldogs if they make the postseason.
Make no mistake, this was a big series win for Arkansas.
Too much Kopps?
We can all agree that everybody loves Kevin Kopps (except the batters he faces), and we saw a lot of him this weekend once again. The Sheriff appeared in for two out of three games including pitching the final four innings of yesterday’s game for the victory. In total, he went 7.1 innings and only allowed six hits with no runs and had eight strikeouts. He is making a case for the national player of the year at his position.
Still, is it possible to have too much of a good thing? Kopps threw over 100 pitches this weekend, which is as much as a starter might throw on a good day, and with the postseason and potentially Omaha on the horizon, the Hogs will need his arm down the stretch.
Dave Van Horn addressed that the other day after the game saying that he views Kopps not necessarily as a closer but more of a “finisher.” He also believes that he could start if he wasn’t already so effective out of the bullpen.
Kopps is not really a guy who tries to blow guys away, and he has a good mix of pitches other than his cutter which he displayed this week that resulted in a very efficient outing despite playing more innings than is usually expected of a closer. Who am I to question Van Horn in this instance? As long as Kopps can keep his pitch count relatively low and keep racking up Ks, then the number of innings really doesn’t matter as much as it might appear.
Sunday pitching remains an issue
The Hogs still haven’t settled upon a third starting pitching option despite doing a little experimentation on Sunday.
Caleb Bolden got the nod yesterday over the likes of Lael Lockhart and Zebulon Vermillion after appearing in a few games this season and putting together a good performance a couple of weeks ago against South Carolina. He would do... ok. Bolden lasted for only 2.1 innings, gave up three hits, threw three strikeouts, and was credited with three earned runs. The early exit should not be seen as a failure, however. While Dave Van Horn would love to have a guy other than Wicklander and Pallette give us at least five innings, he was content to let the bullpen take over for the rest of the game, especially with Kopps as the closer.
I don’t think DVH would mind if he has to use three to five guys in a game if necessary as long as it gets us the win and whoever is starting can give the Hogs a couple of scoreless innings.
More surprising was that after being touted as a potential starting option, Jaxon Wiggins did not make an appearance at all this weekend. Wiggins has not started a game all year for the Hogs after being used exclusively in relief, and with the series on the line in game three, Van Horn decided to go with Bolden who made his seventh start of the season on Sunday. However, the Wiggins talk is more than just a rumor, so I would certainly expect him to be featured in the Hogs’ last midweek game of the regular season tomorrow against Arkansas State.
I would also like to see Connor Noland get more work on Tuesday if possible. He had a rough outing previously against LSU in his first appearance in almost two months after coming off an injury, and he needs the reps. Certainly, some of the midweek cancellations lately have not helped matters. If he has any chance of getting up to speed, tomorrow night and the SEC tournament (which let’s admit- is rather meaningless) are his best opportunities. I think the ship has already sailed on him being considered for a Sunday spot, but we can always use another option out of the bullpen.
The Hogs have seven guys who feature regularly in the lineup with over 100 at-bats on the season, which means there are a handful of players competing for the final two spots in the batting order. Among those, Zack Gregory, Jacob Nesbit, and Cullen Smith were inserted into the starting lineups this past weekend. Smith only appeared once while Nesbit started twice, and Gregory played all three games. Gregory went 2-for-9 overall as the leadoff batter with no RBIs while Nesbit struggled with eight at-bats and five strikeouts as his average slumped to .197 on the year.
Personally, I’d like to see Charlie Welch get more playing time. Welch pinch-hit in a couple of spots this weekend and delivered a nice hit on Friday night. He actually owns the highest batting average on the team at .364 and has the highest slugging percentage at .848.
The only issue is that he plays catcher which is occupied by Casey Opitz, but perhaps DVH might consider moving him to third base which has been a revolving door between Nesbit and Smith. However, maybe that’s just wishful thinking based on the fact that I used to play third base a long time ago and thought that’s where they stuck guys like me.
Hogs continue historic season
With the victory over Georgia, the Hogs won a program-record eighth straight SEC series and are on the verge of the most series wins in a season. The fewest number of series losses in a year was two back in 2004 which was Van Horn’s second season in charge.
The Hogs also find themselves close to the most SEC wins under DVH after recording 20 in 2019. Currently, they have 17 with six games to go.
By the way, the most wins in a season under DVH was 48 in 2018, and the Hogs have 36.