BATON ROUGE, La. - With the first 15 games of the 2010 season in the books, the No. 13 University of Arkansas baseball team begins Southeastern Conference play Friday night at defending national champion and third-ranked LSU. Game one of the weekend series is scheduled for a 7 p.m. start, while the games Saturday and Sunday are set for a 3 p.m. and 1 p.m. first pitch, respectively. The three-game series will mark the start of conference play for both teams as the SEC schedule kicks into gear across the league.
"The team is really excited about starting conference play," head coach Dave Van Horn said. "Usually, there are the guys that really get it going around conference time. The ones that have been through league play know these games mean a lot more than the first 15. Those first 15 are all about learning where we are and what we need to work on. I think we've learned a lot about our team."
All three games of the series will be aired by Cox Sports Television (CST), channel 119 in Northwest Arkansas. Lyn Rollins and Ben McDonald will handle the commentary duties for games one and three, while Paul Crane and Ron Swoboda will be in the booth for Saturday's matchup.
As always, fans can also listen to this weekend's action on the Razorback Sports Network from ISP. Chuck Barrett will be in the booth as the network's play-by-play announcer.
Arkansas (12-3) and LSU (14-2) met five times last season, including a pair of matchups in the College World Series. The Tigers won four of the five meetings last year, and hold a 49-22 advantage in the all-time series. The Razorbacks win over LSU last season, an 11-4 triumph, came in game one of a doubleheader played in Fayetteville. Overall, Arkansas is 9-24 in games played in Baton Rouge, but have a 5-4 tally with Van Horn at the helm.
"We have three games, and they all count the same as the others, but obviously we're playing the defending national champion, so it brings a little more hype to it," Van Horn said. "You have a couple of ranked teams and a couple of teams that squared off in Omaha. That was the last game we played (last season) when they eliminated us, so there are always things out there in the back of the players' minds. As far as the coaches, we just want to win on Friday and move from there."
At the plate, Zack Cox is riding a 15-game hitting streak entering conference play. The Louisville, Ky., native leads the club, and is fifth in the SEC, with a .410 batting average. He has totaled 25 hits through 15 games with eight multi-hit games to his credit. Andy Wilkins supplies the power for the Hogs with a team-leading six home runs and 20 RBI. He is tied for third in the league in home runs and owns the fourth-best slugging percentage (.722) in the SEC.
Bo Bigham has been a spark since returning to the Razorback lineup March 9 against South Dakota State. In that five-game span, he is 7-for-19 (.368) with three doubles, four runs scored and nine RBI. Matt Vinson is the reigning SEC Freshman of the Week after capping last weekend with a game-winning solo home run in the bottom of the 10th inning against Wisconsin-Milwaukee.
The Razorbacks have been solid on the mound and lead the SEC with a team ERA of 2.73. Arkansas is holding opposing hitters to a .241 batting average. The staff's control has been key to the club's success. The Hogs have struck out 144 hitters, the fifth most in the conference, and have walked just 30, the lowest total by an SEC team.
Drew Smyly, Saturday's probable starter, is tied for sixth in the league with his 1.80 ERA and stands second with 31 strikeouts. In his last outing, the sophomore lefty fanned 11 Wisc.-Milwaukee hitters, one off his career high. Geoffrey Davenport is 10th in the SEC with a 2.25 ERA, primarily in relief duty. DJ Baxendale has four saves this season and hasn't allowed a run in his last four outings.
"Our bullpen has done a pretty good job," Van Horn said. "That was a big concern of mine, especially with moving Bolsinger to the starting rotation. I thought that might take away from our bullpen but I think the guys have taken his role-Geoffrey Davenport and Jeremy Heatley-have done a very good job. Then, in the closer role, Baxendale has done a super job so far."
In addition to Smyly, the Razorback rotation for their weekend series at LSU is scheduled to feature Mike Bolsinger (2-0, 3.38 ERA) and Brett Eibner (2-1, 1.23 ERA). The Tigers will counter with Austin Ross (2-0, 4.57 ERA) Friday and Joey Bourgeois (2-1, 4.74 ERA) Saturday. Sunday's starter for LSU is still to be determined.