by Matt Sefcovic (@MattSefcovic)
Two of the best teams in the country will meet this weekend as all eyes will be on Oxford, Mississippi to watch the Razorbacks (24-2, 7-2 SEC) take on the Rebels (23-6, 7-2 SEC) in a battle for first place in the SEC West. Arkansas is coming off a series win against Auburn, but it took the Hogs extra innings in the rubber match to secure the series win. The Rebels lost their series last weekend in Gainesville as the Gators won two games by a combined four runs. The Rebels were in the series all weekend, but could not overcome Coach O’Sullivan’s gritty, hungry team, which was in need of a marquee series win.
The biggest news coming out of Oxford this week has been the injury to Tim Elko, who tore his ACL Monday against North Alabama. Elko was off to a monster season, batting .340 and leading the Rebels with nine home runs and 36 RBI. He is going to forgo surgery at this point and attempt to return this season.
The Rebels have plenty of options to step up in his absence, but it will take a team effort to match what Elko brought to this roster. They have five other starters batting about .300, led by Kevin Graham at .355. Two of the Rebels freshman, TJ McCants and Jacob Gonzalez, have been providing a huge spark to the offense lately and will be relied upon to fill the void of Elko. Cael Baker just returned from an injury this week so his number will be called on by Coach Bianco this weekend at first base.
Ole Miss is slated to stick with Gunnar Hoglund, Doug Nikhazy, and Derek Diamond in their rotation this weekend. On the season, Hoglund and Nikhazy have combined for a 5-2 record and 2.39 ERA, with 110 strikeouts in 67.2 innings. Ole Miss is currently third in the country in strikeouts per nine innings with 12.2 and have had a few impressive performances from their bullpen, starting with closer Taylor Broadway. Broadway leads the team with seven saves and boasts a 2.16 ERA, while Jackson Kimbrell has made ten appearances out of the bullpen, striking out 22 batters in just 15.1 innings of work. It will be difficult for the Rebels to get through this weekend without seeing these two on the mound for meaningful innings.
Coach Dave Van Horn has his club rolling, winning 12 of their last 13 games, and winning every series they have played this season. Arkansas has just three qualified batters above the .300 threshold, but two other batters are just slightly below in the .290’s. Arkansas is 66th in the country in batting average but they are 30th in on base percentage because of their patience at the plate.
The Razorbacks also lead the country with 50 home runs and are third in the nation in home runs per game with 1.74. Brady Slavens, Cayden Wallace, and Christian Franklin are all tied for the lead with seven, followed by Robert Moore and Matt Goodheart with six apiece. This offense is going to give the Rebels the toughest test they have seen all season.
The Razorbacks pitching staff is currently ranked 50th with a 3.78 ERA and is 11th in the nation in hits allowed per nine innings, giving up just under six hits per game. Not only has the pitching staff started the season off strong, the defense has held their own with a .980 fielding percentage, which is good for 12th best in the country.
The last few weekends, Coach Dave Van Horn has settled into a rotation of Patrick Wicklander, Zebulon Vermillion, and Lael Lockhart that has worked out very well. Wicklander has started just three times this year in his seven appearances and has a 2.13 ERA in 25.1 innings thrown. You will be hard pressed to find a pitcher with a better stat line than Kevin Kopps this season. Kopps has appeared in 13 games, throwing 22 innings with 40 strikeouts and a 0.82 ERA.
Matt’s Prediction: The Rebels need a series win after the loss to Florida, especially considering that they travel to Starkville next weekend for an in-state clash with Mississippi State, but I do not think this is their weekend. Tim Elko is missing his first series since his injury, and the Hogs are hot right now. Give me DVH and Arkansas in this one, but I think it will be close.