It seems that at least once every year, the series to watch in college baseball is played in Starkville.
Dudy Noble Field provides an atmosphere unlike many others in college baseball, and will host what just might be a battle for the nation’s #1 ranking, as #2 Arkansas (14-3) battles #3 Mississippi State (17-4) in a three-game series this weekend. The victor could possibly slide into the top spot, considering the magnitude, importance, and challenges both teams will face in this series.
Entering the matchup, both squads are evenly-matched statistically, and have swiftly blazed through their respective non-conference schedules.
“We know how good they are. We got to see them play three games in Arlington. We know they’re really good.” -Arkansas HC Dave Van Horn
Arkansas’ only hiccup came in the form of a three-game losing skid from March 14 to March 19, and saw the Razorbacks drop the series finale to Louisiana Tech, a midweek to Oklahoma and 16-1 thumping in the SEC opener to Alabama. Yet, Arkansas seemed to find its rhythm quickly against the Tide in the final two contests of the series, winning by scores of 9-1 and 3-1 as precise pitching paved the way. Tuning up for the weekend, the Razorbacks trounced Memphis in a two-game set on Tuesday and Wednesday, winning by scores of 14-1, and 9-4.
“We’re looking forward to going to Starkville,” said Arkansas head coach Dave Van Horn in a postgame press conference Wednesday. “We know how good they are. We got to see them play three games in Arlington. We know they’re really good.”
Mississippi State entered the weekend with an identical 2-1 record in SEC play, having posted two convincing victories over #12 LSU by scores of 6-1 and 3-0 to open the conference slate. Playing in Baton Rouge, the Tigers nabbed the final game of the series in an 8-3 win, and snapped what had been a nine-game winning streak for the Bulldogs. Mississippi State breezed through its non-conference schedule, notably defeating Southern Miss 4-1, Texas Tech 11-5, and Texas 8-3. The Bulldogs added an 18-1 rout of North Alabama on Wednesday night before looking ahead to the weekend.
“We’re excited,” said Mississippi State head coach Chris Lemonis in a recent press conference. “This is the one that got pulled away from us last year. We were supposed to open with Arkansas and everything hit. The year before we went to Arkansas and had a bad outing. I know a lot of the older guys in the program were excited to play. They’re obviously very talented, well coached, and it will be a great match up all weekend."
Often, especially in the SEC, pitching defines who wins the series. Mississippi State enters the matchup with a slight advantage on the mound, ranked #1 in the SEC in team ERA at 2.46. Do not get me wrong, the Bulldogs’ bats have plenty of pop, but their arms were impressive against LSU.
The Tigers failed to keep up with the speed and accuracy of Mississippi State’s pitching staff, as LSU was held to just four hits in game one. Friday night starter Christian MacLeod and reliever Brandon Smith gave the Bulldogs a lethal one-two punch on the mound. LSU scored on an RBI single in the sixth inning, but would not score again until the first inning of the series finale, as Mississippi State followed Friday’s 6-1 win with a 3-0 shutout in game two. Second-year freshman Will Bednar started Saturday’s contest and picked up the first victory of the season in his second start of the year, retiring 13 consecutive batters between the first and fifth innings.
The Bulldogs’ weakness on the mound has been inconsistencies from the pitching staff on Sundays, which was revealed in the 8-3 loss in the series finale. Starter Eric Cerantola made it through just 1.1 innings and allowed two earned runs, raising his 6.97 ERA to 7.71. Lemonis made a call to the bullpen four times throughout the loss, with only Jackson Fristoe making it through more than 1.1 innings.
Arkansas’ weekend starting rotation has been strong this season, but will have a different look on Friday night. Patrick Wicklander will start in place of Peyton Pallette, who has a 3.72 ERA in five starts this season. Wicklander has primarily come out of the bullpen this season, and made just one start, but Van Horn appeared confident in the junior left-hander’s ability to give Arkansas a quality outing against MacLeod Friday.
“He has experience. It’s not like he hasn’t pitched in regionals, super regionals, conference games on the road and at home,” said Van Horn of Wicklander. “If he can give us four quality innings that’d be great, any more would be even better.”
Zebulon Vermillion is expected to start Saturday and Lael Lockhart on Sunday. Vermillion pounds the strike zone, and seldom allows runs to score with a 2.13 ERA and 2-0 record in four starts this season. Lockhart has only improved over the course of his five starts and has a 2.38 ERA.
Of course, a preview of this series would not be complete without mentioning the bats.
Arkansas has shown off its power time and time again, with 29 home runs, tied for third in the SEC. Leading the offense for the Razorbacks is infielder Brady Slavens, who has started all but one game this season, and is atop nearly every statistical hitting category on the team. Hitting .304 entering the series, the JUCO transfer has 21 hits, 18 runs, six homers and 20 RBI. The former Wichita State Shocker has made an immediate impact for the Razorbacks, though he went just 2-for-10 in the series against Alabama last weekend.
“It’s a lot more difficult here,” Slavens said in a press conference last week. “You really get used to it, and if you don’t you get left behind. [You] really have to learn how to hit against these SEC type of arms. Everybody is good that you’re going to face, so you’ve got to learn and learn quickly.”
Mississippi State also has several notable sluggers, including Kamren James, Tanner Allen, Logan Tanner, Luke Hancock, and Josh Hatcher, all of whom have started every game for the Bulldogs this season. James seems to be getting hot at just the right time, as the third baseman leads the team in batting average (.307) and went 3-for-4 in Sunday’s loss to LSU.
There is a lot of fanfare surrounding this top five matchup and for good reason. Both teams are fighting, not only in the national rankings, but in the SEC standings. Ole Miss leads the West Division with a flawless 3-0 record, though Arkansas and Mississippi State are just one game back at 2-1. The winner of this series would become the early frontrunner in the West.
“They’re all huge, but this one feels a little bigger because it is at home,” said Lemonis when asked about the anticipation before this series. “It was the one that was taken away. Our kids are very excited to play this weekend. I hope we’re not too excited.”
Riley’s Prediction: These two teams are about as evenly matched as any two teams could be, something reflected in the rankings, and I do not see either team earning a series sweep. It is awfully hard to win in Starkville, no matter who you are, so Arkansas will have to battle that through all three games. In the end, though the Razorbacks have hit well for the majority of this season, I will take Mississippi State to win this season, behind solid pitching, and the consistency in the lineup.