The SEC has once again lived up to expectations this season. A look at the standings headed into the final weekend will tell you that.
Three teams; Tennessee, Florida, and Vanderbilt, are within one game of the East Division lead. Arkansas leads by a mere two games in the West Division.
A top 10 East-West showdown to wrap up the regular season falls at the perfect time, as #6 Florida will travel to #1 Arkansas with SEC tournament seeding implications, and regular season titles on the line.
The Thursday-Saturday series will be broadcast on SEC Network.
Simply said, neither the Gators or Razorbacks have struggled much in the last month of the season. But flaws have been revealed.
Arkansas comes off a series win, just barely, at #5 Tennessee, as the thrilling series resulted in three one-run games. The Razorbacks overcame a five-run deficit to defeat the Vols Friday, but a walk-off home run from Max Ferguson on Saturday gave Tennessee the 8-7 marquee victory in game two. Arkansas bounced back with a 3-2 win in the series finale, though many questioned the Razorbacks’ status as a top-ranked team.
Arkansas will be aiming for a 40-win regular season this weekend, sitting currently at 39-10 overall, and 19-8 in SEC play. Among the notable victories include, #3 Texas, #8 Texas Tech, #13 TCU, a road sweep over #4 Mississippi State and a series win at #15 Ole Miss.
Reaching the milestone of 40 wins appears to be in the cards, especially considering the Razorbacks are 23-5 at Baum-Walker Stadium this season.
Florida has had a few more ups and downs than the Razorbacks, losing series to Tennessee, South Carolina and Miami, but the Gators are dangerous and a threat for the SEC East title nonetheless. They enter this weekend having won their last five series, including over Vanderbilt and Georgia, and do not appear to be slowing down anytime soon as the postseason edges closer. Florida enters the series with a respectable record of 35-16 on the year, and 17-10 in conference play. The Gators are just 7-9 on the road.
Florida has a solid pitching staff, but the consistency of the lineup has allowed the Gators to pull away late in games. In a 9-2 win over Georgia on Saturday, Florida scored the game’s final seven runs, with all but two of those being scored off of home runs. The lineup seems to have an innate ability to keep an inning going, using whatever means necessary to reach base. With an on-base percentage of .379, the Gators also rank fourth in the SEC in batting average with .283.
Getting on base seems to be what Florida does best, and no player embodies that more than Jud Fabian. The sophomore outfielder “checks all the boxes” according to CBN’s Harris Frommer and has displayed that unique ability, starting 50 games, with 20 home runs and a batting average of .267. He is a heavy bat in Florida’s lineup, though not the only one. Outfielder Jacob Young has burst onto the scene, batting .313 in 51 games. Though his power numbers are somewhat low (3 HR, .442 SLG %), he hits well to all fields and has remarkable speed. Also notable is third baseman Kirby McMullen’s 23-game streak of reaching base.
The Gators pitching, led by ace Tommy Mace, will need to be just as good against the Razorbacks, though.
Arkansas has a high-powered offense, with a focus on power. Interestingly, the Razorbacks rank tenth in the SEC in batting average (.276), but lead the conference in home runs (83). Their ability to drive the ball well will force Florida to use its best arms, especially because of the balance of Arkansas’ lineup. Christian Franklin, Brady Slavens, Jalen Battles, and Robert Moore are all players with sky-high draft potential, power behind their swings, and notable plate discipline. Slavens is batting .306 on the year with 54 RBI and 11 homers, and Franklin enters the series at .303 with 11 homers. Battles, though having what some may call a down year with a batting average at .250, has 33 RBI and 34 runs scored, having also gone 5-for-6 on stolen base attempts. Moore has been great defensively at second base, and at the plate, his consistency has paid big dividends. On March 30, he became the first Razorback to hit for the cycle in the 21st century, and enters the weekend hitting .284 on the year.
While the power numbers are high for the Razorbacks, head coach Dave Van Horn has still employed a “small-ball” approach, using bunting and stealing bases to generate offense. Florida will need to be on guard, as Arkansas is the kind of unselfish team who does whatever necessary to claim a victory.
Mace is perhaps Florida’s best weapon on the mound, though he has struggled lately. A quality right-hander who has a fastball in the mid-90s, Mace’s command seems to have slightly diminished throughout the second half of conference play, as he has allowed at least three earned runs in each of his last six starts. This will be the storyline to watch Thursday night, as the winner of game one will have a clear advantage throughout the rest of the series. The Arkansas crowd makes for a tough environment for opposing pitchers, but Mace has shown signs that he can rise to the occasion. The question is if he can do it against the superior bats of the Razorbacks.
Toeing the rubber on Thursday for Arkansas will be Patrick Wicklander. The southpaw has looked extremely good this season, posting a 1.93 ERA through nine starts. With that said, he will be looking to get back on track after a tough outing at Tennessee last Friday, considering he was sent to the showers after just 2.2 innings of work and two earned runs. He throws a high percentage of strikes, having walked just 16 batters and struck out 60.
Kevin Kopps has been Van Horn’s top option out of the bullpen this season, and could be used Thursday, depending on the situation. His ERA of 0.80 through 24 appearances, and 9-0 record, makes him a key weapon in late-game situations for the Razorbacks. He leads the team in strikeouts with 89.
Prediction: With Arkansas at home, the Razorbacks will be tough to beat. I like what Mace can do on the mound, and at his best, with a quality performance from the lineup, Florida could win game one on Thursday. But I do not see Arkansas dropping the series, and if Florida wins Thursday, it will be by a one or two run margin. This has the makings of a highly contested series, and one that I think Arkansas wins 2 games to 1.