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Situational hitting a struggle for Hogs

by Tom Murphy | April 29, 2022 at 2:16 a.m.
Arkansas third baseman Cayden Wallace has batted leadoff the most this season for the Razorbacks, who have tried five players in that spot in their attempts try to overcome struggles with situational hitting at times. Arkansas hosts Ole Miss for a three-game series beginning tonight. (NWA Democrat-Gazette/Charlie Kaijo)

Today’s game

Ole Miss at No. 4 Arkansas

WHEN 6:30 p.m.

WHERE Baum-Walker Stadium, Fayetteville

RECORDS Ole Miss 23-17, 6-12 SEC; Arkansas 32-9, 12-6

STARTING PITCHERS Ole Miss RHP Dylan DeLucia (3-0, 4.40 ERA); Arkansas RHP Connor Noland (5-2, 2.54)

COACHES Mike Bianco (845-479-1 in 22nd season at Ole Miss, 945-550 in 25th season overall); Dave Van Horn (782-411 in 20th season at Arkansas, 1,102-570 in 28th season overall)

SERIES Arkansas leads 54-49 since 1960

TV None

RADIO Razorback Sports Network

INTERNET ESPN3.com

SHORT HOPS The Razorbacks are one of six Power 5 teams with less than 10 losses this season, joining Tennessee, Oregon State, Virginia Tech, Notre Dame and Maryland. The Hokies and Fighting Irish, who have played 37 and 34 games, respectively, lost two of the three games in their scheduled series on March 25-27 due to snowy weather. … Arkansas ranks 107th in team batting average (.281), sixth in team earned-run average (3.27), fourth in team fielding percentage (.984) and 58th in scoring (7.4 runs per game). Ole Miss ranks 128th in batting average (.278), 96th in team ERA (4.89), 159th in fielding percentage (.967) and 38th in scoring (7.8 rpg). … Arkansas 2B Robert Moore has reached base in 30 consecutive games.

THE WEEK AHEAD

TODAY Ole Miss*, 6:30 p.m.

SATURDAY Ole Miss*, 7 p.m.

SUNDAY Ole Miss*, 1 p.m.

MONDAY Off

TUESDAY Missouri State, 6:30 p.m.

WEDNESDAY Off

THURSDAY Off

*SEC game

FAYETTEVILLE -- The No. 4 Arkansas Razorbacks are still atop the SEC West baseball standings by one game with 12 league games to go, but the defending SEC champions have shown vulnerability in recent weeks in pursuit of their fourth division title in a row.

The University of Arkansas has struggled with situational hitting -- like advancing runners and hitting with runners in scoring position -- for chunks of the season. Now the Razorbacks have run into a problem with the leadoff spot in the batting order and with consistency in their weekend pitching rotation to add into the mix of issues facing Coach Dave Van Horn and his staff.

Still, the Razorbacks (32-9, 12-6) have had it much better than this weekend's opponent, Ole Miss, which began the season as a nearly consensus top 10 team, rose to No. 1 in three polls, then started a dive when conference play opened.

The Rebels (23-17, 6-12 SEC) have lost all but two SEC series and have suffered home sweeps against Tennessee and Alabama heading into Baum-Walker Stadium for tonight's 6:30 series opener. But Van Horn said he anticipates a weekend battle.

"I expect them to be really good," Van Horn said. "I expect it to be a really good series. You can throw the records out in my opinion."

Arkansas right-hander Connor Noland (5-2, 2.54), a tough-luck loser at Texas A&M last weekend, will take on Rebels right-hander Dylan DeLucia (3-0, 4.40 ERA) in tonight's opener. DeLucia is coming off a complete-game victory in a 4-2 win over Mississippi State.

Noland's start last week was indicative of the Razorbacks' recent woes. The senior allowed 2 singles and 3 walks in 6 innings but lost 2-1 on 2 unearned runs as Arkansas struggled to 1-of-8 hitting (.125) with runners in scoring position while the Aggies went 2 for 5 (.400).

On the season, Arkansas is hitting .292 with runners in scoring position, ahead of only Texas A&M (.268), Florida (.276) and South Carolina (.283) in the SEC.

The Razorbacks have advanced 91 runners while making an out, the third-lowest total among SEC teams, behind Tennessee (83) and Texas A&M (88).

Arkansas ranks eighth in the SEC in batting average against right-handed pitching (.291) and 13th against left-handed pitching (.249), ahead of only LSU (.209).

Van Horn said being "really conscious" of the game plan is the key in clutch hitting situations.

"What's their plan with runners on and certain [guys] on bases, what base, how many outs, the situation?" Van Horn said. "Obviously that's what we worked on yesterday. We'll work on it again today.

"But bottom line, go up there, have a good approach, stay through the middle of the field and you give yourself a lot better chance to make contact."

Van Horn has tried five players in the leadoff spot, including second baseman Robert Moore in Tuesday's 2-1, 10-inning win over the University of Central Arkansas. Third baseman Cayden Wallace has batted leadoff the most, in 28 games, with Arkansas going 23-5 in those games, followed by Peyton Stovall (4-3), Zack Gregory (3-0), Braydon Webb (1-1) and Moore (1-0).

Webb's turn at leadoff came last weekend, as the Razorbacks were dropping two of three against the Aggies.

Van Horn said it's likely Moore drops back down into his normal spot between third and fifth against the Rebels.

"We have experimented," he said. "I like Wallace leading off. I like his athleticism, his speed and power. Could go back that way.

"I like Robert more in the middle. He's got a little knack for driving in runs. He's just slumped a little bit obviously. I'm thinking I'll probably move him more to the middle of the lineup."

The Razorbacks haven't always struggled to score runs, but they have had trouble getting more than a couple of players hot each weekend.

"You know, we haven't had say five or six guys have a really good weekend on the same weekend," Van Horn said. "It's been a couple here, a couple there. We've still won a pretty good amount of ballgames. So hopefully our better days are in front of us, and the sooner the better."

Freshman left-hander Hagen Smith (6-2, 3.83 ERA) and sophomore right-hander Jaxon Wiggins (5-1, 5.55) have been up and down the past three weeks, with both struggling in road starts at Florida and Texas A&M. Van Horn said the rotation of Noland, Smith and Wiggins will stay in place against Ole Miss.

"It's kind of been the pattern a little bit with Hagen Smith and Jaxon Wiggins, that they didn't have a real good outing one weekend and the next weekend they were pretty good," Van Horn said.

"I think they would both tell you they didn't have a real good outing last weekend, so hopefully they'll pitch a lot better this weekend and give us a little more time to get into the game and figure out what we need to do with our bullpen. Hopefully we'll stick with that, that Wiggins will have a really good outing for us."

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