Tough ticket: Hogs-Tigers ‘a big-time atmosphere’

Arkansas left-hander Hagen Smith will start on the mound tonight for the top-ranked Razorbacks as they start a series against No. 7 LSU at Baum-Walker Stadium in Fayetteville, but the Tigers chose to move junior Luke Holman — who started the first game of each of the past two series — to the second game of the series Friday night.
(NWA Democrat-Gazette/Charlie Kaijo)
Arkansas left-hander Hagen Smith will start on the mound tonight for the top-ranked Razorbacks as they start a series against No. 7 LSU at Baum-Walker Stadium in Fayetteville, but the Tigers chose to move junior Luke Holman — who started the first game of each of the past two series — to the second game of the series Friday night. (NWA Democrat-Gazette/Charlie Kaijo)

FAYETTEVILLE -- Last season's college baseball national championship team will take on this season's consensus No. 1-ranked team this weekend at Baum-Walker Stadium.

LSU, which beat Florida last season at the College World Series to win its seventh national title, opens a three-game series against the University of Arkansas today at 6 p.m.

The Razorbacks (20-3, 5-1 SEC) are atop every national poll, including the USA Today coaches rankings for the third consecutive week. They're in first place in the SEC West standings and share the overall conference lead with Kentucky.

The Tigers (20-6, 2-4) are ranked No. 7 in the coaches poll.

"I don't really talk about it," Arkansas Coach Dave Van Horn said of his team's No. 1 ranking. " It's great, but at the same time it's just a number and there's a lot of season left.

"Things are going to move around. But it's fun for probably everybody involved."

Van Horn said it will be "a big-time atmosphere" at Baum-Walker Stadium against LSU.

"We've been drawing some great crowds over the years and I don't see anything any different," Van Horn said. "The weather is going to be fine. You've got two teams ranked in the top 10. Defending national champions coming in.

"So I imagine a ticket's going to be hard to get."

There won't be the anticipated pitching matchup of Arkansas junior left-hander Hagen Smith (4-0, 1.24 ERA) against LSU junior right-hander Luke Holman (5-1, 0.78).

Smith, the Razorbacks' No. 1 starter all season, will stay in that role tonight, but LSU announced Holman -- the Tigers' series-opening pitcher against Mississippi State and Florida the previous two weekends -- will go in Friday night's second game.

LSU redshirt sophomore left-hander Gabe Jump (2-0, 2.38) will start Saturday's finale. Tigers Coach Jay Johnson hasn't announced a starter for tonight.

Smith has not allowed a run in two SEC starts against Missouri and Auburn, holding them to a combined .128 batting average on 5 hits and 2 walks in 12 innings with 22 strikeouts.

For the season, Smith has 62 strikeouts and 10 walks in 29 innings.

"On Hagen, I guess what we expect is for him to go out and compete like he always does and hopefully get us late into the game, because that's what he's been doing," Van Horn said. "He's been throwing a lot of strikes and he competes hard. He just gives us an opportunity."

Holman is in his first season at LSU after transferring from Alabama, where last season he was 7-4 with a 3.67 ERA and 86 strikeouts in 81 innings.

When Holman started against the Razorbacks last season at Baum-Walker Stadium, he went 5 1/3 innings in Arkansas' 9-6 victory. He allowed 3 hits and 4 runs -- 2 runs earned -- with 8 strikeouts and 2 walks.

"Super good pitcher," Razorbacks junior second baseman Peyton Stovall said. "Obviously his numbers are really good this year. It's going to be a challenge, but we're up for it."

Holman has 56 strikeouts and 8 walks in 34 2/3 innings.

"From what I've seen, he's just better," Van Horn said of Holman's numbers compared to last season. "He's throwing the ball over the plate. He's got really, really good stuff, good secondary stuff.

"I think the batting average against him is amazing."

Opponents are batting .157 against Holman.

"He's doing everything you're supposed to do as a No. 1," Van Horn said. "When we do face him, he's going to be a handful."

In Johnson's first season at LSU in 2022, the Razorbacks swept three games from the Tigers at Baum-Walker Stadium.

"That's a really good environment, and so if we can sprinkle some purple into that stadium, I would greatly appreciate it," Johnson said Monday night on his radio show. "I think our players need to view this in a real positive fashion. You don't get a lot of cracks at playing the No. 1 team in the country.

"We did that last year when we played Wake Forest [at the College World Series], and I think those guys will tell you that's one of the best baseball experiences of their life, those three games that we played.

"If you approach this one the right way, it has a chance to be a great weekend for us."

LSU was ranked No. 1 last season when the Tigers took two of three games from No. 3 Arkansas at Alex Box Stadium in Baton Rouge.

The teams played again at the SEC Tournament with LSU ranked No. 3 and Arkansas No. 4, and the Razorbacks won 5-4 in Hoover, Ala.

Arkansas is 41-77 all-time against LSU, but 9-4 since 2019.

"They know us, we know them," Van Horn said.

Stovall said he knows all about LSU being from Haughton, La.

"Obviously growing up I would watch LSU all the time," Stovall said. "They've got a really good team. They're well-coached. Their pitching staff is also really good.

"It's going to be an electric environment. There's going to be a lot of people there. It's going to be great weather. It's going to be super fun with them coming here.

"I just think that we shouldn't make the game bigger than it is. Just take it one game at a time. Take it one pitch at a time. That's kind of what we've done all year."

LSU has a .293 team batting average led by fifth-year senior catcher Hayden Travinski (.333, 7 home runs, 27 RBI) and junior third baseman Tommy White (.321, 7 home runs, 23 RBI), who are returning starters.

"They both have tremendous power," Van Horn said. "They both do a great job at driving in runs.

"It's veterans, it's strength. It's opposite-field power, pull power. They're two-strike hitters that will fight you. Just two really tough bats in the middle of that lineup."

Johnson said on his radio show the Tigers need to work hard against Arkansas' starting pitchers -- Smith, Mason Molina and Brady Tygart -- to get into the bullpen.

"And more importantly, just play each pitch as if it has a life of its own," Johnson said. "When something goes bad, we have to respond well and we have to respond quickly to that because that stadium is impressive [when] it gets going.

"When you're playing a good team, you don't have a ton of margin for error to let one bad play, one bad pitch, turn into another one."

The Tigers went 1-2 against Mississippi State at home and at Florida.

"They were awfully good last year and they're awfully good this year," Van Horn said. "It's still early in the season.

"Even though most teams have played around 25 games, there's still 60% of the games left and teams are just starting to heat up and figure it out and get those pitching rotations right or how they want to handle things.

"You look at the talent on that team and it's as good as anybody in the country. And they know that, we know that, and everybody that plays them knows that."

  photo  Arkansas second baseman Peyton Stovall, a native of Haughton, La., said he knows plenty about playing LSU. “They’ve got a really good team,” Stovall said. “They’re well-coached. Their pitching staff is also really good.” (NWA Democrat-Gazette/Hank Layton)

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