Van Horn, Johnson preview huge Arkansas-LSU baseball series
on 2023-03-23 16:07 PM
BY DUDLEY E. DAWSON
This weekend’s Arkansas-LSU baseball series in Baton Rouge is so highly-anticipated, it’s been moved up seven hours and could actually end a day early.
Actually it’s the threat of bad weather that has bumped up Friday’s series opener between the No. 1 Tigers (19-2, 2-1) and the No. 3 Razorbacks (19-2, 3-0) to noon at Alex Box Stadium.
The three-game set is a battle of the SEC’s two highest-ranked programs this season with games currently scheduled for Saturday at 1 and Sunday at noon.
“It’s tough moving games because of the fan environment here and I hope everybody will still come anyways,” LSU head coach Jay Johnson said Thursday. “Its a top-five match up, a lot of great players on the field.
‘I think it does not look great (weather-wise) tomorrow (Friday) and we certainly don’t want to get into a situation where we have to start the game and then have to stop it. It is more complicated than rain. Lightning plays into that as well as a safety deal.
“…We just feel like it’s the best window to get it in. Sunday doesn’t look great either. We will kind of see where we are at tomorrow. We don’t want to make too early of a decision on moving anything before we have to.
“I’ll talk with (Arkansas head) Coach (Dave) Van Horn tomorrow and see where we land - if we are going to play a double header Saturday or if we are going to stick to the schedule.
“The other impact is, because of TV, we have a Thursday through Saturday series next weekend. So there is a lot going on in terms of making those decisions.”
LSU is ranked No. 1 in all polls while Arkansas is No. 3 Collegiate Baseball, and USA Today, No. 5 in D1 Baseball and No. 6 Baseball America.
Arkansas is riding a 14-game winning streak while LSU had its 13-game victory spree end with a Sunday loss at Texas A&M, but started a new one on Tuesday with a 10-4 home win over the University of Central Arkansas.
“It’s the SEC,” Van Horn said. “It’s kind of what I tell the players all the time – you want to play in the SEC for weekends like this.
“Opening weekend against Auburn went our way and now we are going to play a great LSU team that has a lot of experience, they are physical, can really pitch, can really hit and are playing great defense as well. I think they are fielding like .990.
“They don’t give you anything. You have to beat them. They don’t give you a thing. So we know what we are getting into.”
Johnson comments show it to be a mutual admiration society.
“They are very talented and having a great start to the season,” Johnson said. “I think they have navigated through some pitching injuries as well as you can.
“They have a good staff and those guys do a good job executing what they are trying to do. So we are going to have to take really good at bats.
“Offensively, they are very impressive. I thought they were one of the best teams in the country last year. They lost a lot of people off that team and they are rolling a lot of new guys in there, a lot from the transfer portal-type guys, junior college transfers and those guys are playing very well right now.
“So it should be a good test and to no one’s surprise it is going to be one of the best rosters and teams we play all year.”
LSU has won 13 of the past 17 and 7 of the past 10 SEC series against Arkansas, but the Razorbacks have won the last three SEC series between the two.
The Razorbacks swept the Tigers last season in Fayetteville, and took two of three games from LSU in 2021 in Baton Rouge and in 2019 at Fayetteville.
“We need that real home field advantage, because Arkansas is one of the teams we have to beat in order to get back to the top of the SEC,” Johnson said.
“When I took this job, I knew Arkansas was one of the programs that was among the elite in our league. They’re always going to recruit well, thus they’ve always been one of the most successful programs in the country. We’re excited for the weekend, it’s going to be a great matchup.”
Friday’s pitching match up will feature Razorback junior left hander Hunter Hollan (4-0, 2.36) against LSU junior right hander Paul Skenes (5-0. 0.59).
Skenes, a 6-6, 247-pound Air Force transfer that Arkansas and numerous others pursued, has fanned a nation’s best 59 batters in 30 1/3 innings while walking just 2 and allowing just 2 runs on 12 hits.
“Yeah, we pursued him like every team in the SEC and every team in the country,” Van Horn said. “Great pitcher. Can also hit. I thought he was going to hit there, too. We pursued him about as hard as you can pursue.”
Skenes is coming off a season-high 6 1/3 innings in last Friday night’s 9-0 win over Texas A&M in which he gave up 4 hits, fanned 11, with no walks and threw 106 pitches.
“He could do it against a major league lineup right now and I believe that,” Johnson said of his ace, who ha gone six innings in his other four starts this season.
Van Horn agrees with that assessment fo Skenes, a two-time All-American at Air Force while going 10-3 as a starter in 2022 and having 10 saves in 2022 as a closer.
“You usually don’t get too many chances to get him,” Van Horn said. “He has got an incredible fastball, a good breaking ball, he throws strikes. He’s big and can go nine innings and throw 110 pitches or whatever what he needs to do.
“We’ll just go down there and do what we do. We’ll fight and if we get a chance, hopefully we’ll get him. If we don’t, we will move on to the next day.”
The other pitching match ups are scheduled to see Arkansas’ Will McEntire (4-0, 3.71) and LSU’s Ty Floyd (3-0, 2.75) on Saturday with Tiger sophomore Thatcher Hurd (2-0, 2.57) set for Sunday and the Razorbacks not announcing third-game starter to this point.
“It is a very tough environment and then you throw in that there are the number one team in the country,” Van Horn said. “And they are doing pretty much all three phases of the game, the main phases – pitching, hitting and fielding for the most part, about as good as anybody in the country.
“So this will be my 10th or 11th down there (while) coaching here and again I know what we are up against. It is going to be a big challenge and I think our guys are looking forward to going down there.”
Arkansas relief pitcher Zack Morris is looking forward to the challenge.
“So this will be my second time going down to Alex Box,” Morris said. “We went there in ‘21. It was a fun atmosphere then, even now with them being the No. 1 team in the nation, it’s going to be even crazier than it was in ‘21, so I’m eager to go down there. I’m sure it’s going to be noisy, but why else would you come play in the SEC?”
Arkansas went 17-1 during an 18-game home stand that ended with a 12-2 win over Southeastern Missouri on Tuesday.
“I learned that we’ve got a little bit of depth with our position players,” Van Horn said. “I feel good about how if somebody gets hurt or needs a day off, we might lose a little experience, but we’ve got guys that can get it done.
“We also found some pitchers that cae come in and give us some innings or close out a game. It’s just been fun to watch them kind of develop as a team a little bit.
“We’ve been here for three weeks straight just playing baseball. It seems like we have played a lot of games – like you said 18 of them and we have won 17 of them and now we get to go back on the road.”
Van Horn notes that he has been preparing his team for this.
“We have been preparing the team for the SEC since the day they got here,” Van Horn said. “And the guys that have been here, they have been a part of it. They’ve seen it.
“You never know how it is going to go, but I think we are looking forward to just getting out of town. We are on spring break right now and they’re bored. They are ready to go somewhere else.”
Photo by John D. James
(Last updated: 2023-03-23 16:07 PM)