Texas A&M (30-19; 12-12) at Arkansas (30-20; 11-13)
Oh how things have changed in quick order for this Fightin' Texas Aggie Baseball team. After losing a series at home against Kentucky a few weeks ago, A&M won 7 of their next 9 games. Last weekend's series against LSU was one of the best series at Olsen that I can remember in recent years, and it was a very impressive win for the Ags. A&M currently sits at #32 in the RPI after being down in the 50's and 60's a month ago, and they've brought their record in SEC play up to .500. With 6 conference games left - plus a midweek game against Sam Houston State - the Aggies probably need 4 wins to close out the season and solidify a NCAA Tournament bid. Anything less than that will require the team to make a bit of a run in the SEC Tournament in order to feel safe about getting a postseason spot.
Arkansas, on the other hand, finds themselves desperately in need of a series win this weekend after losing 3 of their last 4 SEC series. The Razorbacks lost 2 of 3 games on the road against Ole Miss last weekend, avoiding a sweep on Sunday with a big 11-1 win. The Hogs find themselves all the way down at #54 in the RPI, and it's going to take a strong finish to the season plus some wins in the SEC Tournament if they're going to have any chance of making it to a regional.
Making matters worse for Arkansas, their Saturday starting pitcher Jalen Beeks - who has been arguably their best pitcher this season - is out this weekend due to arm soreness. Pitching is certainly the strength of this Razorbacks team, but not having Beeks is a blow for a series that they need to win. The Aggies have really turned things around at the plate over the last few weeks, so we'll see how they fare against a pretty talented pitching staff this weekend. Let's jump in and look at the matchups.
Friday (6:35pm CT)
RHP Daniel Mengden (4-6, 3.78, 1.22, 80 K, 22 BB)
RHP Trey Killian (2-8, 2.42, 0.99, 41 K, 13 BB)
At long last, Mengden seems to be rounding into the form we saw from him last season. He has had some control and consistency issues for large parts of this season, but he was tremendous last Saturday against LSU. The junior tossed a complete game and picked up his 4th win of the season to help the Aggies even the series against the Tigers. Mengden allowed just 2 runs on 5 hits over the 9 innings of work, striking out 5 and walking 1, and those 2 runs scored as a result of what should have been an error on Nick Banks losing a ball in the sun/sky in RF and then a wild pitch. Coach Childress elected to move him back to the Friday spot this weekend, aided by the fact that next weekend's series starts on Thursday.
It's not very often that you see a guy with a sub-2.50 ERA saddled with 8 losses out of 10 starts, but that's the way the season has gone for sophomore Trey Killian. Somehow or another, Killian has lost each of his last 2 starts while working 8 innings in each of them and allowing just 3 combined earned runs (5 total). On the road last weekend at Ole Miss, he allowed 3 runs on 9 hits with 5 strikeouts and a walk in 8 innings, but the Razorbacks could only manage 2 runs in a 3-2 Rebels victory. Killian's last win was back on April 18th against Vanderbilt, as he out-dueled Commodore ace Tyler Beede and held Vandy to no earned runs over 6.2 innings.
Saturday (6:05pm CT - Cox Sports TV)
RHP Grayson Long (6-1, 2.93, 1.36, 47 K, 19 BB)
RHP Chris Oliver (6-4, 2.87, 1.14, 46 K, 26 BB)
In one of the more important games of the season, Grayson Long delivered yet another strong performance to help lead A&M to a huge series win over a highly ranked LSU team. The sophomore did not factor in the decision, as Ronnie Gideon hit the game-winning HR in the 8th after Long had already exited, but he allowed 3 runs on 7 hits over 6 innings of work while striking out 3 and walking 2. Long continues to be one of the Aggies' most reliable pitchers this season, and they'll need for him to be sharp again against an Arkansas team whose pitchers also have not allowed a lot of runs.
This spot would normally be taken by junior LHP Jalen Beeks, but he is out this week with some soreness in his arm. As a result, the Hogs will bump fellow junior Chris Oliver from Sunday up to Saturday. Oliver was excellent last Sunday against Ole Miss, helping Arkansas avoid being swept on the road by tossing 7 innings of 1-run ball and allowing just 5 hits while striking out 5 and walking 3. It was not quite so smooth sailing for Oliver the previous weekend, though, as he gave up 7 runs - 6 earned - and walked 5 in just 3 innings of work at home against Auburn. Oliver has issued the most walks (26) of all Arkansas pitchers this season, but he does also have the lowest batting average against (.224) among their weekend starters.
Sunday (1:05pm CT)
Both teams will actually elect to leave the Sunday starter spot as To Be Announced going into the weekend. From the A&M side, the most likely candidates are probably either RHP Parker Ray (4-3, 5.57) or RHP Corey Ray (5-0, 1.69). It may depend on how much Coach Childress has to use any of those guys out of the bullpen in the first 2 games of the series. Parker pitched well for much of the game last Friday against LSU's ace Aaron Nola, and Corey has been doing a very nice job in his weekday starts
Arkansas will go into the weekend with the Sunday spot listed as TBA as well, mostly due to Oliver moving into Saturday to fill in for the injured Beeks. Sophomore LHP Colin Poche (3-0, 1.60) started the most recent midweek game for the Hogs last week, and true freshman RHP Alex Phillips (3-0, 2.33) has made 8 starts on the season as well, so those seem to be the most likely candidates to get the nod.
What to Watch
Arkansas comes into the series sitting 12th in the SEC in terms of batting average, while the Aggies are all the way up in 3rd. In their last home series against Auburn, the Hogs scored just 7 runs combined over the 3 games. They certainly seem to have had their share of struggles at the plate this season, as the pitching has been good enough to where they should have won more games than they have. Keep an eye on 2B Brian Anderson, though, as he's tied for the team lead in both batting average and slugging percentage and leads the team in on-base percentage, RBI, and total bases. 1B Eric Fisher has been the Hogs' biggest power threat, leading the team in both HR and doubles. Here's how the Aggies and Razorbacks compare in terms of hitting.
While A&M holds the edge offensively, the Hogs definitely have an advantage with their pitching staff. They are second to only South Carolina in the SEC as far as team ERA is concerned, and only Vanderbilt has held opponents to a lower batting average. 11 of the 15 pitchers who have taken the mound for Arkansas this season have an ERA under 3.00; A&M has just 7 such pitchers. Outside of their starters, LHP Michael Gunn (2-1, 0.36) has been excellent in closing out games, picking up 7 saves so far in 2014. RHP Jacob Stone (3-0, 0.38) and RHP Zach Jackson (2-1, 2.10) have both been very strong coming out of the bullpen for the Razorbacks as well. Let's see how the 2 teams stack up in the pitching comparison.
Here is my best guess at the lineup that the Razorbacks will feature this weekend.
On paper, this is a series that the Aggies should be able to win. As we all know, however, baseball isn't played on paper and Arkansas is badly in need of a series win this weekend as well. Desperate teams are always dangerous, especially with a pitching staff as good as the Razorbacks have. As long as the Aggies keep hitting the way they have been in the latter half of the season, though, they should be able to still score enough runs this weekend to take the series. It may come down to whether the A&M pitchers are able to have the same sort of success as they did last weekend against LSU.
A&M has won their last 2 road series, and I think they'll make it a 3rd straight this weekend, although it definitely will not be easy. I tend to think that being without Beeks will cost the Razorbacks a game in this series, and I wouldn't be shocked if the Aggies go into Sunday with a chance to pick up their first sweep of the season. I'm finally back to picking a positive result for the first time in a while, so knowing my luck the wheels will fall off this weekend. I certainly hope that doesn't happen, but it just feels like the Aggies are playing some great baseball at the right time.