FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. — Arkansas and LSU will square off this weekend in a matchup of top-25 baseball teams at Baum Stadium.
The three-game series also features a team vying to remain atop the SEC. To the surprise of many, Arkansas coach Dave Van Horn not included, the Razorbacks are that team.
Following a third consecutive series win to begin conference play, Arkansas (22-6, 7-2) is tied for first in the SEC with Auburn and Kentucky. The Hogs are No. 10 in the latest Perfect Game top 25 and No. 15 by Baseball America.
Van Horn spoke with the media on Monday following the Razorbacks’ win at Alabama on Sunday, clinching a series victory. Here’s what he had to say about the season so far, ace pitcher Blaine Knight and more.
Q: Did you expect to be this much better than last year? (Arkansas was 26-29 in 2016)
A: “We thought we’d be a lot better. We thought we were maybe more mentally tough than last year’s team and maybe more motivated because of the season last year. Motivated players are a good thing, believe me. If the guys got a lot of want-to, you’ve got a chance.
“Before the season started, we had a couple more pitchers. We thought (Isaiah) Campbell was going to be lights out and we knew Blaine was good. Then, right before the season started we had those injuries. We just told the team, ‘Hey, it is what it is. We’ve got to fight through it and we’re going to win with what we have. It just might not be as easy.’ Somebody has got to step up and for the most part that’s what they’ve done.”
Q: Do you expect to get (infielder) Hunter Wilson back soon?
A: “Yeah, he’s still limping around pretty good but nothing is broke. It’s just a severe bone bruise. I’ve taken him (on the last two road trips) even though I knew he wasn’t going to play. I just think he’s a good teammate and I want him in the dugout. I think he helps us in other ways, motivating kids.
“He took a few ground balls the other day and he was pretty sore. I’m thinking not this weekend, but the next week he’ll probably be just about ready to get back out there.”
Wilson fouled a pitch off his right leg in a March 14 game.
Q: What do you think about how well Blaine Knight has pitched on Friday nights?
A: “Well, I mean, we couldn’t have really asked him to pitch better at the beginning of the season. The first three conference series he’s been pretty much lights out.
“Blaine’s demeanor on the mound is so different than it was last year. I mean, he’s a confident guy and he’s got a little attitude out there. That’s what you have to have to pitch on the weekend in this league and it even has to be a notch higher when you’re pitching on Friday.”
Q: What have you thought about Chad Spanberger?
A: “He had a great summer, he had a really good fall and then sure enough he gets off to a bad start. It looks like, ‘Ah, here we go again. Another guy that can’t get it done in the spring.’ But we knew it was in there. His at-bats the last two weeks, three weeks have been really good for the most part.
“He’s a scary guy to pitch to because he can hit a single now, which it’s good to see him go the other way, but if you make a mistake he can hit a ball like he did at Missouri a couple times that went out of sight. It’s been really big for our lineup. I think it’s just been big for his confidence that he’s doing well now and I don’t see him going the other way.
Q: What do you think about the conference right now? It seems like some of the teams at the top are ones that weren’t predicted to be there in the preseason.
A: “That’s because a lot of times people don’t really know what they’re doing when they’re ranking those teams, to be honest with you.
“Kentucky got their whole offense team back. They told us in the offseason they have one of the best hitting teams they’ve ever had and it’s showing. Now, some guys are pitching good. Missouri, they have their whole team back. They’ve got a new coach, they brought in a couple guys, they got a superstar (pitching) on Friday. They’re a good team. Obviously, South Carolina, they’ve got all that pitching, but they’re not hitting real good. Ole Miss was projected real high. Well, they have a really good team. They can really pitch, but the team batting average is .233. I mean, you could go on and on. A&M, they have replaced a lot of people. They projected them high, but they’re playing a lot of freshmen. They got fortunate and scored four in the top of the ninth to win (Sunday) or they’d be 1-8 (in the SEC).
“Nothing surprises me in the league, but I just think there were a couple of teams that were maybe misdiagnosed by a lot of people that know baseball.”
Arkansas plays host to LSU for three games: Friday, 6:30 p.m. ET; Saturday, 6 p.m. CT; and Sunday, 1 p.m. CT.