Grant Koch is the crafty old veteran of the Arkansas baseball team, even if he isn’t the oldest player on the roster.
The Fayetteville native is a catcher and all the cliches about guys who play that position apply. He’s a thinker, a gamer and he’s articulate about the game. The best part for the media isn’t just that articulation, it’s that Koch will answer honestly, too.
So, when he was asked Monday if Arkansas needed a win in the SEC Tournament this week to feel good about being a top-8 seed for the NCAA Tournament, he didn’t provide a stock answer. No “one game at a time” or “whatever happens happens” from him. He was forthright.
“I think a lot of people would say no,” Koch said. “But for us, it is a little bit there. We know it is. We try to make it a motivation thing. We want to play at Baum as long as we can.”
The superlatives suggest Arkansas should make it as a top-8 seed. They have the No. 3 strength of schedule, the No. 4 RPI and the No. 7 ELO ranking. They’re also ranked inside the top 8 in all the national polls. Only the matter of an 0-5 record on the road in SEC series is holding the Diamond Hogs back.
The NCAA Tournament selection committee could, in theory, give the Razorbacks a demerit for such a mark, even if the rest of the resume glimmers. Koch knows this, so his Arkansas teammates do, too. But it isn’t like Arkansas has been downright atrocious on the road. Six of their SEC losses came by one run. Another four were by just two. That leaves only one game on the road in league play the Razorbacks failed to put up a fight. They’re that close.
“We definitely realize it,” Koch said. “I think more so, especially on the road, the line is so small for winning and losing. It’s individual pitches. We definitely know that we’re right there. We’ve just got to finish games, add on when we can. There’s no confidence lost because of it. We know how close we are, that can turn any game.”
Arkansas will get the winner of South Carolina and Missouri, which play Tuesday night in the day’s final game. Arkansas beat the Gamecocks in two of three earlier this year at Baum Stadium. The Diamond Hogs did not play Missouri this season, however.
Arkansas was the No. 4 seed in the SEC Tournament last year, too. Dave Van Horn’s bunch lost the first game to No. 5 seed Mississippi State before beating Auburn, Mississippi State and Florida to make it to the championships game. Such a run this year would ensure that top-8 seeding. An 0-2 appearance in Hoover, on the other hand, might do serious damage to those hopes.
On the other hand, Arkansas, which will host a regional at Baum Stadium no matter what, has to balance a desire to have a big week with a desire to rest up for the far more important tournament next week. It’s delicate. One of Koch’s pitchers, Isaiah Campbell — who is likely to throw Thursday or Friday if Arkansas makes it that far — defined the approach.
“There’s a little line. It’s still big for us. Winning the SEC Tournament would be huge for this team … but you’re exhausted. You have to know your body. There’s definitely a fine line.”