FAYETTEVILLE -- The weather is on the upswing and so are the University of Arkansas' veteran hitters, just in time for the start of SEC baseball play.
The No. 10 Razorbacks (14-2) open the SEC season tonight at 6:30 at Baum-Walker Stadium against Missouri (11-5) with ace right-hander Isaiah Campbell (3-0, 3.09 ERA) on the hill.
WHEN 6:30 p.m. today
WHERE Baum-Walker Stadium, Fayetteville
RECORDS Missouri 11-5; Arkansas 14-2
STARTING PITCHERS Missouri LHP Jacob Cantleberry (2-0, 2.91 ERA); Arkansas RHP Isaiah Campbell (3-0, 3.09)
SERIES Missouri leads 31-26-1.
COACHES Steve Bieser (81-50 in third season at Missouri); Dave Van Horn (657-366 in 17th season at Arkansas)
RADIO Razorback Sports Network
INTERNET SEC Network-Plus
The promotions this weekend are Free Shirsey Night tonight, Military Appreciation Day on Saturday and St. Patrick’s Day Pint Glass Giveaway on Sunday. … Arkansas is 15th in team batting average (.310), 26th in team earned-run average (2.94), 98th in fielding percentage (.971) and tied for 25th in scoring (8.1 runs per game) in the nation. Missouri is 46th in team batting average (.293), 66th in team ERA (3.66), 29th in fielding percentage (.979) and 34th in scoring (7.6 rpg). … The Razorbacks have three remaining pitchers with no ERA: Kole Ramage (3-0, 12 innings), Matt Cronin (1-0, 7 innings, 4 saves) and Evan Taylor (5⅓ innings). … Thomas Broyles, grandson of Frank Broyles, is a sophomore outfielder for the Tigers.
TODAY Missouri, 6:30 p.m.
*SATURDAY Missouri, 2 p.m.
*SUNDAY Missouri, 1:30 p.m.
TUESDAY at Texas, 6:30 p.m. (LHN)
WEDNESDAY at Texas, 6:30 p.m. (LHN)
The Tigers will go with three left-handed starters, but they have chosen to hold ace TJ Sikkema (2-0, 0.46) until Saturday, so junior Jacob Cantleberry (2-0, 2.91 ERA) will oppose Campbell.
"I'm expecting a big crowd on Friday night, opening weekend of SEC play," Campbell said. "Both teams are going to be amped up to play since we're finally going into conference play. The hard part of the season starts now, so I'm ready to go."
Arkansas, 12-1 at home, outscored its opponents 30-1 in its past three games, with leadoff man Casey Martin, two-hole hitter Heston Kjerstad and cleanup batter Dominic Fletcher pushing their averages up. Arkansas pitchers have 63 strikeouts and 10 walks in their past five games.
The Razorbacks have been just OK on defense, but their team batting average (.310) and team earned-run average (2.94) are both in the top 26 nationally.
Coach Dave Van Horn said the Razorbacks have been solid, even with a large changeover in pitchers and position players.
"We've thrown a lot of strikes," Van Horn said. "We don't walk a lot of people. I think any time you're coaching a team in baseball and you feel like the team is going to make the other team beat you -- because we haven't been beating ourselves too much -- that's how you knock off some wins."
After relatively slow starts, Arkansas' returning starters are heating up.
Transfer first baseman Trevor Ezell (.362, 3 home runs, 13 RBI) leads the team in hitting, with freshman Christian Franklin (.356, 2, 16) right behind. Kjerstad's recent binge -- 11 for 16 with 7 runs scored in the past four games -- has pushed the reigning SEC Freshman of the Year to .353.
Fletcher (.304, 2, 12) inched over .300 by going 5 for 12 in the past four games, while Martin (.294, 4, 16) took over the team home run lead and tied Franklin for the lead in RBI with a 7 for 16 tear with 8 RBI in the past four games.
"Guys started executing these last couple days, and even Sunday against Louisiana Tech," Fletcher said after Wednesday's 11-1 victory over Western Illinois. "And those are the situations that kind of win and lose ballgames, so it's good to see that and get everything rolling before SEC play starts."
Campbell has been on point in his last two outings with a combined 23 strikeouts, 1 walk, 10 hits and 2 earned runs allowed in 13 innings of a 3-1 victory over Stony Brook and a 4-2 victory over Louisiana Tech in which he got a no-decision.
The Tigers are coming off a two-game sweep of Arkansas State University by the combined score of 30-5. Missouri racked up 23 hits in the two-game set and had eight multiple-run innings, including five in the third inning of a 16-1 win Tuesday and seven in the third inning of a 14-4 win Wednesday.
The Tigers have five regulars hitting .345 or better, led by shortstop Chris Cornelius (.411, 3, 18), center fielder Kameron Misner (.393, 5, 14), second baseman Mark Vierling (.375, 12 RBI) and first baseman Tony Ortiz (.357, 3, 16).
A Campbell vs. Sikkema matchup tonight would have been a boon for scouts. Now Arkansas freshman Connor Noland (0-0, 4.32) will match up against Sikkema, a junior who was a former freshman All-American.
"His fastball is anywhere from probably 88 to 93, 94," Van Horn said. "He's got a really good changeup, a good slider. Different arm slots. I mean, he's the real deal.
"If you look at his numbers, ERA, people haven't done much against him. He's a guy that he may give you a shot at him here or there and ... if you get a chance to score, you better score."
Missouri is making its second trip this month into Arkansas. The Tigers defeated the University of Central Arkansas 4-0 and lost to South Dakota State 6-3 on the first weekend of March in Conway.
Third-year Missouri Coach Steve Bieser's 70 victories over his first two seasons were the most for any Tigers baseball coach.
Van Horn said the Razorbacks need a steady approach as they get back into league play after an 18-12 finish in the SEC last year.
"Physically, win-wise and mentally we ought to feel good about where we're at," Van Horn said. "Now the competition is getting ready to heat up and league play is 30 games.
"You don't want to get too fired up just for one game or one series because you have to play another one. You have 10 weeks of it. You have to play solid baseball if you want to finish in the top of the league."
Sports on 03/15/2019
Print Headline: SEC play arrives; veterans heat up