Razorback report: The peculiar case of Arkansas-Mississippi State

FAYETTEVILLE — A sweep in the Arkansas-Mississippi State baseball series has been a good predictor of late-season success.

For the losing team, that is.

Since 2017, the losing team has made a deeper postseason run than the team that swept, including last season when Mississippi State won the national championship after losing three games to Arkansas at Dudy-Noble Field in March. The Razorbacks lost to North Carolina State in the super regional round of the NCAA Tournament.

Of course the winning team has made out well most years, too. Arkansas and Mississippi State both played at the College World Series in 2018 and 2019.

Five consecutive regular-season series between the Bulldogs and the Razorbacks have resulted in a three-game sweep. The teams did not play in 2020 when the college baseball season was postponed the day before they were scheduled to begin a series in Starkville, Miss.

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Arkansas swept the Bulldogs’ team that advanced to the super regionals in 2017, and the 2019 Mississippi State team that won a game at the College World Series. The teams split a pair of games at the 2017 SEC Tournament.

In 2018, the Bulldogs were in last place in the SEC West when they swept the Razorbacks’ team that finished national runner-up.

Arkansas was swept on the final regular-season weekend of the 2016 season. The Bulldogs wrapped up a conference championship during that series and the Razorbacks finished with a 13-game losing streak.

It has been a peculiar sequence of games for teams that have been among the SEC’s best teams most years.

“It’s been unusual because the teams are probably even in those years for the most part,” Arkansas coach Dave Van Horn said. “In ’16 they were a lot better than us. That was the year that we had the meltdown and injuries and it just didn’t finish well.

“Other than that, the sweeps…it’s unusual to win three in a row against somebody that’s really good, and they’ve been really good. We’ve been pretty good as well. Usually somebody is going to lose a game.”

Until last season, the home team swept four consecutive series. That changed when the Razorbacks hit nine home runs and won by scores of 8-2, 11-5 and 6-4 in Starkville.

It was the second consecutive series loss to Arkansas for Mississippi State coach Chris Lemonis, who was hired prior to the 2019 season. Lemonis has a 0-6 record against the Razorbacks.

“This Arkansas team is very similar to the last couple of Arkansas teams; some of the same players,” Lemonis told Super Talk Mississippi on Monday. “Both times we’ve played them, we just haven’t played well and they have played really well. You have to tip your hat to those guys. We have to play better, pitch better, defend better and swing it a little bit better. Both times we’ve matched up, we didn’t play well. I don’t know why that is or what that is. We’re going to have to play better as we get out there this weekend and try to get a series.”

Entering this weekend’s series, Mississippi State has lost six consecutive games played at Baum-Walker Stadium. The Bulldogs have not won a game in Fayetteville since avoid a sweep on the final day of the 2015 series, and have not won a series at Arkansas since 2007.

Aces out

The pitching staffs for Arkansas and Mississippi State will be different this weekend than they were expected to look a few months ago.

Both teams have lost their No. 1 pitching prospects to Tommy John surgery this year. The Razorbacks’ Peyton Pallette was ruled out in the preseason, and the Bulldogs’ Landon Sims was injured during an outing at Tulane on March 4.

Pallette and Sims were both considered first-round MLB Draft prospects this year.

“We know in this sport that we’re going to lose some pitchers to injury,” Van Horn said. “I guess it’s like football, they know they’re going to lose some guys to knee injuries. It’s just a matter of when.

“You deal with it and you move to the next guy. You don’t have time to replace him. You just have to have somebody in your program step it up.”

Sims was one of college baseball’s most dynamic closers a season ago when he went 5-0 with a 1.44 ERA and recorded 13 saves in 56 1/3 innings. He held batters to a .149 average and struck out 100 with 15 walks.

He was off to a great start this year, too, with 2 runs on 11 hits in 15 2/3 innings. He had 27 strikeouts, including 10 in the first 3 2/3 innings at Tulane before his injury.

Arkansas and Mississippi State are among four SEC teams without their projected No. 1 starter this season. Alabama left hander Connor Prielipp is recovering from Tommy John surgery and Kentucky right hander Cole Stupp was lost for the season with an undisclosed injury following an outing last week against Georgia.

In addition to Sims, Mississippi State lost right-handed reliever Stone Simmons to Tommy John surgery following the Tulane series. Simmons did not allow a base runner in 4 1/3 innings prior to the injury. He pitched 19 times and recorded two saves for the Bulldogs last season.

Bohrofen back

Van Horn said outfielder Jace Bohrofen will be on the roster for this weekend’s games.

Bohrofen has not played since a March 5 doubleheader against Southeastern Louisiana. He was injured during warmups prior to a March 10 doubleheader against Illinois-Chicago, when Van Horn said he hurt his left shoulder by running into the outfield wall while tracking a fly ball.

Van Horn said Bohrofen looked good taking batting practice prior to Tuesday’s 16-8 victory over Arkansas-Little Rock. Bohrofen throws right handed and bats from the left side.

“I’m not sure if I’ll start him or play him or what. I don’t know yet,” Van Horn said. “We’ll see how the workout goes today.”

Prior to the injury Bohrofen was one of Arkansas’ hottest hitters. He started the season 0 for 17, but had 6 hits — including 3 for extra bases — in his final 11 at-bats. That included a three-run triple during the eighth inning of his most recent game.

Big expected crowd

With a favorable forecast and brand-name opponent, the largest crowd yet this season are expected at Baum-Walker Stadium.

The second-ranked Razorbacks (April 19, 5-1 SEC) have announced an average attendance of 10,166 for their first 17 home games, based on tickets sold, but actual crowd sizes have typically been well below the announced figure.

Van Horn said he expects that more people will attend baseball games now that the Razorbacks’ basketball season is over. A Saturday night SEC game against Kentucky two weeks ago was played at the same time as Arkansas’ basketball game against New Mexico State at the NCAA Tournament in Buffalo, NY

“Probably for the first time, now that basketball is over, that we feel like it will be really loud here for a great atmosphere,” Van Horn said. “I know our players are excited.”

Mississippi State is the first of four consecutive SEC heavyweights who will travel to Fayetteville for a weekend series this year. The Razorbacks are also scheduled to host LSU (April 14-16), Ole Miss (April 29-May 1) and Vanderbilt (May 13-15).

Bullpen concerns

Both teams enter the series on the heels of their head coaches expressing concern about their relief pitching.

Arkansas’ bullpen allowed three runs during the seventh inning of a Game 2 loss at Missouri last Saturday. Three relief pitchers — Kole Ramage, Elijah Trest and Zack Morris — pitched during the inning, which included three walks and four wild pitches.

“I feel good about two or three of our guys. That’s something that we’re definitely concerned about,” Van Horn said of his bullpen. “The thing is, we’ve got guys out there with really good arms that haven’t pitched much yet.”

Van Horn cited right handers Nick Moten and Gabe Starks, and left hander Nick Griffin as relief pitchers who have been shown well lately in a game or practice.

“Those are three really good arms that can help us,” Van Horn said. “Evan Gray hasn’t had a lot of opportunity and he threw really well (Wednesday).

“I obviously like what I’m seeing from Brady Tygart and Zeb Vermillion, but we need a couple more guys. Evan Taylor has been outstanding.”

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Van Horn said the team needs seven to nine reliable arms on the weekend, including starters.

Lemonis expressed frustration with his bullpen following a series win over Alabama last week. In SEC play, the Bulldogs’ relief pitchers have allowed 18 earned runs, 20 hits and 13 walks in 20 innings.

“They’re just not doing the job,” Lemonis said. “They’ve got to come in and make pitches. We’re throwing too many pitches in the middle of the plate with runners in scoring position.”

Both teams could make an addition to their bullpens this week.

Arkansas right hander Issac Bracken is expected back soon after suffering a groin injury in early March, and Mississippi State right hander KC Hunt pitched one inning at Memphis earlier this week. That was Hunt’s first appearance since he suffered an undisclosed injury during a Feb. 19 start against Long Beach State.

Rotation set

Arkansas will use the same three-man starting pitching rotation that has been in place since Opening Weekend.

The Razorbacks will throw junior right hander Connor Noland (3-1, 3.41 ERA) on Friday, freshman left hander Hagen Smith (4-1, 3.45) on Saturday and sophomore right hander Jaxon Wiggins (4-0, 3.71) on Sunday.

Mississippi State will use the same rotation it has had since the start of SEC play, beginning with junior right hander Preston Johnson (2-1, 3.41) on Friday. The Bulldogs will throw senior right hander Parker Stinnett (3-0, 4.67) on Saturday and sophomore right hander Cade Smith (4-1, 2.91) on Sunday.

Not bad Bulldogs

Mississippi State (October 16, 3-3 SEC) has lost weekend series to Long Beach State, Tulane and Georgia this season.

Van Horn was asked Thursday about the Bulldogs not being as good as expected. Mississippi State was ranked third in the preseason USA Today Coaches Poll.

“I wouldn’t say they’re not as good,” Van Horn said. “You never know how the season is going to play out.

“They had some rough days last year and it didn’t seem to bother them a bit. We’re definitely not looking past them. They’re a great team.”

MSU coach ejected

Lemonis was tossed from the Bulldogs’ 10-4 victory at Memphis on Tuesday for arguing a check swing during the fifth inning.

Replay showed Memphis hitter Ben Brooks went around on a full-count pitch, but home plate umpire Brandon Bennett called a ball, which allowed Brooks to take first base.

Lemonis shouted toward Bennett from the dugout and was ejected. He then came on the field to talk with Bennett, who walked away towards first base while two other umpires stood between him and Lemonis.

Lemonis’ ejection appeared to motivate the Bulldogs, who scored six runs in the next inning and all 10 of their runs in the sixth, seventh and eighth.

SEC rules allow coaches one ejection without penalty each season. A second ejection results in a suspension for the following game.

Canceled games

Van Horn said there is a chance Arkansas and Arkansas-Little Rock will make up their game that was canceled Wednesday, but it is not likely to happen.

The Razorbacks and Trojans canceled the second game of their midweek series about four hours before it was scheduled to begin because of rain.

Van Horn said UALR has a couple of dates late in the season that might work for a reschedule, but he isn’t sure the dates will work for his team. One week is during final exams for the Razorbacks and the other is the week of the final regular-season series at Alabama.

“I don’t know if it will happen,” Van Horn said. “It could…but we’ll just see how it plays out.”

Arkansas has not scheduled a midweek game during the final week of the regular season since 2016. Van Horn said nonconference matchups that week can result in “a trap game.” He said he once watched several SEC teams lose games on the Tuesday before the final weekend series.

This was the second consecutive week Arkansas canceled a Wednesday game due to weather. The Razorbacks were scheduled to play Nebraska-Omaha at Kauffman Stadium in Kansas City on March 23. That game will not be rescheduled.

With the cancellationations, Arkansas is scheduled to play 54 regular-season games, two under the maximum number of games allowed by the NCAA.

TV Talent

Mike Morgan and Mike Rooney will call Friday’s game on SEC Network. Both announcers will call the game on site.

On Saturday and Sunday, the games will be streamed on SEC Network-Plus with Brett Dolan and Troy Eklund on the call.

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