TFAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas took an important step in securing a spot in an NCAA Regional with the series win against Texas A&M in Baum Stadium.
Now the Razorbacks have to make sure the effort isn’t wasted.
Arkansas, which is aiming for a 12th straight NCAA Regional appearance under coach Dave Van Horn, will play its final regular season series at Missouri beginning Thursday night. The Razorbacks (32-21, 13-14 in SEC) enter the week with a chance to finish the regular season .500 or better in conference play, continuing to make their case for a place in the NCAA Tournament field.
Arkansas is expected to accomplish considering Missouri (20-30, 6-21 in SEC) carries a 12-game losing streak into the series. The Tigers haven’t won a conference game since April 13 and have been eliminated from the 2014 SEC Tournament.
But pitcher Trey Killian believes Missouri’s misery makes them dangerous.
“We can’t overlook those guys,” said Killian, who will start Thursday night on shorter rest. “Obviously they haven’t had a great year and this is most likely going to be their last weekend to play, so they’re going to be desperate. They’re going to be willing to do whatever they can do. They have nothing to lose.”
Arkansas does have plenty at stake, however, after seemingly solidifying a postseason berth by adding Texas A&M to its list of series wins against South Carolina, Vanderbilt and Alabama. A series loss to the last-place team wouldn’t make a good impression as the NCAA Tournament’s unveiling rapidly approaches.
The Razorbacks — who moved up four spots to No. 50 in the NCAA’s RPI — have not yet secured a spot in the SEC Tournament field. One win against the Tigers would do it this week. But Arkansas is more concerned about collecting a series win, which would be its first after losses at Florida, Mississippi, State, LSU and Ole Miss.
So Van Horn said his team understands the stakes as the regular season ends.
“Obviously our mindset is we’ve got to go up there and win the series,” Van Horn said. “I mean, we haven’t won a series on the road in league play. We’ve been close, we just haven’t finished anybody off. We haven’t put together three good games in a row. Maybe one here, one there. But this is a big series for us.”
Van Horn believes Arkansas’ urgency was evident against the Aggies.
The Razorbacks won the series even though several key players were unavailable because of injuries. Pitcher Jalen Beeks (sore arm) and designated hitter Blake Baxendale (hamstring) won’t be available to play once again, but will lean on others like designated hitter Clark Eagan and freshman pitcher Dominic Taccolini to fill in.
Arkansas faces a Missouri team that is last in the conference in hitting (.245), home runs (10) and runs scored (187). The Tigers also are 12th in the conference on the mound with a 3.91 earned run average.
But Missouri hasn’t been easy to beat during the 12-game losing streak. The Tigers have lost six games by two runs or less during the conference slide. So Arkansas is counting on a motivated group as it plays the final three games of the season.
“Missouri’s a good club, even though their record doesn’t say it,” Arkansas outfielder Tyler Spoon said. “They just went to South Carolina this past weekend and played three tough games. I think a couple of one-run games, played a game in 10 innings.
“We’re going to have to fight, we’re going to have to battle to win an away series.”
The trip will be Arkansas’ first to play at Missouri since the Tigers joined the conference. It also will be Arkansas’ first trip to Missouri since 2002, when the Razorbacks won a midweek game 11-10 under former coach Norm DeBryin.
Pitcher Chris Oliver — who will start Friday — said the Razorbacks are looking forward to the trip. He said Arkansas wants to make sure Missouri’s losing streak is extended, though, as they try to win an SEC series on the road.
“Our goal is try to make it 15 or 14 or whatever,” Oliver said. “They’ve got nothing to lose. They’re not going to the tournament. We’re kind of on that bubble right now. So we’ve got everything to lose, they’ve got nothing to lose. So we’re going to have to come out and stick it to them.”