FAYETTEVILLE — The Arkansas baseball team left Fayetteville for its three-game series at Missouri last Tuesday and hasn’t come home.
The Razorbacks boarded a plane after the three-game sweep, flying directly to Hoover, Ala., to prepare for the Southeastern Conference Tournament.
It made sense to stay on the road with only one day in between the regular season finale and scheduled practice in Hoover Metropolitan Stadium. It also means the Razorbacks are a little road weary after spending a full week away from home. But Arkansas coach Dave Van Horn said his team — which played just three of its final 10 games in Baum Stadium — has no interest in seeing the trip end this afternoon.
“We’re here to win,” Van Horn said Monday morning. “Nobody wants to lose. Nobody wants to go home right now. … We’re not ready to go back yet.”
Arkansas, the No. 7 seed, will try to extend its run on the road when it plays No. 10 seed Texas A&M (33-23, 14-16 in SEC) in a single-elimination game at approximately 12:30 p.m. The winner will advance to the double-elimination round to play No. 2 seed Ole Miss (40-16, 19-11 in SEC) on Wednesday, while the losing team returns home to await their NCAA Tournament fate.
Both feel confident they’ve done enough in the regular season to secure a spot in an NCAA Regional. Especially Arkansas (35-21, 16-14 in SEC), which won six of its final seven games to wrap up the seventh-place finish after spending most of the season in the bottom half of the SEC standings. The three-game sweep at Missouri also helped the Hogs climb to No. 41 in the NCAA’s Rating Percentage Index.
But Texas A&M coach Rob Childress, whose team lost four of its final six SEC games and is No. 33 in the NCAA’s RPI, said it doesn’t lessen the motivation to win.
“Any time there is a trophy or ring on the line we’re here to win,” Childress said Monday. “Whoever wins is in and whoever doesn’t is going home. If we’re going to make the trip to Birmingham we’re going to try to win this thing.”
The SEC opener will be the fourth time the Razorbacks and Aggies have played in the past 12 days. Arkansas won two of three games against Texas A&M during the weekend series at Baum Stadium two weeks ago to solidify its NCAA resume, which includes series wins against South Carolina, Vanderbilt and Alabama.
All three games were decided in the late innings. The Razorbacks broke open tie games in the eighth and ninth, respectively, to win two straight. Then, Texas A&M won the series finale in 10 innings. So Van Horn expects another close game against Childress, who was an assistant on his staff at Nebraska.
“When you’re just talking one game, anything can happen,” Van Horn said. “But it will be a good ballgame. Coach Childress and I have talked. We know each other inside and out. We know what each other are probably thinking and are going to do and each other’s abilities as far as our team and our players.
“So we’ll just play and find a way to score one more run than they do.”
Arkansas moves into the postseason with plenty of confidence after its success against the Tigers, who lost 15 straight SEC games to close the regular season.
The Razorbacks won the series finale to complete the sweep despite trailing 5-1 entering the ninth inning. But Arkansas – led by designated hitter Clark Eagan — scored four runs in the ninth to tie the game. Then shortstop Michael Bernal helped the Razorbacks win the finale with two runs in the 11th to beat Missouri 7-5.
“We feel good,” Arkansas outfielder Tyler Spoon said after Monday’s practice. “Obviously, we’ve had some good games the last few weeks, won six of our last seven, so that’s just great momentum going into the SEC Tournament.
“It’s great momentum going into the postseason as well.”
Today’s game is Arkansas’ first appearance in the single-elimination round, which was put in place last season after the SEC tournament was expanded to 12 teams to accommodate a 14-team conference. The Razorbacks won their first two games of the 2013 tournament before falling in a single-elimination semifinal against LSU.
Arkansas would have to travel a longer path to reach the semifinals once again this season. But the Razorbacks still plan to make the most of the road trip.
“Everybody would like to bring that nice trophy back to put in their trophy case,” Van Horn said. “To get to have a chance to say they won a championship and possibly get a ring. That’s why we’re here.”
SEC TOURNAMENT TICKET
No. 10 Texas A&M (33-23, 14-16 in SEC) vs. No. 7 Arkansas (35-21, 16-14 in SEC)
When: Today at 12:30
Where: Hoover Metropolitan Stadium in Hoover, Ala.
TV: Fox SportSouth
Radio: Razorback Sports Network
On the Mound: RHP Trey Killian (3-8, 2.34 ERA) vs. RHP Daniel Mengden (4-7, 3.41 ERA)
At the Plate: Arkansas – 2B Brian Anderson (.319, 6 HR, 45 RBI), LF Joe Serrano (.311, 21 RBI), RF Andrew Benintendi (.274, HR, 25 RBI), CF Tyler Spoon (.272, 3 HR, 35 RBI); Texas A&M — RF Nick Banks (.349, 2 HR, 25 RBI), 1B Cole Lankford (.339, 4 HR, 42 RBI), C Troy Stein (.289, 2 HR, 22 RBI), SS Blake Allemand (.320, 20 RBI)