No. 1 Arkansas set to host defending national champion LSU beginning Thursday

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FAYETTEVILLE – Baum-Walker Stadium will host a match up of the defending national champion and this season’s No. 1 team beginning Thursday.

Top-ranked Arkansas (20-3, 5-1) and 2023 champ and No. 8 LSU (20-6, 2-4) will open a three-game set at 6 p.m. in a contest that will be televised on ESPN2.

“I don’t have to say anything with LSU coming in,” Arkansas head coach Dave Van Horn said. “They have great talent. Great team. They know how to win. They know us, we know them.”

Van Horn, whose team shared last season’s SEC regular season title with Florida, is expecting a packed crowd.

“Just a big-time atmosphere,” Van Horn said. “We’ve been drawing some great crowds over the years and I don’t see anything any different. The weather is going to be fine. You got two teams ranked in the Top 10. Defending national champions coming in. So, I imagine a ticket’s going to be hard to get.”

LSU head coach Jay Johnson is also looking forward to the battle.

“We’ve got a tremendous challenge this weekend at Arkansas,” Johnson said. We’re going to have to play in our best character. I think we learned some things last weekend (in an SEC series vs. Florida); we’re not totally where we want to be yet, but at the same time, we were one pitch away from winning that series against one of the best teams in the country. This is what we signed up for, and we’re really excited about going up to Arkansas.”

The Razorbacks had their 16-game winning streak stopped at Auburn on Sunday while the Tigers, who have lost their first two SEC series, are coming off two losses at Florida last weekend and an 8-4 victory over Southeastern on Tuesday.

“Well, they were awfully good last year and they’re awfully good this year,” Van Horn said of LSU. “It’s still early in the season. Even though most teams have played around 25 games there’s still 60% of the games left and teams are just starting to heat up and figure it out and get those pitching rotations right or how they want to handle things.

“I think they’re really talented. I mean, you look at the talent on that team and it’s as good as anybody in the country. And they know that, we know that, and everybody that plays them knows that. Really, obviously our focus is just do what we can do and do it well. Control what we can control. But they’re awfully good.”

Arkansas will trot out its normal weekend starting staff of Hagen Smith (4-0, 1.44 ERA), Brady Tygart (3-0, 1.59) and Mason Molina (3-0, 2.57), but do so in a different order.

“As far as the rotation, we’re going to change it up just a little bit,” Van Horn said. “We’re going to go Smith, Molina and Tygart in that order. We just want to give Brady another day to get right. So that’s kind of the way we’re going to do it

“….Just let him rest a little bit. Let him get everything straightened up and feel really good. Nothing wrong with him.”

Tygart walked a season-high five batters in his team’s 6-5 win at Auburn on Friday.

“Oh, I feel great about Brady,” Van Horn said. “His stuff’s good. Competes hard. I think that he’s had a little bit of command issues with his fastball. He gets that straightened out, he’ll be good to go. So I have all the confidence in the world in him.”

The opener will pit two of the nation’s best collegiate pitchers that both have allowed just a quartet of runs this season.

Smith, who has fanned 62 in 29 innings was expected to face off against LSU starter and Alabama transfer Luke Holman (5-1, 0.78), who has tossed two complete-game shutouts this season.

But LSU announced Wednesday night that Holman will pitch in Friday’s second game instead of the opener and did not announce a Thursday stater.

Will McEntire (2-0, 1.57) will be ready to come in for the Razorbacks if needed as he did for Smith in the seventh inning in last Friday’s 1-0 win at Auburn.

“First, on Hagen, I guess what we expect is him to go out and compete like he always does and hopefully get us into the game and late into the game because that’s what he’s been doing,” Van Horn said. “He’s been throwing a lot of strikes and he competes hard. He just gives us an opportunity.

“We didn’t give him much run support last weekend but our bullpen with a couple of guys…came out and finished it up for us. McEntire was just lights out. He gave us a chance.”

Holman was 7-2 with a 3.67 ERA last season at Alabama and went 5 1/3 innings while allowing four runs, fanning eight and walking two in a 9-6 loss against the Razorbacks in 2023.

“He pitched pretty good against us,” Van Horn said. “We finally, I don’t know, broke loose a little bit. But really kind of focusing on this year and from what I’ve seen and what I’ve watched, he’s just better. He’s throwing the ball over the plate. He’s got really, really good stuff, good secondary stuff.”

Holman has faced 133 batters this season, fanned 56, walked 8 and allowed just three earned runs and four overall on 19 hits.

“I mean, I think the batting average against him is amazing,” Van Horn said. “So he’s doing everything you’re supposed to do as a No. 1. His ERA is under 1.00. He just hasn’t given up much. So I don’t know if they’re going to throw him tomorrow or Friday or Saturday. But when we do face him, he’s going to be a handful.”

LSU’s offense is led by catcher Hayden Travinski (.333, 7 HRs, 27 RBIs) and third baseman Tommy White (.321, 7 HRs, 23 RBIs), who both homered Tuesday night.

“They both have tremendous power,” Van Horn said. “They both do a great a job at driving in runs. One has 27 and one has got 23 RBIs. It’s veterans, it’s strength, it’s opposite-field power, pull power. They’re two-strike hitters that will fight you. Just two really tough bats in the middle of that lineup.”

The Arkansas offense has gotten a lift with the recent hitting of shortstop Wehiwa Aloy, who has raised his batting average from .190 to .273 in the past 13 games.

Aloyhas a team-high 24 RBIs and is tied for the team lead in home runs with five, including launching his second grand slam of season in Tuesday’s 11-0 win over Little Rock.

He has hit in six straight games and reached base in each of his last 13 contests heading into his weekend’s games that also include one Friday night at 7 p.m. (SEC Network) and Saturday at 2 (SEC Network +).

“Well, first thought, hitting is really hard,” Van Horn said. “It’s hard to hit that ball that’s coming in hard, moving, spinning, whatever, so you have to be confident. He shows really good bat-to-ball skills in practice, games, scrimmages. Like I said, he was tearing it up when the season started against our pitching, and our pitching is obviously is pretty good.

“And then when the season started, I think he tried to do too much and then he tried to catch up. He finally just said ‘The heck with it. I’m going to take what they give me. They want to walk me? Well, they can walk me. They want to come in? They can come in.’ He’s done a lot better job lately of swinging at better pitches…I feel like he’s a very confident kid and it’s really good to get him rolling a little bit.”

Arkansas players have adopted the moniker of gorilla ball and has a mask to celebrate with in the dugout.

“I’m good with it,” Van Horn said. “I told them they can do whatever they want as long as it stays in the dugout. It’s a team thing. It’s not all about hitting home runs but that’s when they celebrate. It’s about just the team and the camaraderie and having some fun more than anything. Showing a little personality, I’m all good with it.

“If we’re fortunate enough to hit a home run, anything that we do to celebrate is about our team. We’re not pointing at the other team or trying to stir things up. We’re just trying to have a little bit of fun in our dugout. It’s been kind of fun actually.”

Photo by John D. James

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