By JAMES MORAN | Tiger Rag Associate Editor
Arkansas finds itself in an unlikely three-way atop the Southeastern Conference standings at 7-2 in league play thanks largely to its own version of Alex Lange and Jared Poche’ atop the weekend rotation.
The only difference being that sophomore ace Blaine Knight (4-1 2.23 ERA) and junior Derek Stephan (4-2, 2.92 ERA) are both right handed, and both Razorbacks possess objectively filthy stuff. Knight and Stephan have struck out a combined 98 batters in 77.1 innings (11.4 K/9) with 12 walks (8:1 K/BB).
In one sense, Lange (3-3, 3.37 ERA) and Poche’ (6-1, 1.15 ERA) will duel with the Arkansas duo, but practically speaking, it’ll be the struggling LSU lineup that has to face the two-man buzz saw as the Tigers head to Fayetteville this weekend for a three-game series against the SEC West co-leaders.
“It’s kind of like the last couple weekends,” said Kramer Robertson, who has homered in each of LSU’s last three games. “A bunch of guys that can strike you out and are good arms, but you just try to go up there and meet the challenge. That’s every weekend in the SEC.”
LSU has been shut out in each of its past two series openers — squandering a pair of gems from Lange in the process — and has scored just four runs total in four SEC losses.
Can a 13-run midweek outburst translate into success against a high-end SEC ace? That much remains to be seen, but LSU is banking on the notion that confidence — like hitting — is contagious.
Hitting coach Micah Gibbs says success must begin with an adjustment to the way LSU attacks hard throwers. Instead of swinging extra hard to match the mid-90s fastball, Gibbs says it’s imperative to get the barrel to the ball as the pitch will supply the power.
“It’s one of those things where you don’t have to match the intensity of the fastball,” Gibbs said. “In fact, you kind of want to pull back a little bit. We’re just trying to barrel up the baseball. You’re not trying to get big on a fastball just because it’s a bigger velocity.”
Meanwhile, the Tiger pitching staff has its own difficult challenge. Arkansas leads the SEC with 40 home runs this season, nine more than the next closest club. It’s well distributed throughout the lineup, too, as five Hogs have hit at least four home runs.
That combination of power arms and power hitters has gotten Dave Van Horn’s Razorbacks to an imposing 18-1 start at home.
The long ball has been somewhat problematic for an otherwise effective rotation. The three-man rotation of Lange, Poche’ and freshman Eric Walker have allowed 11 home runs through seven starts apiece this season.
“Just execute pitches,” Poche’ said. “We’re not going to change anything we do because of the opponent, but try to keep the ball down. If we make mistakes, guys in the SEC are supposed to be able to hit home runs on that. If we minimize mistakes and make mistakes in our counts, we should be ok.”
LSU coach Paul Mainieri has made a travel roster adjustment to combat the lefty-heavy, power-laden lineup. Rookie left-hander Blair Frederick, who retired both batters he faced in Tuesday’s 13-2 win over Grambling, touching 91 mph with his fastball in the process, will be active for his first career SEC series.
LSU – Jr. RHP Alex Lange (3-3, 3.73 ERA, 41.0 IP, 11 BB, 55 SO)
UA – So. RHP Blaine Knight (4-1, 2.23 ERA, 40.1 IP, 2 BB, 48 SO)
LSU – Sr. LHP Jared Poche’ (6-1, 1.15 ERA, 47.0 IP, 10 BB, 31 SO)
UA – Jr. RHP Trevor Stephan (4-2, 2.92 ERA, 37.0 IP, 10 BB, 50 SO)
LSU – Fr. RHP Eric Walker (3-0, 3.03 ERA, 38.2 IP, 10 BB, 43 SO)
UA – TBA
Friday, April 7 – 6:30 p.m. CT
Saturday, April 8 – 6 p.m. CT
Sunday, April 9 – 1 p.m. CT
Baum Stadium in Fayetteville, Ark.
LSU – No. 13 D1 Baseball; No. 13 USA Today; No. 15 Baseball America; No. 22 Collegiate Baseball
UA – No. 14 Collegiate Baseball; No. 15 D1 Baseball; No. 15 USA Today; No. 16 Baseball America
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LSU leads the series with Arkansas, 67-30, and the Tigers have won 11 of their last 12 SEC regular-season series versus the Razorbacks, including a three-game series sweep last season in Baton Rouge. The only regular-season series win for Arkansas over LSU in the past 12 seasons came in 2011, when the Razorbacks swept three games from the Tigers in Fayetteville. The Tigers are 31-12 against Arkansas over the past 12 seasons, including two wins over the Razorbacks in the 2009 College World Series.