FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas entered the 2013 season with lofty goals because of a veteran pitching staff regarded as one of the nation’s best.
So when Arkansas second baseman Dominic Ficociello heard the Razorbacks led the nation in team earned run average on Thursday, the junior shrugged. It was really no surprise to hear they’ve lived up to the billing so far this season.
“That’s kind of what we expected,” Ficociello said. “They’re the heart and soul of this team. As long as they keep on doing what they always do and we can play better defense and get timely hits, we’re going to be a really good team.”
Fifteenth-ranked Arkansas (19-7, 4-2 in SEC) will count on its talented staff once again at 6:35 tonight, when the Razorbacks open a three-game series against No. 25 Mississippi State (22-6, 2-4) in Baum Stadium. The group faces one of its biggest tests of the season, pitching to a Mississippi State offense that leads the SEC in runs scored (197) and is ranked second in team batting average (.310).
But Arkansas carries plenty of confidence into the series behind an NCAA-best 1.64 ERA and five shutouts through 26 games. The Arkansas staff was dominant in a weekend sweep at South Carolina, then followed it by allowing one earned run in two wins against Mississippi Valley State earlier this week.
“We just go out there and do our job and throw a bunch of strikes,” Arkansas starter Ryne Stanek said. “We get a bunch of outs and let our offense do the job.”
Arkansas coach Dave Van Horn, who has tinkered with the starting rotation plenty of times this season, won’t change a thing because of the success at South Carolina.
Right-hander Barrett Astin (2-1, 2.48 ERA), who has had a productive history against the Bulldogs, will start tonight’s game against Mississippi State’s Luis Pollorena (4-0, 2.77 ERA). The junior struck out all 10 MSU batters he faced out of the bullpen in 2011. He also allowed just one run in three innings last season.
Stanek (2-1, 2.35 ERA), who was named the SEC’s Pitcher of the Week after his complete-game at South Carolina, will start Saturday’s game. Left-hander Randall Fant (1-0, 1.19) will close the series with a start on Easter Sunday.
Van Horn said there’s simply no reason to change things up after a successful week, adding he’s “proud” of the way the entire group has performed lately.
“They’re doing a good job,” Van Horn said. “There’s a lot of competition among the pitchers now, so when they do get on the mound they really feel like they have something to prove. That’s one reason they did so well this week,” Van Horn said. “It didn’t matter who we played. They are trying to earn some innings on the weekend.”
But Van Horn also understands his group must be sharp against the Bulldogs.
Mississippi State — which opened the season 17-0 but has lost its first two SEC series — has three of the SEC’s top hitters in its lineup. Outfielder Hunter Renfroe (.425, 9 HRs, 36 RBIs), shortstop Adam Frazier (.396) and third baseman Alex Detz (.364) all rank in the top 12 in the conference in batting average. Renfroe is at or near the top of the charts in batting average, home runs and RBIs.
Mississippi State isn’t bad on the mound, either. The Bulldogs rank fourth in the SEC in team ERA (2.53). But Mississippi State could be without ace Jacob Lindgren, who has not been penciled into the rotation because of an apparent injury this week.
So Mississippi State coach John Cohen said his team, which has lost two one-run games at Kentucky, must take advantage of every opportunity against the Hogs.
“They do such a nice job,” Cohen said Thursday. “Every guy they throw out there kind of gives you a different look and presents different challenges. That pitching staff, you’ve got to have great at-bats and you just have to grind against.
“Arkansas is good, and they were supposed to be good coming into this year.”
Stanek, who finally put together a big performance after struggling early, said the Bulldogs will be a “pretty good order” because of the talent and experience returning from last year. But he said the Arkansas pitching staff relishes the challenge of remaining the best in the nation as the season continues.
“We’re just trying to do our job and we’ve been able to do it pretty well so far,” Stanek said. “We’re looking to keep at what we’re doing.”
No. 25 Mississippi State (22-6, 2-4 in SEC) at No. 15 Arkansas (19-7, 4-2 in SEC)
• When: Today at 6:35 p.m., Saturday at 2:05 p.m., Sunday at 1:05 p.m.
• Where: Baum Stadium, Fayetteville
• TV: Cox Sports Television (Friday and Sunday)
• Radio: KABZ-FM 103.7
• Webcast: ESPN3 (Sunday)