FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas coach Dave Van Horn said his veteran team understands it has an opportunity to gain ground in the Southeastern Conference’s Western Division standings this weekend.
The Razorbacks also realize it will take something special to accomplish it because of how dominant its opponent — No. 3 LSU — has been this season.
“Realistically, we know we’re going to have to play maybe our best baseball of the year by far if we’re going to win this series,” Van Horn said.
Tenth-ranked Arkansas (24-10, 8-4 in SEC), which struggled during its midweek split with New Mexico, welcomes an even greater challenge to Baum Stadium when a three-game series against the Tigers begins tonight at 6:35.
LSU (32-2, 11-1) has reeled off 14 straight wins and is off to the best start in school history and its best conference start since 1997. The Tigers have rolled through 34 games with the SEC’s best offense (.322 batting average), best defense (.983 fielding percentage) and second-best pitching staff (2.39 earned run average).
The numbers are proof the Tigers have had little trouble navigating their schedule through the first half of the season. Their only stumbles came in an early-season loss to BYU (Feb. 23) and the finale of the Mississippi State series (March 17).
But it has been nearly a month since LSU has lost.
“That’s fun,” Van Horn said. “If you’re 32-2, you go to the ballpark knowing that you’re going to win. They’re backing it up with some great play.”
LSU’s success begins with a lineup centered around the SEC’s top hitters in first baseman Mason Katz and shortstop Alex Bregman. They two rank first and second, respectively, in batting average (.447 and .444). Katz also leads the SEC in home runs (13) and RBIs (60), while Bregman is first in hits (63), runs (41) and triples (6).
But Arkansas is confident it has the pitching to slow down an LSU offense that has scored 119 runs during its 14-game win streak. The Razorbacks will send its regular starting rotation of Barrett Astin (2-1, 2.31 ERA), Ryne Stanek (3-2, 1.90 ERA) and Randall Fant (2-1, 1.71 ERA) to the mound to face the Tigers.
“Our goal going into this weekend is just making sure that average drops as a team,” Astin said. “We compete on the mound as a pitching staff. We compete against each other. We want to be successful and make sure they don’t raise that average.”
A great pitching performance from the Razorbacks won’t necessarily equal a series victory, though, because LSU has shown it can win games on the mound as well.
The Tigers’ one-two punch of starting pitchers Aaron Nola and Ryan Eades have been particularly dominant, combining for a 12-0 record in 16 starts. Nola and Eades rank second and fifth, respectively, in the SEC in strikeouts. And LSU has allowed just 27 runs during its 14-game win streak.
So the Razorbacks understand their lineup — which ranks ninth in the SEC in batting average (.276) — must take advantage of every opportunity this weekend.
“They’re obviously not going to be easy,” outfielder Tyler Spoon said. “But usually every SEC weekend you’re going to see some guys that can throw it really well. We know they’re going to be tough, but we’re going to go out and compete.”
The three-game series is the first between top 10 teams at Baum Stadium since 2010, when South Carolina swept Arkansas on its way to a national title.
Arkansas-LSU has featured sweeps the past two seasons as well. The Razorbacks swept the Tigers in three games at Baum Stadium in 2011, grabbing their only series victory against the Tigers the past eight years. LSU got some payback last season, though, beating the Razorbacks in three straight games in Baton Rouge, La.
It included two wins in the bottom of the ninth inning, snatching potential wins away from the Razorbacks. Van Horn said it took a long time for his team to recover from the sweep, too. Arkansas entered the series 5-1 in SEC play at the time, but finished 16-14 and barely qualified for the SEC Tournament.
“We didn’t play well,” Van Horn said about last season’s series. “We got it together a little bit after that, but we stumbled around in league play after that.
“I don’t think that we truly got over it. Any time you get swept it’s hard. Especially in big games like that. Hopefully we’ll play a lot better this year.”
But LSU coach Paul Mainieri said the Tigers expect their success to continue.
“We’re looking forward to the challenge of playing at Arkansas,” Mainieri said, according to LSUSports.com. “It’s a tough environment and we certainly respect their program, but we’re not going to be in awe of anyone.
“We’ve had some tremendous ball games with them over the years, and this weekend should provide the same type of excitement.”
Arkansas could move into a first-place tie with LSU atop the SEC West standings with a three-game sweep. The Hogs would fall six games back with three losses.
So Astin said the Razorbacks understand what the three-game series means.
“We know what it’s like,” Astin said. “We know this is a big weekend. It could be for the West, it could be for the overall SEC depending on how the rest of the year goes.”
No. 3 LSU (32-2) at No. 10 Arkansas (24-10)
• When: Today at 6:35 p.m., Saturday at 6:05 p.m., Sunday at 1:05 p.m.
• Where: Baum Stadium, Fayetteville
• Radio: KABZ-FM 103.7