FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas coach Dave Van Horn shuffled his lineup last Friday, looking for a way to spark an offense that had stumbled most of the year.
He slid cleanup hitter Tyler Spoon to the leadoff spot. He dropped Andrew Benintendi, Joe Serrano and Brian Anderson back in the order. It seemed to work, beginning a four-game stretch in which Arkansas has scored 27 runs.
“We’ve been scoring more,” Van Horn said after his team finished with nine runs on 12 hits against UNLV on Wednesday. “So we’re just going to leave it the way it is.”
Van Horn and the Razorbacks (21-13, 6-6 in SEC) are hoping the improvement at the plate continues when they step back into Southeastern Conference play with a three-game series at No. 16 LSU (25-8-1, 6-5-1 in SEC). Arkansas has won three of four games — all against ranked opponents — since the lineup shakeup and are looking for more as they try to climb near the top of the jumbled SEC standings.
It won’t come easy at LSU’s Alex Box Stadium, where the Tigers are 21-2-1 this season. Or against a pitching staff that features LSU ace Aaron Nola. But Spoon said there’s no doubt Arkansas brings more confidence into the series.
“Up and down the order we’re swinging it pretty well,” Spoon said. “It’s good momentum to take there because it’s not easy. It’s never easy there at Alex Box playing LSU. But we’re ready for it. We’ve got some momentum going into it.”
Spoon’s move has been the biggest reason for the jolt, taking over for Benintendi in the leadoff role. He had spent most of his Arkansas career hitting No. 3 or No. 4 in the batting order, but provided a spark immediately as a leadoff man in the second game of the doubleheader against South Carolina.
He singled on the first pitch and eventually scored, setting the tone for a 4-1 win.
On Wednesday, Spoon stepped up to the plate with two men on in the second inning and delivered with a three-run home run. It helped Arkansas take an early 5-0 lead.
“To me, he’s a good leadoff hitter,” Van Horn said. “He’s done a good job. If we get the end of the order on, it’s like having an RBI guy there. It’s not like we’re trying to hide him or anything. He’s come through with some big hits. Maybe that second or third time through drive in a run. He’s got a knack for that a little bit.”
Van Horn tried it earlier this season after the Razorbacks struggled in the series opener at Florida. It didn’t work then, but Spoon is adjusting to the role.
“With Joe and Anderson hitting like they are right now, obviously I want to hit and everything, but I mainly just want to get on base and get it to Andrew,” Spoon said. “Andrew is swinging the bat really well too and get it to the next guy and let Serrano and Anderson do their thing. And we’ve got pitchers that always do great. I feel like if we can score a few runs, our pitching staff is going to do lights out too.”
Arkansas faces an enormous challenge in tonight’s opener with Aaron Nola on the mound.
The right-hander has been dominant throughout his collegiate career. He suffered his only loss at Florida two weeks ago, but responded by throwing a two-hit shutout against Mississippi State last Friday to set the stage for LSU’s three-game sweep.
Tonight will be the fourth time Arkansas has faced Nola during his three-year career with the Tigers. He has combined to allow 5 runs on 13 hits with 3 walks and 27 strikeouts over 22 1/3 innings in three starts against the Razorbacks.
“He’s a great pitcher,” Spoon said. “He can put it where he wants. He commands his fastball, commands his slider, commands his changeup. So that’s a guy that, obviously, is tough to face. But at the same time it’s fun to face as well because he’s a great pitcher and he’s going to be successful at the next level for sure.
“It’s a challenge. We love challenges. So it’s going to be awesome.”
Arkansas will send right-hander Trey Killian to the mound hoping the sophomore can earn his second win this season. Killian has pitched well, but is 1-5 largely because the Razorbacks have scored eight runs in his six starts.
Killian has watched Arkansas’ offense improve since the 2-1 loss to South Carolina last Friday. He said it would be “awesome” if the success continued tonight.
“Hopefully it’s a pitcher’s dual, keep it close the whole game and hopefully we can come out on top,” Killian said.
It would be just the third time in 13 seasons Arkansas has won a three-game series against LSU under Van Horn. The Razorbacks have a 1-5 series record at LSU during that time, collecting their only win during a three-game sweep in 2004.
Van Horn believes his team can win at LSU again if success at the plate continues.
“It’s getting better,” Van Horn said. “It’s starting to warm up. That’s usually what happens. Guys start getting a little bit of confidence. The wind starts blowing out at most parks and things happen. It’ll be a great time to keep scoring runs, especially with the teams we’ve got coming up. We’re going to have to put some runs up.”