FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas missed out on a chance to sweep its two-game series against Nebraska on Wednesday, suffering a 6-4 loss in Baum Stadium.
It didn’t create quite the momentum Arkansas coach Dave Van Horn was hoping his team would ride into its next Southeastern Conference series. But Van Horn couldn’t wallow in the loss a few minutes later. He and the Razorbacks have no choice but to move on because a critical series against South Carolina begins at 7 p.m. Thursday.
“It’s the biggest weekend of the year for us,” Van Horn said, looking ahead. “I mean, we’ve got to win the series. It’s time for us to win a series.”
Arkansas (18-11, 4-5 in SEC), which doesn’t have a glowing NCAA Tournament resume at the midway point of the 2014 season, has a chance to make a big impression when it continues its stretch of five games in five days. The Razorbacks will host South Carolina (25-3, 6-3 in SEC) during a three-game series, which includes Thursday night’s appearance on ESPNU.
It’s the second straight weekend the Razorbacks are playing a ranked opponent, following last week’s 1-2 performance at Mississippi State. The Gamecocks have established themselves as one of the nation’s best teams this season and Arkansas outfielder Joe Serrano believes they’ll see a determined team in Baum Stadium.
The Razorbacks swept South Carolina in Columbia, S.C., last season.
“I feel like there’s a little bit of blood in the water,” Serrano said. “Especially because we swept them last year. They’re looking for vengeance. The best way to combat that is get after them early and show them that we’re not scared that you’re second ranked. We’re here to play and you’re in our home court. So this is our ball.”
Including Wednesday’s loss, Arkansas is 14-4 in Baum Stadium this season.
The Razorbacks collected 10 hits against three Nebraska pitchers. Five others reach base. But Arkansas failed to capitalize on opportunities with runners in scoring position.
It started in the first, when Andrew Benintendi, Serrano and Brian Anderson reached base. The bases loaded opportunity only resulted in one run.
“Get the bases loaded, no outs, that first inning and we’ve got a chance to get out to a pretty good lead and we only score one run,” Van Horn said. “That was hard. That was a win for (Nebraska) over there in that dugout at the end of one.”
The Razorbacks also hurt themselves on the mound with the score tied 3-3 in the fourth inning. Reliever Jackson Lowery committed a two-out balk with runners on first and third. Lowery made a move to first, but never threw the ball.
So a run scored to give Nebraska the lead. Then a single up the middle scored the second run go make it 5-3. The Cornhuskers never trailed the rest of the game.
“I don’t know what happened,” Van Horn said. “I’ve never seen that in 25 years.”
But Van Horn said his team remains confident heading into the three-game series.
Arkansas will alter its starting rotation because of last week’s shortened series at Mississippi State. Right-hander Trey Killian, who started the second game of last Saturday’s doubleheader, will move ahead of left-hander Jalen Beeks in the rotation and pitch in the opener. Beeks will start Friday’s game.
Van Horn said Killian didn’t throw as many pitches as Beeks last week, making him more prepared to start on shorter rest. Chris Oliver will start Saturday’s game.
South Carolina coach Chad Holbrook, whose team arrived at Baum Stadium to work out shortly after Arkansas wrapped up its series with Nebraska, believes the Gamecocks must play well to win no matter who takes the mound for the Hogs.
“It’s going to be a challenge for us,” Holbrook said. “Arkansas has a good club. A great pitching staff. It’s going to be a struggle for our team to score some runs with the quality of their pitching staff. So we’re going to have our work cut out for us.”
This will be the seventh straight season Arkansas and South Carolina have met in the regular season. The series has produced plenty of close games during that time, including three decided by two runs or less in the 2012 College World Series.
Van Horn said Arkansas has a lot of respect for the Gamecocks. Holbrook said the feeling is mutual as they prepare for another series against each other.
“We play the game similar to the way they play it and there’s not much chatter going on back and forth,” Holbrook said. “It’s a respect factor. We respect them and our players respect their players and I think their players respect our program too.
“It’s been great competition over the years. We’ve had some great games here, obviously some really good games in Omaha. Some great games in Columbia. So I’m expecting nothing else this weekend.”
So does Van Horn. But he said the Razorbacks team needs the series win.
“We’ve got to turn it up a notch,” Van Horn said. “We just went past the halfway mark of this season when you talk about the number of games. We’ve got to have some older guys kick it into gear. If not, it’s going to be a long year.”