Now, the Razorbacks clearly are in the field of 64, and are one of those teams nobody wants to play in an NCAA Regional after improving to 2-0 in the Southeastern Conference tournament with a 2-1 win over Mississippi behind a stellar performance from junior righthanded pitcher Chris Oliver.
“When you face a guy like Chris Oliver, you have to try things to try to get runs across, but that just didn't happen today,” Ole Miss coach Mike Bianco said. “He's got a big-time fastball, good enough command with his off speed pitches, he can defend, and he can move around. He's also just a great competitor, and you can just see his emotion out there.”
Oliver isn't used to pitching with at least some cushion with the Hogs scuffling offensively much of the season. But against the Rebels, the Hogs gave him some early support, as they loaded the bases in the first inning with a pair of singles and a hit-by-pitch. Arkansas second baseman Brian Anderson followed with a sacrifice fly to give the Hogs a 1-0 advantage, a lead they were able to preserve despite some tense moments in the seventh inning when Rebels tied the contest.
The offense got things going in the top of the first, but it was Oliver who set the foundation for the Hogs, who now have won eight of their last nine contests, including being 8-1 since the Saturday game in Oxford, Miss., against these Rebels just a few weeks ago.
Oliver, a 6-foot-4, 180-pounder, with a wiry frame, sat 91-93 mph, touching 94, with his fastball, while he also went heavy with an 81-84 mph changeup, utilized a 77-80 mph curveball that was very good at times with good depth. Oliver didn't showcase immaculate command against the Rebels, but did just enough with his fastball and worked out of bad counts on several occasions.
“I thought Chris threw really well today. He threw a lot of strikes, and while he did get behind in some counts, he came back from 2-0 and made it 2-1 pretty quickly,” Arkansas head coach Dave Van Horn said. “He challenged hitters, and overall, did a very nice job of mixing his pitches.”
By now, Oliver's story is well documented. After serving as a reliever for the Hogs last season, Van Horn wanted the talented righty to move to the weekend rotation. That can be a tough transition to make, especially for someone with a power arm like Oliver. But even with high expectations, Oliver has been terrific this season as the No. 50 overall prospect for the Major League Baseball draft, and is pitching his best at exactly the right time for the Razorbacks.
For instance, Oliver, who allowed just a run on four hits in 6 1/3 innings against the Rebels, has pieced together four high quality starts. In his last 26 1/3 innings on the mound, the righty has struck out 14, walked six and allowed just four runs. He also spearheads an Arkansas pitching staff that has allowed just one run in 18 innings and two games here at the SEC tournament.
“I always knew Chris had this in him, dating back to when I used to see him throw in high school,” Van Horn said. “Coach [Dave] Jorn has done a great job of working with him and teaching him. He's really grown up, and he's made not only a move physically, but also mentally, and that's pretty important.”
Though the Hogs are in a tough situation the rest of the SEC tournament with lefthanded pitcher Jalen Beeks out for the week because of an injury (he'll return for the NCAA postseason), Oliver headlines a pitching staff that will be incredibly difficult to get past in the NCAA postseason. Sure, the Hogs might not have the most explosive offense in Hoover, but so far in two games, they've found ways to get clutch hits.
Whether in Hoover, or on the Road to Omaha, pitching and key hits are what guides teams this time of year.
Watch out for Oliver and Arkansas.
LSU RUN-RULES VANDERBILT
Much has changed for the LSU Tigers over the past couple of weeks.
Three weekends ago, the Tigers hit the road to College Station, Texas, and scored just 12 runs in three games in a tough road series loss to the Aggies. That series loss, though, seemed to spark something for the LSU offense, which has been on cruise control ever since.
First, it was a 27-run barrage in a midweek bout against Northwestern State. Then, the Tigers went on a roll. And after beating the Commodores 11-1 Wednesday morning at Hoover Metropolitan Stadium, this offensive lineup is hitting at an astonishing clip, scoring 65 runs in their last five contests.
“As confidence grows, we've figured out which roles each player on our team can handle. You have to have confidence to hit well at this level,” LSU coach Paul Mainieri said. “These guys feel like they can hit anyone right now.
“Alex Bregman is a microcosm of our season right now,” he continued. “He struggled for a large portion of our season, but he can hit, and we knew sooner or later, he'd come around. I feel like we're peaking at the right time.”
Bregman had a huge afternoon at the plate, going 3-for-4 with a double, a home run, a run scored and five RBIs. Meanwhile, on the mound, freshman lefthanded pitcher Jared Poche didn't need to do much, but put together a quality start, striking out three, walking just one and allowing a run on five hits in seven innings. Poche was 87-88 with his fastball, and used a sharp breaking 74-75 curveball.
LSU entered the SEC tournament needing a couple of wins to put itself in great position for an NCAA Regional host site. Now, it's an Aaron Nola great start away from accomplishing that goal.
All with the offense leading the way.
HOOVER HIGHLIGHTS: Should Kentucky reach its postseason goals, guys like righthanded pitcher Kyle Cody must consistently rise to the occasion. Well, Cody, who has been banged up this season, did just that in a 4-2 win over top-seeded Florida, striking out four, walking one and allowing two runs on four hits in 5 1/3 innings. Cody flashed big-time stuff with a fastball sitting 91-95 mph, and touching 96, while he also used a 74-77 curveball that complemented the fastball well. Meanwhile, fellow righty Chandler Shepherd struck out three, walked two and allowed just two hits in 3 2/3 innings … I said last week on a radio show in Mississippi that I thought Mississippi State was very dangerous because it simply hadn't played the way it's capable of for much of the season. Well, the Bulldogs stepped up Wednesday night, run-ruling South Carolina in a dominant 12-0 victory. MSU second baseman Brett Pirtle hit a three-run homer in the contest, while shortstop Seth Heck and outfielder C.T. Bradford each finished the night with three hits. On the mound, lefthanded reliever Jacob Lindgren flashed big-time stuff, sitting 92-95 with his sinking fastball, and showcasing a wipeout low-to-mid 80s slider. The Bulldogs have a long way to go to win the SEC tournament, but what a statement start for John Cohen's club.