FAYETTEVILLE — The Arkansas Razorbacks were expected to take a step back offensively this season after losing six veteran position players.
The 2018 Razorbacks hit .296 with a .475 slugging percentage, bashed a school-record 98 home runs while scoring 6.99 runs per game, and reached the College World Series championship series.
Not only have the 2019 Razorbacks not fallen back at the plate, they have cranked up their scoring without maintaining the home run pace of the previous year.
No. 4 University of Arkansas (39-13, 19-8 SEC) will take a .311 batting average and a .505 slugging percentage into the final regular-season series at Texas A&M, starting tonight at 6 at Blue Bell Park in College Station, Texas. The Razorbacks can clinch at least a tie for the SEC West title with a series victory. They lead the division by one game over Mississippi State and hold the tiebreaker over the Bulldogs due to a series sweep.
The Razorbacks will pit their premier offense against the SEC’s top pitching staff, as Texas A&M ranks fifth in the nation with a 3.05 ERA.
“We’re certainly going to have to slow down their offense,” Texas A&M coach Rob Childress said. “They’ve been on a tear for the last three or four weeks.”
Arkansas has increased its batting average by 24 percentage points — from .287 to .311 — in the past 17 games against mostly quality pitching — such as Vanderbilt, Mississippi State and Tennessee — while averaging 10.2 runs per game in that span.
Arkansas coach Dave Van Horn said the team’s 70 home runs have been a bit of a surprise, and the improvement in doubles — from 115 last year to 117 now — has boosted productivity.
“I think maybe we’re bigger, stronger,” Van Horn said. “Guys are on base so we’re getting better pitches to hit. We’re working the count a little better and making guys throw the ball over the plate. We’re getting pitches to drive and some of them have carried out of the park. It’s just been a good effort.”
The Razorbacks are averaging 8.1 runs per game, 11th in the country, with a lineup that features six regulars and one top reserve hitting .300 or better, plus freshman Christian Franklin batting .296 in the nine-hole.
“I think looking back on last year, everyone (is thinking), ‘Oh, we’re never going to be as good as we were the year before,’” junior infielder Jack Kenley said. “And we did lose some really good guys, but I think this year we’ve had a lot of people step up and play some really big roles and really help us out.”
Returning starters Heston Kjerstad (.335, 14 home runs), Dominic Fletcher (.332, 10) and Casey Martin (.311, 12) are all safely over .300, joined by designated hitter Matt Goodheart (.361), first baseman Trevor Ezell (.325) and Kenley (.314).
Freshman third baseman Jacob Nesbit’s batting average surged to .357 on March 22 before dropping back to its current .272, but he’s provided 41 RBI while batting mostly seventh or eighth.
Catcher Casey Opitz’s average bottomed out at .200 in the middle of the season before edging back to .254 while hitting mostly in the bottom of the lineup. He’s delivered two walk-off hits that swept series against Missouri and Tennessee, and he also hit a go-ahead home run in the series opener against LSU.
“You know, being a threat at the bottom of the order, this is what we’ve gotten,” Van Horn said. “They’ve gotten a lot of big hits for us. They’ve even had some games where they’ve done all the damage.
“So we all know that the top of the order is feared. They’ve got to work through those first six guys who all have good numbers and can hit the ball out of the park. It’s been the key to our offense, knowing we can score at the end of that lineup. That’s what’s really kind of thrown us over the top and helped propel us into the top of the league.”
Ezell, a native of Bryant, kept up with the Razorbacks during his years playing at Southeast Missouri State.
“It’s definitely a different team,” Ezell said. “Last year was more experienced guys that can hit it out of the park. We’re not going to catch up to their home run numbers I don’t think, but we knew we were going to be able to drive the ball … this year.”
Kenley’s 10 home runs give Arkansas four players in double figures, while eight players have at least 33 RBI, led by Fletcher’s 52 and Martin’s 50.
Fletcher leads the SEC with 21 doubles, while Martin (19) and Ezell (18) aren’t far behind.
Arkansas is third in the SEC with 117 doubles, second with 14 triples and second with 70 home runs. Only Vanderbilt, with 206 extra-base hits, has more than Arkansas’ 201 in the SEC.
“I think at the beginning of the year we had thought this was going to be a different offense than we’d had in previous years,” Kenley said. “You can look up and down and see speed all the way through, and our ability to stretch out those extra-base hits, not just driving balls in gaps and taking extra bases with our speed. It’s been incredibly helpful. It’s helped run production.”
The Razorbacks have stolen 69 bases in 82 tries this season, so they stand a chance of doubling their 39 steals (in 51 attempts) from last year.
Texas A&M ace John Doxakis (6-3, 1.93 ERA), whose start will come in Friday’s 6:30 p.m. game to keep him on his normal rest, said the Hogs can be dangerous.
“They can swing it for sure, kind of like Mississippi State,” Doxakis said. “You have to get ahead early. As soon as you get down in the count, they’re going to hit your mistakes and the pitches you throw right over the plate because they’re going to be waiting on it. So if we can get ahead early and just attack, it should slow them down a little bit.”
Arkansas ace Isaiah Campbell (9-1, 2.57 ERA) will pitch against Texas A&M left-hander Chris Weber (4-0, 2.79) in the series opener tonight. Weber is filling in this weekend for southpaw Asa Lacy (7-4, 2.13), who is serving a four-game suspension for his ejection from a game Saturday.
Doxakis will go up against Arkansas left-hander Patrick Wicklander (5-1, 4.17) on Friday, and the series will wrap up with Saturday’s 2 p.m. game, with Arkansas right-hander Connor Noland (2-3, 3.99) scheduled to face righty Christian Roa (2-2, 3.49).