Arkansas, LSU ready for SEC clash

FAYETTEVILLE — LSU has dominated college baseball’s headlines through the first five weeks of the 2023 season.

The Tigers (19-2, 2-1 SEC) have been the unanimous No. 1 team since an offseason that saw LSU hit it big on the transfer market with the additions of slugger Tommy White of North Carolina State and pitchers Paul Skenes of Air Force, Thatcher Hurd of UCLA and Christian Little of Vanderbilt.

The Tigers also returned outfielder Dylan Crews, ranked the best prospect in this year’s MLB Draft by Baseball America. Crews leads the SEC in batting average (.515) on-base percentage (.656) and OPS (1.582).

Arkansas (19-2, 3-0) is tied with LSU for the second-most victories in college baseball, but has flown somewhat under the radar during a 14-game winning streak that included a three-game sweep of Auburn last week in the first SEC series. The Razorbacks also have a 10-1 record against six teams projected to win their conferences.

Arkansas has a chance to steal some headlines from the SEC’s projected champion this weekend when the Razorbacks play three games at LSU. The series is scheduled to begin today at noon at Alex Box Stadium in Baton Rouge.

“I tell the players all the time that this is why you wanted to play in the SEC, weekends like this,” Arkansas Coach Dave Van Horn said.

The decision was made Thursday to move the first pitch of the series opener ahead by seven hours due to thunderstorms in the forecast late tonight in Baton Rouge.

“It’s tough moving games because of the fan environment here,” LSU Coach Jay Johnson said. “I hope everybody will still come anyway. It’s a top-five matchup and a lot of great players on the field.”

There is also a possibility for a Saturday doubleheader between the teams due to Sunday’s forecast, which includes a 70% chance of rain.

“We’ll probably make a decision on that [today] so everybody can plan accordingly,” Johnson said.

Skenes, who will be on the mound today, might be Crews’ best challenger to be drafted first overall. The right-hander leads college baseball in strikeouts (59) and WHIP (0.53), and has a 0.59 ERA in 30 1/3 innings.

Skenes has struck out at least 11 batters in all five of his starts. He has walked four.

“You usually don’t get too many chances to get him,” Van Horn said. “He’s got an incredible fastball, good breaking ball. He throws strikes. He’s big [6-6 and 247 pounds]. He can go nine innings, throw 110 pitches — whatever he needs to do.

“We’ll just go down there and do what we do. We’ll fight, and if we get a chance hopefully we’ll get him. If we don’t, we’ll move on to the next day.”

LSU has an all-time record of 75-39 against Arkansas, but the Tigers have not won a series over the Razorbacks since 2018.

Arkansas won twice against LSU in Fayetteville in 2019 and Baton Rouge in 2021, and swept the Tigers by a combined score of 15-6 last season at Baum-Walker Stadium.

“I thought they were one of the best teams in the country last year,” Johnson said.

The second-year LSU coach indicated he has been impressed with the Razorbacks’ ability to win big despite high roster turnover and multiple injuries to their pitching staff.

“To no one’s surprise, it will be one of the best teams and rosters we play all year,” Johnson said.

Similar things have been said of LSU.

The Tigers lead the SEC with 11 runs per game and a .467 on-base percentage, and lead the NCAA with a .989 fielding percentage. They rank second in the SEC with a 2.69 ERA.

Van Horn said LSU is “about as good as anybody” in the three main phases of the game — hitting, pitching and fielding.

“I know what we’re up against,” Van Horn said. “It’s going to be a big challenge. I think our guys are looking forward to going down there. You never know how it’s going to go, but I think we’re looking forward to just getting out of town. We’re on spring break right now and they’re bored. They’re ready to go somewhere else.”

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