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Commodores Host Razorbacks to Open SEC Play

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Arkansas jokes write themselves, so why spend time and effort coming up with them? Let's look a little deeper into the team that just got swept by Gonzaga...

Steven Branscombe-USA TODAY Sports

"The opposite of love is not hate, it's indifference."

-Elie Wiesel

"Why did Forrest Gump choose Alabama over Arkansas?  He wanted to be challenged academically."

-Some jackwagon who likes to tell old jokes

SEC Opening Weekend

#5 Vanderbilt Commodores (13-4, 10-1 at home) v. Arkansas Razorbacks (9-5)

I know, I know.  You come to these series previews for tactless humor and bourbon-fueled bluster, but I just don't have it right now.  While pre-conference play RPI rankings in baseball are laughable - I mean, LSU is #39 and Vandy is #55 currently - what might be more laughable is where Arkansas finds themselves on that list right now.  Arkansas is the 173rd best team in the nation (according to Warren Nolan), and the 4th best team in their state - behind Arkansas State, Central Arkansas, and Arkansas Pine-Bluff.  That's a swift kick in the balls.

The Hogs come to the Hawk after having lost their last three.  On Sunday, they were housed by Loyola Marymount 9-0, they were beaten soundly by Gonzaga 6-2 on Tuesday, and then absolutely curb-stomped 15-5 by those same Zags Wednesday night.

Let's see how our teams stack up statistically.

Offense

Arkansas: .315/.404/.491 with 22 2B, 8 3B, 14 HR, and 10-17 sb-att.

Vanderbilt: .321/.414/..460 with 36 2B, 11 3B, 8 HR, and 35-46 sb-att.

Though they've played three fewer games, it's clear from these numbers that they're not going to tear up the base paths.  Other than that, their numbers look pretty solid on the offensive end.  We'll have to avoid the long ball, obviously, but if we do, we won't exactly have to worry about them small-balling us to death.

Pitching

Arkansas: 4.46 ERA, 9.37 K/9, 5.21 BB/9, .232 b/avg, 8 HR allowed 15 WP, 21 HPB

Vanderbilt: 2.93 ERA, 10.05 K/9, 5.97 BB/9, .187 b/avg, 4 HR allowed, 18 WP, 11 HBP

What stands out is the 1.5 difference in ERA, .45 difference in opponents' batting average, and 10 more HBP.  Looking closer, Arky's starters have been solid, with all three weekend starters with a sub 3.5 ERA, and Zach Jackson holding a staggeringly good 0.64 ERA.  Their bullpen has been another story, as collectively, they have one save and an ERA north of 5.  Other than Josh Alberius and Jackson Lowery, coach Dave Van Horn can't be the most confident man in the world when making the call to the pen.  Conversely, Vanderbilt's pitching woes have been named Tyler "Turd" Ferguson, and after his "Rick Vaughn before he got glasses" impression throughout the first month of this season, he's highly unlikely to get meaningful innings this weekend.  If we can chase their starters early, we shouldn't have a whole hell of a lot to worry about.

Defense

Arkansas catchers are only throwing out 26% of potential base-stealers - for comparison, Delay and Ellison are gunning down 56% of would-be base stealers - and Arky hasn't yet faced a team that can run you to death.  We can.  And will.  This is the X-Factor for the series.  Corbs... send 'em all.

Most Dangerous Bat

#7 Junior 3B Bobby Wernes.  He's put together an impressive first month at the plate, hitting .386/.481/.659 with 1 2B, 4 3B, and 1 HR.  I'm not sure what to make of this guy, though, as he somehow has four triples, but is 0-1 in stolen base attempts.  It's extremely rare to see such a high amount of triples and a low amount of steals.  As a third baseman, it's likely his power eclipses his speed, but triples require a blend of both.  Is he a master at hitting that one spot on the wall that kicks off at an odd angle, or is he fast, but lacks a quick first step?  It's a damned mystery.  Let's just strike him out and not have to worry about it.

Most Dangerous Arm

This one's easy.  #32 Sophomore RHP Zach Jackson has been dominant, though he has not gone deep into games.  In 4 appearances (3 starts), the 6'4" Okie has gone 2-0 with an 0.64 ERA.  He's striking out slightly more than 1 batter per inning, walking slightly less than one per inning, and though he's holding hitters to a .208 b/avg, not one of those hits has gone for extra bases.  The silver lining?  He's only thrown 14 innings on the year, so his arm might not be stretched out enough to pitch past the 5th inning.  However, the starters listed for this weekend's series doesn't include Jackson, so... celebrate early?

Best Win

They... don't have one.  Seriously, when the best you can boast is taking 2 of 3 from a middling Loyola Marymount team, you probably shouldn't be boasting.  However, SEC teams hardly schedule a murderer's row before conference play, as they know they'll be facing some of the best teams in the country each week.  Honestly, other than the Dodgertown Classic 6-0 shutout of UCLA, we wouldn't have one win upon which to hang our hats hets.  In fairness, Arky has scheduled two pretty good teams in UCF and Maryland (in a late February 3 game tournament at Stanky Field in Alabama that also featured the University of South Alabama).  They lost both - 9-5 and 13-6 respectively.  It's early, and they'll certainly take at least one Sunday game from a top 25 team in the next few months by virtue of being in the SEC and playing almost all of them, but they haven't shown much yet.

Worst Loss

15-5 to Gonzaga two days ago.  You are only allowed to lose to Gonzaga in basketball, Arkansas.  Did you not get the memo?

Probable Starters

Friday @ 6:30pm - Jr. RHP Carson Fulmer (3-0, 0.81 ERA) v. Fr. RHP Keaton McKinney (1-1, 3.45 ERA)

Saturday @ 2pm - Jr. RHP Walker Buehler (0-0, 1.50 ERA) v. So. RHP Dominic Taccolini (3-1, 3.13 ERA)

Sunday @ 12pm - TBA (Kilichowski, Pfeifer, Sheffield, Johnson???) v. Jr. RHP Trey Killian (0-0, 2.45 ERA)

My Take on the Competition for Sunday Starter

As the season has progressed, prognosticating who will get the Sunday slot is becoming less and less clear.  Only one thing is certain: It will not be Tyler Ferguson.  The Turd's control issues have reached Knoblauch-ian proportions, as a combination of mechanical and mental issues have arisen.  In his last appearance, in which he walked 5 Quinnipiacians in 1+ innings of horribleness, his performance was only consistent in one respect - he was consistently erratic.  In the first inning, he was throwing hard, but was not even close to being around the plate.  While he struck out one man and induced one pop fly, he did that around two walks and an error.  The final out of the inning was recorded when he threw it about 8 feet high and 2 feet inside, but threw it so hard that it bounced off the backstop and right to Karl Ellison (who was, let's just say busy during the 8 batters faced by the Turd) who was then able to throw out the runner at home.  In the second inning, he walked the first three batters, and was promptly yanked.  Freshman lefty Ryan Johnson (more on him later) bailed his ass out, as he induced a weak pop up to the infield's edge and then K'd the final two batters of the inning, to leave the bases loaded.

However, the numbers don't even come close to telling the story.  At the moment, the box score doesn't show Ferguson as having thrown a wild pitch, even though I counted more than a handful.  From what I saw, he was over-thinking things, but worse than that, his mechanics are worse than Seinfeld's.  He was not driving towards the plate, but rather, Ferguson would drive his left leg about 30 degrees to the right, plant before starting his arm forward, and then proceed to throw across his body.  No one can do this and throw accurately.  No one.

Quick, go outside and try it.  Try to hit a target.  Sure, you can blame it on being old, out of shape, and criminally intoxicated, but what's Ferguson's excuse?  At this point, he's not mechanically ready to even see mid-week game innings.  If I were pitching coach Scott Brown, I'd consign him to extended bullpen sessions and simulated games until he's able to regain his balance, focus, and fluidity.

He has literally none of that right now.  This is not a knock on his arm talent, which is otherworldly - it's just an acknowledgement that he's got a lot of work to do before you can trust him with the ball in his hand.

Freshman LHP Ryan Johnson, however, looked practically Tom Glavin-esque in relief Wednesday night.  Though he barely gets his fastball over 80 MPH, Johnson has a pitcher's mind, and was baffling all comers.  He pitched with movement and precision to 5 perfect innings.  15 up, 15 down.  Oh, and he struck out 9 in the process.  I know it was only Quinnipiac, but color me impressed.  With K-Chow needing to up his dosage of bat poison, Sheffield pitching effectively wild through much needed mid-week innings, and Philip Pfeifer serving as the man who knocks down what Carson Fulmer has set up, perhaps the crafty lefty is the answer.  For the MPH hounds out there, this might confuse you, but for those who appreciate an on mound chess battle, Johnson's your guy.  South Carolina won two titles in a row with precisely this type of pitcher.  We can, too.

I'm saying it now: By the end of the year, Ryan Johnson will serve as the change of pace tactician to Fulmer and Buehler's flames.  He's my new pick for Sunday starter.