Highly ranked Razorback baseball team peaking at right time

Arkansas catcher Parker Rowland hits a two-run single, Sunday, May 14, 2023, during the fifth inning of the Razorbacks 5-1 win over the South Carolina Gamecocks at Baum-Walker Stadium in Fayetteville. (NWA Democrat-Gazette/Hank Layton)

FAYETTEVILLE -- When the University of Arkansas baseball team closed its regular-season home schedule in 2022 by going 3-4 at Baum-Walker Stadium, it helped cost the Razorbacks a shot to host an NCAA regional and super regional.

This season the Razorbacks, who are tied for No. 2 in the USA Today coaches poll with Florida and No. 4 in the NCAA's Ratings Percentage Index, have solidified their resume to be a top eight national seed by closing 9-1 at home in the regular season -- including sweeps of No. 19 Tennessee and Texas A&M and taking 2 of 3 games from No. 9 South Carolina.

Arkansas (38-13, 19-8) improved to 30-4 at home -- including 13-2 in SEC games -- with a 5-1 victory over the Gamecocks last Sunday.

"We don't have the ballpark that these guys have and that's what we're trying to get to," Texas A&M Coach Jim Schlossnagle said. "There are other great atmospheres (in the SEC), but in my mind this is the classiest program in the league.

"They do it right and the fans are great. They get on you, but that's alright and part of it. This is the standard in my mind."

Arkansas' .882 home winning percentage this season is its second-highest since Baum-Walker Stadium opened late in the 1996 season, surpassed only by an .895 winning percentage (34-4) in 2018.

"Sometimes it can hurt you, the pressure, the fans, the hype," Razorbacks coach Dave Van Horn said this week during an interview on SiriusXM College Sports Radio. "But this year's team has just loved playing at home, and I can't say that's the way it's been every year.

"In 2009 we didn't play real well at home, and we were supposed to be pretty good. We kind of tanked in April."

The 2009 Razorbacks advanced to the College World Series -- winning a regional at Oklahoma and super regional at Florida State -- after going 21-12 at home, including 1-7 in their last eight SEC games.

"Finally got it together in May, and thank goodness we snuck into a regional, and we went all the way to Omaha and won a few games," Van Horn said in his radio interview. "Last year's team ... they didn't play great at home. The fans got on them a little bit on social media and they kind of used that to fuel themselves and when we got into a regional they didn't want to quit playing, and they got after it and got down to the final four."

Last season's Razorbacks won a regional at Oklahoma State and super regional at North Carolina to advance to the College World Series.

"This year's team, we play good at home," Van Horn said in his radio interview. "We field the ball, we pitch, we hit just enough. I think our guys really enjoy it.

"I think they embrace our fans, and I think our fans really appreciate this team. Because this team, it could have tanked. It could have been 2016 all over again with all the injuries."

Arkansas suffered its only losing record in Van Horn's 21 seasons as coach in 2016 when the Razorbacks finished 26-29 and were 19-14 at home.

"You look at what's happened in our league with a couple of teams that are really talented," Van Horn continued in his radio interview. "A couple of injuries, and it took 'em out. They didn't recover.

"But with our group, they've fed off the home crowd and off of each other."

Van Horn wasn't specific about the SEC teams that have struggled, but Mississippi State and Ole Miss -- the past two national champions -- are 8-19 and 6-21 in conference play.

The Razorbacks' strong home record has them in sole possession of first place in the overall SEC standings -- one game ahead of Florida (40-12, 18-9) going into their final regular-season series at No. 6 Vanderbilt (35-16, 17-10) that starts Thursday night -- and 1 1/2 games ahead of No. 4 LSU (39-12, 17-9) for the West lead,

"Playing with the crowd on your side, when they're loud, it's fun and it's exciting," said Ben McLaughlin, who has been a designated hitter, third baseman and pitcher for the Razorbacks this season. "I think we could really ride the emotions of the crowd, and when they're excited, it gives us an extra gear."

Arkansas has drawn a combined 327,871 fans for its 34 home games -- an average of 9,643 -- according to its announced crowds based on tickets sold.

The announced attendance for the South Carolina series was 30,631, including 10,432 last Saturday night when the Gamecocks won 3-1 behind seven scoreless innings by starting pitcher Jack Mahoney.

"Arkansas is the one place in the SEC that I have always wanted to pitch," said Mahoney, a junior right-hander. "And this place did not let me down.

"In that seventh inning, I kind of had to remind myself that I have a job to do."

Brady Slavens and Peyton Holt singled to start the bottom of the seventh inning for the Razorbacks before Mahoney escaped the jam with a double-play groundout by Jayson Jones and strikeout by John Bolton.

"I'm looking around and it was the one of, no, it was the loudest thing that I have ever heard in my life," Mahoney said of the Arkansas fans cheering when the Razorbacks got the tying run to the plate. "This place is different here."

Arkansas has lost three key pitchers to season-ending injuries -- Jaxon Wiggins, Koty Frank and Dylan Carter -- but Brady Tygart is back from an elbow injury that sidelined him for eight weeks.

Center field Tavian Josenberger returned to the lineup last weekend after being out with a hamstring injury and left fielder Jared Wegner is expected back for the Vanderbilt series after recovering from a broken thumb.

"I think when we just get the momentum at home, we hold the momentum," Tygart said. "The crowd gets into it, and we don't really give [opponents] a chance to come back."

Junior Hunter Hollan pitched a complete game for the Razorbacks in their victory over South Carolina last Sunday.

"We know when people come in our house that we're going to ball out," Hollan said. "We're going to compete and get after it."

Van Horn said the home crowds have been especially good the second half of the season.

"I think with all the injuries and everything that was going on, they were kind of waiting to see how we were going to be and waiting for the weather to get better," Van Horn said after the the South Carolina series finale. "But the second half of the season has been amazing.

"Guys are comfortable here."