FAYETTEVILLE — The home run hitting prowess for the No. 1 Arkansas Razorbacks is a well-publicized plus. Everybody loves the long ball.
What’s not so discussed is the Razorbacks’ plate discipline, their general ability to lay off pitchers’ pitches, that has led to an SEC-leading walk total.
The University of Arkansas (34-8, 15-6 SEC) will enter tonight’s series opener against Georgia (27-16, 10-11) leading the SEC with both 76 home runs and 251 walks drawn.
First pitch in the three-game set is scheduled for 6:30 p.m., with Arkansas ace left-hander Patrick Wicklander (3-1, 1.89 ERA) being opposed by Georgia 6-6 southpaw Liam Sullivan (1-0, 4.74). Allowed attendance is being bumped again for the final seven home games, as UA officials will cap capacity at 7,685 the rest of the regular season.
Arkansas has won 14 consecutive weekend series, including a school-best seven in a row against SEC competition. The Bulldogs have won league series against Vanderbilt, Kentucky and Missouri, the first and last of those on the road, and lost them against Tennessee, at Texas A&M, South Carolina and Auburn.
The Razorbacks are fourth nationally with their raw walk total, but their average of 5.98 walks per game is good for third behind Central Michigan (6.46) and TCU (6.0), the NCAA leader with 258 walks drawn.
“The thing we’ve done well is for the most part stayed in the strike zone and disciplined the plate and made good swing decisions, and for the most part gotten ourselves into good hitter’s counts,” Arkansas hitting coach Nate Thompson said.
“The walks just mean we’re being more patient than we have in the past, recognizing pitches and maybe taking borderline pitches early in the count,” Arkansas Coach Dave Van Horn said. “And I think we’ve done a really nice job of that. Really the last 25-30 games, I think we’ve done a lot better at it.”
Just as their NCAA-best 76 home runs are spread among a wide variety of hitters, the Hog walks are a lineup-wide phenomenon. Seven hitters have drawn 20 or more free passes, led by second baseman Robert Moore’s 29 and followed closely by center fielder Christian Franklin with 27.
Designated hitter Matt Goodheart (26), catcher Casey Opitz (25), third baseman Cullen Smith (25), right fielder Cayden Wallace (20) and shortstop Jalen Battles (20) have all drawn 20 or more. The only lineup regular that hasn’t hit that number is free-swinging first baseman Brady Slavens, who has 11 walks.
Left fielders Braydon Webb (18) and Zack Gregory (17), who have combined for 12 games in the leadoff spot, have an aggregate 35 walks that is the most for any position on the team.
Thompson said the Razorbacks are taking pride in their high walk totals paired with the lofty home run numbers.
“It’s not something that you necessarily set out to do as a goal, but when you preach, ‘Hey, get your best swing off with intent and with force with less than two strikes,’ and you’re always talking about hunting a pitch you can drive and do damage on, and those are the results, then that’s a good thing,” Thompson said.
“It’s a big part of our offense,” Van Horn said. “Whenever you hit the ball out of the park, it’s nice when you have a runner on base or two. It’s nice to have the ability to score quick like that.”
The Razorbacks face a Georgia pitching staff that has a 3.82 ERA, good for fifth in the SEC, but the Bulldogs are prone to allowing bases on balls. Georgia pitchers have issued 188 walks, the second-highest total in the SEC behind Missouri’s meteoric 268. Today’s starter, Sullivan, has allowed 15 walks in 19 innings. So the freshman has a salty .197 batting average against, but his WHIP of 1.47 is not as impressive.
While the Razorbacks’ batting average of .282, which ranks sixth in the SEC, is solid, a deeper dive to on-base percentage, helped by the walk total and 51 hit by pitches, is a clearer indicator of their ability to pressure opposing pitchers. Arkansas has a .401 on-base percentage, second in the SEC behind Ole Miss (.403) and 19th in the country.
Thompson said he’d like to see Arkansas hitters stick with their current approach.
“The big thing for me is are we getting our swing off? Are we driving the baseball with less than two strikes? Are we hitting the ball hard?” Thompson said. “Are we continuing to discipline the strike zone?
“I’d like to see that walk rate continue to stay high. I’d like to see the strikeout rate stay more down where it has been from earlier in the year, keeping it lower. When you start playing championship baseball … you’ve got to be able to drive in runs without a hit.
“Obviously we’ve scored a lot of runs and a lot of them have come via the long ball and some power. … But you’ve got to be able to do it without that as well, and do a good job with situational hitting. That’s the other thing that I want to see us continue to be good at. Just doing what it takes.”
More NewsToday’s game
NO. 1 ARKANSAS vs. GEORGIA
WHEN 6:30 p.m.
WHERE Baum-Walker Stadium, Fayetteville
RECORDS Georgia 27-16, 10-11 SEC; Arkansas 34-8, 15-6
STARTING PITCHERS Georgia LHP Liam Sullivan (1-0, 4.74 ERA); Arkansas LHP Patrick Wicklander (3-1, 1.89)
SERIES Arkansas leads 34-24 overall
COACHES Scott Stricklin (230-177-1 in eighth year at Georgia, 580-365 in 17th year overall); Dave Van Horn (734-397 in 19th year at Arkansas, 1,054-556 in 27th year overall)
RADIO Razorback Sports Network
INTERNET SEC Network-Plus
SHORT HOPS Arkansas relief ace Kevin Kopps (6-0, 0.85 ERA, 6 saves) was named the Division I pitcher of the month for April by the National Collegiate Baseball Writers Association (NCBWA). Kopps posted a 0.81 ERA in nine appearances during the month, with 42 strikeouts and 5 walks in 22 1/3 innings. The senior from Sugar Land, Texas, who posted four saves in April, is a nominee for the NCBWA Stopper of the Year Award. … DH Matt Goodheart has reached base in a team-high 14 consecutive games. … Arkansas is No. 69 nationally (6th in the SEC) with a .282 batting average, No. 60 (7th) with a 4.16 ERA, No. 16 (1st) with a .980 fielding percentage and No. 8 (1st) with 8.3 runs per game. … Georgia is No. 94 (8th) with a .277 batting average, No. 35 (5th) with a 3.82 ERA, No. 31 (4th) with a .976 fielding percentage and No. 139 (12th) with 5.9 runs per game.
THE WEEK AHEAD
TODAY Georgia, 6:30 p.m.
SATURDAY Georgia, 6:30 p.m. (SEC Network)
SUNDAY Georgia, 2 p.m.
TUESDAY Arkansas State, 6:30 p.m.
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