FAYETTEVILLE – Arkansas Razorbacks coach Dave Van Horn sticks with his most experienced and better-rested pitcher over his hottest pitcher to start tonight’s winner-take-all, SEC Tournament play-in game against Tennessee in Hoover, Ala., to advance in the 12-team tournament’s eight-team, double-elimination phase, beginning Wednesday.
Top four SEC teams LSU, Texas A&M, Vanderbilt and Florida are seeded Wednesday awaiting the winners today of Alabama vs Ole Miss, South Carolina vs. Missouri, Kentucky vs. Auburn and Arkansas vs. Tennessee games. The Arkansas vs. Tennessee winner is seeded Wednesday night against Florida.
Arkansas (33-20 overall) finished third in the SEC West at 17-12 behind SEC overall champion LSU and Texas A&M.
Tennessee finished sixth, 11-18 in the seven-team SEC East, and is 24-25 overall.
The Arkansas vs. Tennessee game, the last of the long day into night at Hoover, is estimated to begin at 8 p.m. or thereabouts on the SEC Network.
Freshman pitcher Keaton McKinney, named SEC Freshman of the Week after throwing seven shutout innings Friday to beat Georgia, will “get another day to recover,” Van Horn said, and pitch against Florida on Wednesday if the Hogs can get there.
Trey Killian, the Norfork native and Mountain Home High grad, was beaten badly by Georgia last Thursday night, but has posted some outstanding games, including a complete-game victory over Alabama at the same Hoover Met Stadium hosting the SEC Tournament, and seven perfect innings in a no-decision when Vanderbilt beat his relief, 1-0.
“Trey hasn’t had the command that he normally has when he can spot that fastball with the best of them,” Van Horn said on Monday’s SEC teleconference in Hoover. “But, the last time he pitched here in Hoover against Alabama, a veteran, good hitting team, he threw the ball very well, and hopefully he can do that again.”
Killian mostly has pitched much better than his 2-4 record and 5.13 ERA would indicate, but was hit hard by Georgia and earlier by Texas A&M.
McKinney (6-1, 3.18 ERA) was named first-team SEC Monday along teammates Jackson and third baseman Bobby Wernes (All-Defensive team) and, of course, Andrew Benintendi, the sophomore center fielder named SEC Player of the Year for hitting .415 with 17 home runs, 51 RBI and 21 stolen bases.
Tennessee is pitching left-hander Andy Cox (3-3, 3.52 ERA) a repeat first-night matchup of the Arkansas vs. Tennessee matchup in Fayetteville when the Hogs and Vols split two games with one rained out.
Cox won, 5-4, as Razorbacks relievers James Teague, the losing pitcher, and Zach Jackson failed to hold Killian’s 4-2 lead.
McKinney and Dominic Taccolini combined to beat Tennessee 5-2 in the other game at Baum Stadium.
With customary starter Taccolini effectively relieving his last outings, and Arkansas closer Zach Jackson named first-team All-SEC on Monday, Van Horn indicated he’ll have a quick hook should Killian struggle early.
“If we get into a situation in the third, fourth or fifth inning, and the match-up isn’t good, we could go to the bullpen a little quicker, with Taccolini or Jackson or any of the guys,” Van Horn said.
Tennessee qualified the last day of the regular season with Arkansas’ help defeating now-staying-home Georgia just before the Vols scored three in the ninth to complete a three-game sweep overcoming Mississippi State in Starkville, Miss.
“The way the season ended ,winning three straight games from Mississippi State, we are on a four-game winning streak,” Tennessee coach Dave Serrano said. “That’s a first for this team all year long. To sweep Mississippi State for the first time since 2004 and sweep our first SEC series since 2012, I couldn’t be happier for these guys. What we have been able to accomplish with our backs to the wall, not many thought we could do it.”
Van Horn said the Hogs had their chances against Cox early at Baum and “failed to capitalize.”
“He is a strike-throwing left-hander and their hottest pitcher,” Van Horn said. “We’ve got our hands full with Andy.”
Outfielder Christin Stewart, Tennessee’s best player, who played for Van Horn and was a teammate of Killian’s when Van Horn coached and Killian pitched for Team USA last summer, is hitting .318 with 15 home runs and 47 RBI.