State of the Hogs: SEC Time
The bus sat in the Baum Stadium parking lot with luggage racks open Wednesday afternoon as short sleeved Arkansas baseball players loaded their gear for the trip to Florida. The bus would leave about 30 minutes after practice for the 16-hour drive to Gainesville.
There was good news. The 40-man travel party would not be on the bus, just the equipment. The bus will be waiting on Thursday when the team empties off a charter flight that allows normal class attendance and a trip of less than two hours from bus to bus.
"Our young guys are amazed to hear how it's going to be," said junior pitcher Jalen Beeks, the Hogs' Friday night starter and now one of the old hands on the team.
Beeks said that mode of travel is sweet, coming off last weekend's trip to California that was commercial and took the better part of two days and four flights.
"Coming home Monday, that was six hours on planes," Beeks said of the trip from San Francisco that was via Chicago. "This one will be under two hours. We had a trip to Georgia last year that we had a tail wind and we were home in 90 minutes."
It illustrates the problems Arkansas face last week when head coach Dave Van Horn said the team was "like zombies" for a Thursday practice in Berkeley. The day started with a wakeup call at 3 a.m. It finished with an alumni dinner around 10 p.m. Arkansas time with the UA's Bay Area Alumni Association club.
No one is making any excuses for last weekend, just pointing out all the excitement the Hogs feel about getting into SEC play. They head to Florida excited and with the right mindset.
"Maybe we went to California a little lackadaisical," Beeks said. "Maybe we felt like we were a big SEC team. Definitely, to go 1-3 is not what we wanted. We'd like to redo the weekend.
"We will come out more focused. And it's exciting to go to Florida."
And, he's talking about going to Gainesville, not somewhere in the panhandle.
"I've never been past Destin," Beeks said. "I've never been there. I think everyone on the team is excited."
Outfielder Tyler Spoon said there is something special about playing in Gainesville.
"I'm like Jalen, never been there," Spoon said. "I don't think many on our team have been that deep into Florida. Maybe to the panhandle, the beach, but not as far as Gainesville. I'm hearing the weather will be perfect. We are excited."
Spoon was excited just to be in short sleeves Tuesday and Wednesday. They started Tuesday with 6 o'clock weight lifting workout.
"And, it was like 75 when we got on the field in the afternoon," he said. "We've seen a lot of snow here and to have a day like yesterday, it was great. It was supposed to be cold today, but it felt great again today. Nice. We are ready to go to Florida now because we've had two great days like that here."
It was more than the weather and nice travel plans that excited Spoon.
"It was our best two practices of the year," Spoon said. "It was really good. That makes me ready to go to Florida. We have guys buying in. We know we have to put the ball on the ground, or line drives. We can't put it in the air and guys are doing that."
Someone who saw them play in California suggesting that the offense did hit the ball some on the weekend, but right at defenders. Spoon wasn't buying into that theory.
"Maybe, but that was with no one on base," he said. "We didn't hit anything hard with guys on base. That's what we have to do this weekend and we are focused on that."
Starting SEC play has brought the focus.
"I think so," Spoon said. "We are excited and we want to bounce back. Florida has a great program. They've always got great pitchers, great hitters. We look forward to playing against them, especially at Florida."
The pitching has been solid, with a 1.88 ERA. The team batting average is just 2.66, although that's better than Florida's 2.50 team average.
"Our pitching has been unbelievable," Spoon said. "And they have been fully supportive of us."
Pitcher Trey Killian, scheduled to start on Saturday, said it's just a matter of time before the offense clicks.
"The bats will roll soon," he said. "I think our bats improved when we started SEC play last year. We are banking on that. We are going to open up the bats this weekend."
Both Arkansas and Florida have played lots of one-run games. The Gators have won four, the Hogs have lost four. The Hogs have lost five games by a total of six runs. How do the Hogs turn that around this weekend?
"You can blame it on this or that at the end, but the reality is that it's the little things during the course of a game that all add up," Spoon said. "You turn around a one-run game pitch by pitch."
It adds up to lots of pitching matchups.
"It is a lot of pitching matchups," Killian said. "That might not seem fun to fans, but it's fun for us. We got to roll with it."
The good news is that the Hogs are rolling in style this weekend. There will be no zombies on the trip to Gainesville.
"It's going to be fun," Killian said. "Every SEC weekend is huge. It's grown man baseball. We've got to get the job done."