Three down, one to go.
The No. 1 Arkansas baseball team has defeated three SEC teams — Georgia, Vanderbilt and Ole Miss — on the way to Sunday’s championship game. More than extra confirmation that the Hogs are the best team in the nation’s unquestioned best conference is at stake.
On the line is also Arkansas baseball’s first SEC tourney title ever.
The Razorbacks have an 0-4 all-time record in the SEC tournament championship game. Here are the previous results:
- Lost 7-5 to Auburn in 1998
- Lost 9-3 to Alabama in 1999
- Lost 7-4 to Vanderbilt in 2007
- Lost 4-2 to LSU in 2017
In order to get that elusive title, however, Arkansas must pass arguably its toughest test of the season so far.
That would be the Tennessee Volunteers, which is playing at a high enough level to give any opponent pause.
The No. 4 Vols have been on a blistering tear through the SEC tournament so far, crushing No. 3 Mississippi State 12-2, Alabama 11-0 and No. 13 Florida 4-0.
Plus, just two weeks ago, Tennessee was the SEC team that gave Arkansas its toughest series test of the season. In Knoxville, Arkansas took the series by wining two games by only a single run in each.
After Arkansas’ taut Game 3 win, Tennessee coach Tony Vitello let his emotions get the best of him when he confronted Arkansas baseball coach Dave Van Horn, his old coach.
This ugliness resulted:
Afterward, Van Horn and Vitello said the dust-up was about a few things, including recruiting.
While the coaches naturally wouldn’t detail which recruit(s) caused their tempers to flare, Pig Trail Nation’s Otis Kirk did some digging and found out one was Logan Chambers, an Arkansas native and powerful hitter currently at Crowder College in Neosho, Missouri.
Since this blowup, it appears tensions have cooled between the two intensely competitive coaches.
Here’s Tony Vitello waltzing over to Dave Van Horn on Saturday at the SEC Tournament to shake hands and chat a bit:
Tony Vitello vs Dave Van Horn
In a Saturday press conference, Vitello gave more details about what happened two weeks.
He downplayed the recruiting talk and instead focused on sportsmanship:
“Coach Van Horn is a mentor for me, and he’s also a gracious winner, and he just wanted to say good job, and I didn’t want to chat,” Tony Vitello said.
“He was frustrated I didn’t, so he made a point to say it. That’s when I said something that really should be handled away from the field.”
“So his reaction, I don’t think was out of line, and that’s what kind of stirred the attention.”
“Then I said the hell with it, might as well try and sort it out here while the emotions are going, but that’s not a good idea because, again, there’s emotions going.”
“It doesn’t take a genius to figure out we lost that game because they beat us. I worked under him and have learned a lot, and it’s not good to be an easy loser, and he’s not and I’m not, and that’s the end of it.”
“He’s a guy, like I said, that has sent me information and congratulations and things like that.”
Dave Van Horn, in turn, said he and Vitello are fine now.
“I feel like we’re good,” Van Horn said.
“It’s just two guys that want to win, two competitors. It’s all good.”
But is it really all good?
I don’t think the fact that both coaches are saying the right things makes them both really want to win this SEC title game any less.
Tennessee, after all, hasn’t won an SEC Tournament title since 1995.
Both men also said all the right things before the previous Arkansas vs Tennessee series, and they still barked at each other afterward.
I think with what’s on line, and all the ties between the staffs, this will be an extremely intense baseball game. Emotions are sure to boil over on the field and in the dugouts.
Arkansas vs Tennessee Ties
Tennessee hitting coach Josh Elander was an Arkansas baseball volunteer coach in 2017. Meanwhile, former Razorback player Luke Bonfield is a graduate coach at Tennessee.
On top of that, as Matt Jones of Whole Hog Sports points out, Tony Vitello and Arkansas pitching coach Matt Hobbs were college teammates at Missouri.
“Matt Hobbs is like a brother,” Tony Vitello said.
“I would hope he would say the same thing.”
Arkansas vs Tennessee
See more about the game and its aftermath here:
Arkansas Baseball vs Ole Miss in Semifinals
Connor Noland emerged from the bullpen to throw three hitless innings and lift No. 1 Arkansas to a 3-2 win against No. 12 Ole Miss in the semifinals of the SEC Tournament at Hoover Metropolitan Stadium in Hoover, Ala.
The right-hander struck out four in his three perfect frames of work on Saturday evening, helping to punch the Razorbacks’ ticket to the tournament’s championship game.
They held on to their one-run lead in the late innings despite an effective, albeit disturbing, performance by Ole Miss’ 6’8″ man child of a relief pitcher, Wes Burton.
At times, when gesticulating on the mound and talking to himself, Burton looked like Dave Chappelle’s twitchy coke addict character Tyrone Biggums — someone who’s so perpetually Rocky Mountain High it’s a sure bet they would win any PointsBet Colorado promo code contest for “Nation’s Most Madman Pitcher.”
The Razorbacks, visitors in the semifinal game against the Rebels, jumped out to a two-run lead in the top of the first. Cullen Smith continued his tear through the SEC Tournament, blasting a two-run homer to right on the first pitch he saw.
Starter Caleb Bolden, staked with an early advantage, tossed four shutout innings, striking out three along the way.
Brian Musick, an Arkansas baseball analyst on Razorback Sports Talk, had this breakdown of Bolden’s performance:
“His pitch count was up a bit and his effectiveness wasn’t quite as indicative as his ERA in this one would show.”
“Bolden is a guy that can be effective. But he’s not overpowering. He has to live on the fringes. Living on the fringes of the strike zone leads to some umpire call reliance as well as hitter chase reliance.”
“If those don’t happen? He can get hit. He’s a guy that has to pitch to contact and hopefully induce weak contact.”
“That works best when he’s dotting the corners and even getting a little ump love just off the corners. He was able to mostly do that in this one.”
Bolden gave way to the bullpen in the bottom of the fifth, and Ole Miss took advantage.
The Rebels loaded the bases before scoring two on a double to the gap in right center. Ole Miss then loaded the bases for a second time in the bottom of the fifth, and Heston Tole was called on with one out to put out the fire against the middle of the order.
The freshman struck out the first he faced before inducing an inning-ending groundout to escape the jam.
With the game tied at two in the top of the sixth, Charlie Welch drew a leadoff walk and came around to score the go-ahead run on Jalen Battles’ two-out double down the line in left. Arkansas would not give up the lead again.
Tole worked a scoreless sixth before turning the ball over to Noland in the seventh.
The veteran pitcher faced the minimum, neutralizing the Ole Miss offense the rest of the way and locking down Arkansas’ 3-2 win to earn his first career save.
The Hogs will make now their first appearance in the SEC Tournament title game since 2017.
With a win against Tennessee, Arkansas would become only the third team since the conference expanded in 2012 to win the SEC regular-season championship and tournament championship in the same season.
LSU did so in 2017, and Vanderbilt won both in 2019.