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HawgBeat Preview: Grambling State visits for annual NLR game

Arkansas’ final midweek game of 2019 is also its annual trip to Dickey-Stephens Park in North Little Rock. Here is a preview of the matchup with Grambling State…

Schedule (TV)

Tuesday, April 30 - 6:30 p.m. CT (none)

Just as it’s been the last few years, the annual game at Dickey-Stephens Park will not be televised or have any online streaming option. The infrastructure needed to put on an SEC Network-plus broadcast is located in Fayetteville and unable to travel, which means the SEC Network or an ESPN channel would have to pick up the game - which they won’t do for a midweek game against a SWAC opponent.

As always, HawgBeat will provide live updates from the stadium in a game thread on our message board and you can listen to Phil Elson and Bubba Carpenter on the radio call by clicking here.

Weather Report

Although it will be cloudy with a slight chance of rain, temperatures will start out in the low-80s and dip into the mid-70s by the end of the game, according to the Weather Channel.

There is a 15 percent chance of rain most of the evening, but the biggest weather factor will be the wind. It will be blowing about 12 miles per hour out of the south-southeast - or straight in from center field.

Arkansas’ Starting Pitcher (season stats)

Tuesday - So. RHP Kole Ramage (18 games/1 start, 7-1, 4.91 ERA, 37 K/16 BB, 44 IP)

For the second straight week, head coach Dave Van Horn is giving Ramage a start in a midweek game.

With the fourth most innings on the team, the sophomore is a key piece of Arkansas’ bullpen as a long reliever, but he has struggled in his latest outings.

Not including his five-inning start against Northwestern State last week, in which he gave up just one earned run, Ramage has posted a 12.41 ERA in his last six relief appearances. The hope is that these midweek starts will boost his confidence and translate to success on the weekend.

It is likely that Ramage will be on a pitch count against Grambling State and not throw five innings again because this is not a two-game midweek series and Van Horn doesn’t have to fill 18 innings like he did against Northwestern State.

There is a strong possibility that several young pitchers will get some work after Ramage is out of the game. This will be their last chance to show the coaches they deserve a spot on the postseason roster.

In the Polls

With yet another sweep of a top-25 team over the weekend, Arkansas moved up one spot to No. 5 in the latest HawgBeat Composite Poll. Grambling State is unranked and No. 243 in the RPI, which has the Razorbacks at No. 3.

Scouting the Opponent

Grambling State’s starting pitcher (season stats)

Tuesday - Sr. RHP D’Quan Matthews (11 games/0 starts, 0-1, 6.17 ERA, 15 K/13 BB, 11 2/3 IP)

Although the SWAC is typically among the worst conferences in college baseball, Grambling State is enjoying one of its better seasons.

The Tigers are 23-20 overall and 16-8 in conference play, which puts them in second place in the western division and third overall in the SWAC.

“They have good athletes, they have a good team,” Van Horn said. “It’s one of their better teams. … The top half of the league is strong. The bottom half might be not as good as it normally is. Grambling is one of the teams that can beat you.”

Offense has been the strongest part of Grambling State’s team. In fact, the Tigers have a top-10 on-base percentage and top-25 scoring offense.

They are led by senior left fielder Isaiah Torres, who is the only player to start all 43 games this season. He is hitting .368 with 14 doubles, one home run and 37 RBIs. He also has 11 more walks (33) than strikeouts (22) and is 10 for 12 on stolen base attempts.

Torres and junior shortstop Kevin Whitaker Jr. just had their 10-game hitting streaks snapped in Grambling State’s last game. Considering he was 25 for 41 (.610) during his streak, Whitaker was the Tigers’ hottest hitter.

That title now belongs to junior third baseman Jahmoi Percival, who’s riding an eight-game hitting streak in which he is 16 for 31 (.516). That has risen his season batting average to .341.

Grambling State’s best power hitter is senior catcher Drexler Macaay, as he has a team-high eight home runs to go along with a .312 batting average and 34 RBIs.

On the mound, Matthews is making his first start of the season. A product of Lackawanna C.C. - the same school that produced Arkansas offensive lineman Chibueze Nwanna - Matthews leads a group of nine pitchers with at least six innings pitched and an ERA north of 6.00.

Opponents have a .299 batting average against Grambling State, who has only two pitchers with ERAs under 6.00: junior left-hander Bryan Delgado (2.71) and redshirt-sophomore right-hander JC Bonilla.

Delgado is the ace of the staff, with a 6-2 record, 58 strikeouts and 19 walks in 73 innings, while Bonilla is the top reliever, throwing 19 1/3 innings across 14 appearances.

Remembering Last Year’s Game

Grambling State was not quite as good last year, coming into its matchup with Arkansas in North Little Rock with a 16-16 record and No. 282 RPI.

However, Ramage imploded in the eighth - giving up four earned runs - to give the Tigers a 6-3 lead. The Razorbacks manage to avoid the upset by putting together a four-run inning for themselves, capped by a two-run single by Eric Cole.

It was a brilliant game plan by head coach James Cooper that kept Grambling State in the game. He cycled through six different pitchers in the first seven innings, with the starter throwing two and the first five relievers each throwing one.

Each pitcher had a terrible ERA and didn’t throw hard at all, so the Razorbacks - who were used to hard-throwing pitchers in the SEC - had a hard time against them, especially because they never stayed in the game long enough to get timed up.

It wasn’t until the Tigers put in their ace, who threw harder and had better numbers, that Arkansas exploded for the four-run eighth inning.

Playing in Central Arkansas

Last year was actually the fifth one-run game Arkansas has played in nine trips to Dickey-Stephens Park, the home of the Double-A Arkansas Travelers, including one it lost to Memphis.

The other four games were decided by two, two, three and five runs. That is despite playing teams with an average RPI of 179.

“We’ve been behind in those games a lot,” Van Horn said. “It seems like the teams that come in are excited to play in front of those crowds and the longer we let them stay in the game, the more suspenseful it gets.”

Van Horn added that it is a big ballpark and the wind is usually blowing in, making it hard to hit home runs. However, the games are typically sellouts with “incredible” crowds, making it a neat experience for the players.

“It’s a great environment to play in,” catcher Casey Opitz, who started last year’s game, said. “We love going down there because the fans are nuts and they love baseball and they love being loud. It’s really cool.”

Even though the games have been closer than expected, Van Horn fully supports playing a game down there every year.

He said there are several perks to it, including making it easier for some fans to travel to a game, allowing players from the area to play in front of their family and friends, and helping get in front of recruits in the area.

“It’s something that we should do for the fans in central Arkansas and the southern part of the state,” Van Horn said. “I think it’s good for the state, it’s good for baseball in this state.”

Backups to Get Some Work

Just as he has the last few weeks, Van Horn will likely rest a few starters and give some of the backups some work in the Razorbacks’ final midweek game of the season.

“I’ll put a couple of guys in the lineup that maybe don’t play all the time,” Van Horn said. “Hopefully they’ll bring some energy to the game and get some big hits for us and hopefully we’ll pitch well.”

Zack Plunkett will probably get the start behind the plate for Opitz and there are several possibilities for the rest of the lineup.

The last couple of weeks, Jordan McFarland has started at first base and Trevor Ezell has moved to his natural second base position, which he hasn’t played much because he’s still recovering from offseason shoulder surgery. That has moved Jack Kenley to third base, giving Jacob Nesbit a day off.

With McFarland in the field and Matt Goodheart still out with a shoulder injury, Trey Harris could get the start at designated hitter in his hometown.

In the outfield, Curtis Washington Jr. could get the start in left field, but it wouldn’t be surprising to see Christian Franklin sub in for Dominic Fletcher in center field at some point.

Stat of the Midweek

Including an easy 16-4 seven-inning win over UAPB earlier this month, Arkansas is a perfect 22-0 against teams in the SWAC. The Razorbacks have won those games by an average of 8.5 runs.

On the flip side, Grambling State has never beaten an SEC team, with an 0-22 record. The Tigers have lost those games by an average of 6.6 runs, including an 18-1 loss at Mississippi State last month and a 9-0 loss at LSU earlier this month.

However, it is worth noting that three of the six all-time matchups between Arkansas and Grambling State have been decided by one run. (The other three were decided by an average of 10 runs.)

Stat Comparison - Arkansas | Grambling State (national rank, out of 297 teams)

Batting average: .308 (12th) | .287 (56th)

Slugging percentage: .501 (6th) | .412 (101st)

On-base percentage: .408 (15th) | .411 (8th)

Home runs: 58 (t-11th) | 26 (t-164th)

Runs/game: 8.0 (14th) | 7.4 (24th)

ERA: 4.10 (66th) | 6.38 (255th)

WHIP: 1.30 (34th) | 1.73 (254th)

Strikeouts/9 innings: 9.7 (24th) | 7.4 (226th)

Strikeout-to-walk ratio: 2.44 (46th) | 1.62 (217th)

Fielding percentage: .970 (109th) | .948 (285th)

Stolen bases/game: 1.29 (t-83rd) | 1.44 (63rd)

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