Arkansas Razorbacks host Murray State Racers as nation's No. 1 team
baseball Edit

PREVIEW: Hogs host Murray State as nation's No. 1 team

Murray State's Jordan Cozart is red-hot at the plate to start the 2021 season.
Murray State's Jordan Cozart is red-hot at the plate to start the 2021 season. (Murray State Athletics)

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Arkansas continues its home stand with a three-game series against Murray State this weekend. Here’s everything you need to know about the matchup…

Schedule (TV)

Friday, March 5 - 3 p.m. CT (SECN+)

Saturday, March 6 - 1 p.m. CT (SECN+)

Sunday, March 7 - 1 p.m. CT (SECN+)

Game 2 of the series was originally scheduled for 2 p.m., but it was moved up an hour to create less of a conflict with the men’s basketball team’s home game against Texas A&M at 4 p.m.

All three games will be available online on SEC Network-Plus, meaning they can be watched on ESPN3.com or the ESPN app as long as you have a cable provider’s log-in information.

Weather Report

There is a 30 percent chance of rain with a 48 degree temperature and 12 mph winds out of the east-northeast (out to right field) at the time of first pitch for Game 1, according to The Weather Channel.

Game 2 will have much better weather, with sunshine, only a slight breeze and temperatures approaching 60 degrees. It'll be similar on Sunday, except with a 10-15 mph wind out of the south-southwest (in from right field).

Arkansas’ Starting Rotation (2021 stats)

Friday - Fr. RHP Peyton Pallette (2 games/2 starts, 1-0, 0.00 ERA, 16 K/2 BB, 9 1/3 IP)

Saturday - R-So. RHP Caleb Bolden (2 games/1 start, 0-0, 1 save, 6.23 ERA, 7 K/3 BB, 4 1/3 IP)

Sunday - Sr. LHP Lael Lockhart (2 games/2 starts, 0-0, 4.50 ERA, 13 K/5 BB, 8 IP)

Going into the third weekend of the 2021 season, head coach Dave Van Horn decided to shuffle his starting rotation.

Right-hander Zebulon Vermillion is heading back to the bullpen after struggling with his command and experiencing a dip in velocity. In his place, Peyton Pallette will take the No. 1 starter role. He has thrown 9 1/3 scoreless innings with 16 strikeouts in two starts.

The other change is having Caleb Bolden take Pallette’s spot on Saturday. He had a rough outing against Southeast Missouri State last week, but it was on short rest after a brilliant relief outing against Texas and Van Horn felt like he deserved another shot.

With better conditions, Lockhart likely would have had a better start against SEMO, but the rain created a slippery mound that impacted his command, so he remains in the third spot in the rotation.

The good news for the Razorbacks is they have a bullpen that’s posted a 1.78 ERA over their last six games and has multiple potential long relievers - like Connor Noland and Patrick Wicklander - that can pitch if any of the starters struggle.

“If our starters can give us five or six (innings), that’s great,” Van Horn said. “If they only give us three or four, we feel like we’re one of the teams that can handle that out of the pen and still win a series if our starters don’t go long. We have enough arms to get us through the weekend.”

For a more detailed breakdown of Arkansas’ rotation for the Murray State series, complete with Van Horn’s thoughts about the changes, click here.

In the Polls

Thanks to Ole Miss losing two of three to UCF, as well as its own four-game sweep of Southeast Missouri State, Arkansas is now the consensus No. 1 team in college baseball. All but one of the six major college baseball polls put the Razorbacks the top spot, with Perfect Game being the exception.

That was enough for Arkansas to also be No. 1 in the Rivals Composite Baseball Poll, which combines those rankings. It is one of nine ranked SEC teams in the Composite Poll.

Although he acknowledged it might give Murray State extra motivation, Van Horn said he hasn’t discussed the rankings with his own team a single time.

“I know when we’re playing a team that’s ranked really high and we’re not, it jump starts you a little bit,” Van Horn said. “Really it just gives you something to talk about to the team, but I don’t think it’s going to affect the way we play.”

Scouting the Opponent

Record: 5-3

Head coach: Dan Skirka (3rd season)

Murray State’s starting rotation (2021 stats)

Friday - So. LHP Shane Burns (2 games/2 starts, 0-1, 6.23 ERA, 4 K/5 BB, 8 2/3 IP)

Saturday - Sr. RHP Sam Gardner (1 game/1 start, 0-1, 12.00 ERA, 5 K/3 BB, 3 IP)

Sunday - Fr. RHP Jack Wenninger (1 game/1 start, 1-0, 0.00 ERA, 7 K/0 BB, 5 IP)

Since getting swept by Lipscomb in a season-opening doubleheader, Murray State has won five of six games - including four straight. Most recently, the Racers knocked off Arkansas State 9-6 in a midweek matchup Tuesday night.

They are expected to be one of the top teams in the Ohio Valley Conference, as they were picked to finish third - two spots ahead of last weekend’s opponent, SEMO - by the league’s coaches and communications directors.

Mid-major programs like Murray State typically have more upperclassmen than those in the SEC, but that is even more true this year because of the shortened MLB Draft and eligibility relief. The Racers have 15 seniors listed on their roster, as well as numerous juniors.

“They are a very old team for college baseball,” Van Horn said. “They’ve got older kids out there. … They’re winning right now, so they’re feeling pretty confident rolling into Fayetteville, that’s for sure.”

Arkansas will see one of those seniors on the mound Saturday in Garner, who came to Murray State after one season at Alabama.

However, it’s the Racers’ Friday starter who could give the Razorbacks fits. Similar to Noah Niznik, SEMO’s Game 2 starter, Burns is a left-hander who doesn’t throw very hard. In fact, his breaking ball is even slower, which is a stark contrast to what Arkansas is used to seeing on the mound.

“The lefty we’ll see tomorrow, he’s not a real hard thrower,” Van Horn said. “He’s going to pitch anywhere from 86 to 88 (mph), moves it in and out, has a changeup and a slow curveball, so we’ll try to prepare for that because we haven’t really seen too much of that.”

Offensively, Murray State has only one regular hitting over .300: second baseman Jordan Cozart.

After hitting .417 with five home runs and 19 RBIs in 16 games last season, he’s off to a red-hot start in 2021, going 12 for 31 (.387) with three home runs and eight RBIs in eight games. Cozart is also the reigning OVC Player of the Week.

“If there’s a situation when you have a hot hitter like that, where you can pitch around him a little bit, that’s what we’ll do,” Van Horn said. “We’ll try to be smart there. … We have to watch them in person, watch them hit when they do their pregame work and obviously how they swing it in a game, try to figure some things out.”

Webb in Left

After some initial movement at the corner infield spots, it seems like Van Horn has settled on Brady Slavens at first base and Cullen Smith at third base. Where there is still some question, though, is in left field.

Braydon Webb is the returning starter at the position and had good numbers (.340/.452/.400) in the pandemic-shortened 2020 season, but has gotten off to a slow start this year.

In six appearances, including five starts, Webb is just 1 for 16 (.063) with seven strikeouts. He didn’t play in the series finale against SEMO, but Van Horn said he’ll start him Friday against Murray State in an effort to get him going.

“He’s our best defender out there,” Van Horn said. “He can really run. He had some arm soreness, but when he can throw, he’s one of our best arms out there.

“He got off to a really slow start in fall baseball, finished strong. He was really swinging the bat well in January, early February. Hopefully he can get it going for us because it would be a big addition to us if he could get going.”

Webb’s primary competition in left field is Zack Gregory, who has started there a couple of times, but he is 2 for 8 (.250) with five strikeouts. True freshman Ethan Bates started in left Sunday and went 1 for 2 with a walk and an RBI, while fellow true freshman Zac White has played out there as a defensive replacement.

Arkansas Native

Located not far from the northest corner of the Natural State, Murray State has only one Arkansas native on its roster.

Fifth-year senior Jake Slunder is from Cabot, where he was a three-year letterman and an all-state performer.

He was a full-time starter in the outfield for the Racers in 2019 and was the regular center fielder season. Before the pandemic ended the season, Slunder was off to a hot start, hitting .294/301/.485 with eight extra-base hits (including two home runs) and 13 RBIs in 16 games.

So far this year, Slunder has started seven of Murray State’s eight games - all in center - and is 7 of 29 (.241) with one double and two RBIs. He enters the weekend on a five-game hitting streak.

Stat of the Week

Going into the season, Arkansas’ strength was thought to be its lineup. Even without the likes of Heston Kjerstad and Casey Martin, the Razorbacks still had four preseason All-SEC selections.

The bullpen stole the show in Texas on opening weekend, but the bats woke up during a four-game sweep of SEMO.

After notching only four extra-base hits (2 2B, 1 3B, 1 HR) in its first three games of the season, Arkansas hit 22 against the Redhawks. That power surge increased the Razorbacks’ slugging percentage by 200 points, to .509.

Arkansas-Murray State Stat Comparison
Stat Murray State Arkansas

Batting average

.259

.291

Slugging percentage

.417

.509

On-base percentage

.341

.401

Home runs

7

11

Runs/game

7.8

7.7

ERA

5.37

3.60

WHIP

1.47

1.15

Strikeouts/9 innings

7.89

12.00

Strikeout-to-walk ratio

2.27

2.50

Fielding percentage

.959

.988

Stolen bases/game

1.60

1.43