FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas outfielder Tyler Spoon can’t really explain it.
The Razorbacks love Baum Stadium. They enjoy playing in front of their home crowd, too. But there’s just something about playing on the road that has brought out the best in Arkansas during Southeastern Conference play.
“When we go on the road we have the mindset that we’re there to beat somebody,” Spoon said. “We’re locked in. It’s really fun on the road. I like it on the road.”
Well, there’s good news for Spoon and Arkansas: The 14th-ranked Razorbacks (30-15, 13-7 in SEC) are back on the road for the second straight week, traveling to No. 23 Kentucky (26-17, 9-12 in SEC) for a three-game series that begins Friday night.
Arkansas carries a 7-1 SEC road record into the series and plans to enjoy more success. So far, there have been series wins at South Carolina (3-0), Alabama (2-1) and Georgia (2-0). It has helped Arkansas’ conference road record rival that of SEC leaders Vanderbilt (8-1) and LSU (9-3) with nine conference games remaining.
It’s a welcome change from earlier in the year when Arkansas went 0-4 on its first road trip in Surprise, Ariz. But catcher Jake Wise said the Razorbacks have learned to be “comfortable with being uncomfortable” and it is paying off in SEC games.
“I don’t think playing on the road bothers us one bit,” Arkansas coach Dave Van Horn said. “There’s some teams that just don’t like it. … I just think sometimes you get away from school and you get away from the ticket list and this and that and worrying about this person. You just go from the hotel and the game and you get loose and you go out and play. Sometimes it’s a little easier.”
It also helps to have experience on the roster. Arkansas’ returning players have been in plenty of pressure-packed moments on the road throughout their careers.
Last season was the best example. The Razorbacks reached the College World Series the hard way, winning a regional and super regional on the road.
Arkansas first baseman Dominic Ficociello said the super regional at Baylor was one of the toughest environments he has played in, but the Razorbacks learned what it takes to win in front of hostile crowds. Closer Colby Suggs said it helped Arkansas develop a mentality that has been rediscovered in SEC play this season.
“We felt like the underdog last year, and I feel like we have kind of that same mentality at this point of the season,” Suggs said. “We're going into somebody else's park and trying to ruin their homestand. I feel like that's something we really pride ourselves on, is taking it to people at their own place.”
Arkansas set the tone with an impressive win in its first SEC road game, beating South Carolina 15-3. It led to a weekend sweep, which was Arkansas’ first on the road against a top 10 team since 2004. It also was the first time South Carolina had been swept at home by an SEC opponent since 1999.
“It kind of started off at South Carolina,” Spoon said of the road success. “We went there with a purpose. We were going to beat them and we knew it.”
Arkansas hasn’t enjoyed nearly as much success in SEC home games, going 6-6 against Ole Miss, Mississippi State, LSU and Texas A&M.
Even more puzzling: The Razorbacks haven’t had any success playing nonconference games outside of Baum Stadium. Arkansas is 0-6 with the trip to Arizona (0-4) and a doubleheader loss at Nebraska (0-2) two weeks ago.
“Midweek games, I think we kind of let up a little bit,” pitcher Barrett Astin said. “Some of it has to come back on us captains. We’re not getting our team motivated enough during the midweek’s and we’ve lost some games we shouldn’t have lost.
“But in the SEC we know we have to bring it and we bring it every day. It’s showing.”
Arkansas has won five of its seven SEC road games by two runs or less, squeezing through tight games behind the strength of its pitching staff. Steady defense and key at-bats have been important as well in the wins.
“This team's tough,” Wise said. “It takes tough teams to win on the road.”
That toughness will be tested this week against Kentucky and again in the final regular season series at Auburn. Six of Arkansas’ final nine games are on the road and its success could play a big part in determining whether the Razorbacks host an NCAA Regional when 16 sites are selected at the end of the season.
But traveling in the NCAA Tournament may not be the worst thing for the Razorbacks if their road success continues through SEC games.
“I think the guys on this team that were on it last year, they’re fine with it,” Van Horn said about playing on the road again. “The way it turned out, it didn’t matter. It was more about having a chance to continue to play. That carries over. …
“There’s some tough venues in this league to beat somebody in. But if you play well, you can take the crowd out of it in any sport. I think we’ve done a good job of that.”