FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas hitting coach Todd Butler said there isn’t much difference between the 21st-ranked Razorbacks and No. 5 South Carolina.
The 2012 College World Series participants boast some of the top pitching in the Southeastern Conference once again with staff earned run averages among the lowest in the league. They’re both in the middle of the pack in team batting average, too, with the Gamecocks hitting .286 and the Razorbacks .284.
But Butler said it’s easy to figure out what has helped South Carolina to an 18-3 start while Arkansas is 14-7 with six losses in its past 13 games. South Carolina ranks second in the SEC in fielding percentage (.979). Arkansas is 13th (.961).
“We must play better defense,” Butler said Wednesday.
Arkansas, which begins a three-game series against the Gamecocks at Carolina Stadium tonight, understands it must be much more sound defensively to have any chance of winning the weekend. The Razorbacks have committed an SEC-high 33 errors in 21 games and the mistakes have helped lead to 15 unearned runs.
Shaky fielding has played a part in a handful of losses and there’s no better example than last Sunday’s series finale against Ole Miss. The Razorbacks committed a season-high five errors in a 6-4 loss in 13 innings. Two errors came in the 13th inning alone, leading to the Rebels’ game-winning runs.
So infielder Brian Anderson said the mistakes must stop if Arkansas intends to avoid a second consecutive series loss to open conference play.
“I think it’s important to let the pitchers know we’re behind them,” said Anderson, who has a team-high seven errors. “Not just scoring runs. We’re also making plays for them. We made some good defensive plays (against Ole Miss), but we also had our errors. So that cost us runs.”
Arkansas had some extra time to work through the issues the past few days with no midweek games on the schedule. Butler said it was the first time in weeks the Razorbacks have had a chance to get in solid practice work and took advantage of it.
Outfielder Matt Vinson estimated “90 percent” of the work was on defense.
“We feel good about it,” Vinson said. “We’ll probably make some changes. But no matter who is on the field we feel like we’re going to get the job done. That’s what we’ve been working on the past couple of days.”
Arkansas coach Dave Van Horn, who was not available during Wednesday’s press conference, said the Razorbacks would take a look at their defensive lineup after the Ole Miss struggles. Butler – who filled in for the coach on Wednesday – deferred any comment on definitive changes to Van Horn. But he hinted at some possibilities.
Anderson, who has started most of the season at third base, worked at shortstop during practices this week. He slid over to the position after the Razorbacks pinch hit for starter Brett McAfee in the late innings against Ole Miss last Sunday.
Jacob Mahan worked out at third base in Anderson’s place. The senior has started most of the season at second base with Dominic Ficociello slowed by a strained muscle. But Arkansas wants Ficociello back in the lineup against the Gamecocks.
Arkansas is trying to strike the balance between strong fielding and success at the plate in its lineup against the Gamecocks. Butler said the Razorbacks are looking for energy and aggressiveness above everything else against one of the SEC’s top teams.
“It's like a boxing match,” Butler said. “Whoever throws the most punches has a chance to win the match. And that's the goal right now, to be very aggressive, and to be more aggressive this weekend than South Carolina.”
The Razorbacks’ can’t afford many costly mistakes – at the plate or in the field – in a series that produced plenty of tight games last season. South Carolina went 4-2 against Arkansas in 2012, including a 2-1 mark in the College World Series.
All three games in Omaha were decided by two runs or less. No team scored more than three runs in games dominated by strong pitching and defense.
Arkansas is confident it has the pitching to compete once again this weekend.
The Razorbacks hope the defense will come through as well after a shaky start.
“We had a pretty tough weekend,” Vinson said. “But we feel like going into South Carolina the extra days of practice are really going to help us. We had some things we needed to work on. We got it done. These two practices have gone really well.”
No. 21 Arkansas (14-7, 1-2 in SEC) at No. 5 South Carolina (18-3, 2-1 in SEC)
When: Friday at 6:30 p.m., Saturday at 2:15 p.m., Sunday at 12:30 p.m.
Where: Carolina Stadium in Columbia, S.C.
TV: Friday – CSS/ESPN3; Saturday – FSN/ESPN3
Radio: Razorback Sports Network
Starting Pitchers: Arkansas — RHP Barrett Astin (1-1, 1.90 ERA), RHP Ryne Stanek (1-1, 3.32 ERA); LHP Randall Fant (1-0, 1.12 ERA); South Carolina — Evan Beal (2-0. 0.56 ERA)), LHP Nolan Belcher (4-1, 1.25 ERA), RHP Colby Holmes (1-2, 5.16 ERA)
Top Hitters: Arkansas — RF Tyler Spoon (.346, 3 HR, 26 RBI), SS Brian Anderson (.321, 2 3B, 16 RBI), 2B Jacob Mahan (.322, HR, 9 RBI); CF Matt Vinson (.324, 3 2B, 6 RBI); South Carolina — 1B LB Dantzler (.351, 7 HR, 24 RBI), SS Joey Pankake (.343, 5 HR, 20 RBI), CF Tanner English (.324, 2 2B, 3 RBI), LF Graham Saiko (.305, 0 HR, 10 RBI)