JONESBORO — One of the phone calls Tommy Raffo received in his first couple of days as Arkansas State’s head baseball coach in 2008 came from Arkansas head coach Dave Van Horn.
The two knew each other from the Southeastern Conference, Raffo having been on Mississippi State’s coaching staff before taking over the Red Wolves. Van Horn called to offer his congratulations and, Raffo said, talked about scheduling games eventually.
“He said, ‘Hey, I want to play, but my hands are tied,’” Raffo said. “Then he said, ‘I’ll call you as soon as we get that opportunity.’”
Van Horn did just that last spring when Arkansas expanded its athletic policy to allow scheduling ASU and Central Arkansas.
ASU (16-24) will play No. 1 Arkansas (36-9) for the first time tonight in Fayetteville in a game that will be shown by SEC Network Plus. Game time at Baum-Walker Stadium is set for 6:30 p.m.
Tonight’s game will be the sixth midweek contest Van Horn’s Razorbacks have played against an in-state opponent this season. Arkansas had no trouble in the other five games, beating UCA once before taking two each from Arkansas-Little Rock and Arkansas-Pine Bluff.
ASU center fielder Drew Tipton, a senior from Bryant, said he didn’t know much about Arkansas’ former stance on in-state opponents until he came to Jonesboro.
“I guess I didn’t keep up with college baseball in general. I didn’t think about it until I started getting recruited,” Tipton said. “When I got here, it was talked about a lot that we couldn’t play them for whatever reason. It’s pretty cool that I get to be a part of the team that does get to play them for the first time.”
The Red Wolves face an imposing challenge against the nation’s top-ranked team.
Arkansas has won all eight of its SEC series after beating Georgia twice over the weekend. The Razorbacks are second nationally with 78 home runs and, with 69 doubles and 10 triples, have a .493 slugging percentage as a team. Arkansas has also drawn 263 walks, the fifth-highest total in Division I baseball.
“I’ve talked to a lot of coaches about them and I’ve obviously seen them on TV. The one thing that they continually talk about is how this is the best offensive team they’ve seen, bar none, this year,” Raffo said. “There’s not anybody close. Their capability of scoring runs one through nine with one swing or making you work your butt off to try to stop them by good at-bats is at a high level.
“Obviously I haven’t seen them up close, but we played three games against SEC teams and we know how difficult it is to get SEC hitters out. That’s going to be a real challenge for us.”
ASU opened the season with a 12-1 loss at Ole Miss. The Red Wolves lost 18-10 at Mississippi State in April and 15-12 at Ole Miss earlier this month.
Four Razorbacks have hit double-digit home runs, led by Matt Goodheart with 12. Robert Moore has belted 11 home runs, followed by Christian Franklin and Brady Slavens with 10 each.
Raffo said Arkansas has plenty of pitching, too.
“Not only one through 10, but basically 11 through 20, they’re really good,” Raffo said. “They’re deep. We’re going to see a ton of really good arms pitch against us.”
ASU won two of three games against Georgia Southern over the weekend, holding the Sun Belt’s most prolific offense to four runs.
The Red Wolves have won six of their last eight games. ASU’s Liam Hicks leads the Sun Belt with a .398 batting average and Tyler Duncan is the league’s RBI leader with 47.
While Tipton said he grew up an Oklahoma Sooners fan because his father was born in Miami, Okla., he added that the opportunity to play the Razorbacks for the first time is special.
“A bunch of kids growing up in Arkansas grow up to be Hog fans, they’re raised that way,” Tipton said. “Luckily I wasn’t, my dad had other plans for me, but I’m sure we have a bunch of guys on our team who were and this is a special opportunity to get to play someone you grew up cheering for, that type of thing.
“We’re going to go up there and give it our best shot. They’re the No. 1 team in the country for a reason, they’re a pretty good squad, but we think we’re pretty good when we’re playing on all cylinders.”
The teams have already made plans to play in 2022. Raffo said the Red Wolves are tentatively scheduled for two games in Fayetteville next year.
“This is the beginning,” Raffo said, “and we’re excited to be able to start that beginning.”