Some weekends, even in the oft-tortured Ozarks, the sun shines just right on the ballfields and the energy is just right in the arenas.
Saturday, February 16, 2013 isn't going to make any sort of history books, but it was one of those rare days for Arkansas athletics that just went well from start to finish. The Razorback baseball squad pasted Western Illinois 7-2 in an efficient performance that didn't even eat up two full hours. And then it ended just in time for a chilled Baum Stadium crowd to migrate to either a pub or join the rare sellout throng at Bud Walton Arena, which watched a damned entertaining, if indisputably erratic, 73-71 win for the basketball team in its newfound rivalry game with Missouri.
Disregard, for a moment, that the baseball team promptly dropped the series finale against the lowly Leathernecks the following day. Put aside the sketchy officiating that flecked the Hogs' 16th basketball victory of 2012-13, most notably the final minute thereof. Just eat it up, folks, because every sweet morsel of enjoyment that the Razorbacks enjoy lately seems like such an aberration.
The baseball team did slip a notch in one poll from No. 1 to No. 2 because of the series-ending loss, which started with veteran lefty Trent Daniel being off-target and having shaky defense behind him and ended with the hitters not mustering quite enough of a comeback after falling behind by four runs in the seventh inning. Dave Van Horn has always treated these non-conference matchups appropriately, never investing too much in games of little actual consequence, instead shuffling the lineup frequently and giving young pitchers work. Make no mistake: the Hogs gave Western Illinois a couple of authoritative beatings on Friday and Saturday to claim the series, and this squad has the appearance of being Van Horn's safest bet in his decade-plus at the helm.
The Hogs' win Saturday was, in substance and form, a callback to the method they employed through much of 2012. Barrett Astin made his five innings count (three hits and one walk in a one-run, 63-pitch outing) before freshman Jalen Beeks turned in three spectacular frames of follow-up work. The hitting performance was anything but demonstrative, but as evidenced by the score, the Hogs made their eight hits count and seized full control of the game when presented the chance. This is the new college baseball, which you may take or leave as you deem appropriate, but it's a deeply tactical endeavor these days and Van Horn seems to be more suited to that brand.
And for the basketballers, having finally shaken the winless-on-the-road albatross at Auburn three nights earlier, they got a big lift on Saturday in claiming the first round of what figures to be a reasonably spicy bout with Mizzou. It was hardly a thing of beauty, as virtually all these games trend that way by default, but the Hogs were mostly terrific in the second half and the Tigers inexplicably continued to rely on a pitiable long-range game while enforcer Alex Oriakhi stood around, supremely and understandably bored. This speaks to what will eventually become a problem for the Tigers: Frank Haith's lackluster grip on the game.
Missouri rode high for months last year as Arkansas struggled, seeming to magnify that Mike Anderson was somehow wrong-headed for leaving the former for the latter. The crashing halt to the Tigers' season in the first round of the NCAA tournament was a loss to 15th-seeded Norfolk State, and even though Arkansas whiffed on the postseason entirely last year thanks to a February swoon, Razorback fans were eager to remind Phil Pressey & Co. of that wound with some pregame chants. It was that uncommonly spirited day at Bud Walton, where the fans bought into the Harlem Shake craze (and buoyed the team when it fell behind early and late).
Marshawn Powell and BJ Young, as they frequently do in home games, basically made the win. Powell was SEC Player of the Week after posting 20-plus points in the wins over Auburn and Missouri, and his second-half assertiveness against the Tigers may have rebooted the Hogs' tournament hopes (NIT here, people...let's not distance ourselves from reality). And Young's seven-point flourish in the final half-minute was as pivotal as any one-man burst the team has had in the past few seasons. Coty Clarke's 13-point showing, however, conveys the greatest source of optimism for the final weeks: if the junior transfer can provide that scoring as the season winds down, the Hogs become far more lethal as a whole.
And that might make for a few more blissful Saturdays this spring.