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Dave Van Horn's performance as Arkansas's baseball coach is beyond reproach. The program was respectable, if flatlining a bit, under longtime head coach Norm DeBriyn.
Van Horn was the popular selection to succeed DeBriyn when he retired. He was a scrappy former Hog player, and a fast-rising coaching prospect after he took a mostly moribund Cornhuskers' program to new heights, with the Huskers' first two trips up the road to the College World Series coming in 2002. Unlike Mike Anderson, Van Horn has validated the choice (ironically, Van Horn's successor in Lincoln was a fella named Mike Anderson, who was solid but underwhelming) with nothing but unparalleled success the past several years.
Arkansas has been to Omaha four times in the 13 seasons that "DVH" has patrolled the dugout, and made the NCAA Tournament every year. That streak is not only imperiled but all but foreclosed upon as this Hog team has scuffled mightily, and for a change, can't seem to snap out of it.
Over the weekend at Baum Stadium, the Razorbacks faced a fairly tall order to try to snap out of a horrible late-season funk. Alabama is perfectly average this year, and it was the final home series for the hosts, but the whole three-game set essentially confirmed that 2016 is simply not the season for Arkansas to do one of those nifty about-faces that have become pretty commonplace over the years. Friday night was the can't-quite-get-it-done, 8-6 game where the late-inning rally fell just short. Saturday brought on the perfunctory six-run rout that was never in doubt for the visitors, and Sunday's finale was that grim reminder that this team's Achilles heel — a pitching staff with a team ERA hovering beyond the ugly five — is one that can even show itself with all of one strike separating it from a win.
If anything, pitching coach Dave Jorn has been the unimpeachable rock over the years, while the hitting and defense has been mercurial. For a Razorback arsenal of arms to have this much trouble establishing consistency is so frustrating because it's so rare. And it figured that this was going to be a relatively steady rotation and bullpen based upon last year's returnees, but all of the linchpins — Dominic Taccolini, Keaton McKinney, Zach Jackson and James Teague — have really floundered in a bizarre fashion. Nobody has been there to lift Taccolini after any of his plentiful rough Friday nights, and the bullpen hasn't locked down leads at all.
The upside? Well, save for two steady middle infielders and a couple of little-used relievers, there's cause to anticipate that the rough '16 is going to help solidify what comes back in 2017. Taccolini, Jackson, and Teague are still imminently draft-worthy even after down years, but obviously their stock has suffered. The lineup should remain generally intact with Luke Bonfield guaranteed to come back and Carson Shaddy and Clark Eagan still possible returnees. The defense will need stabilizing up the middle.
Neither Van Horn nor Jorn will permit the pitching woes to continue, either. Recruiting world-class arms has been the hallmark of this era of Hog baseball, what with the likes of Dallas Keuchel winning a Cy Young and Drew Smyly and Mike Bolsinger turning into highly competent major leaguers. The young guys who took a few licks this year have immense promise, especially righties like Isaiah Campbell, Blaine Knight and Barrett Loseke. It's a staff that hasn't suffered due to a paucity of talent, but because of a tendency to lose command and trust in the fielders at inopportune moments. The Hogs' arms have not yielded an obscene number of hits or longballs, but the combined effect of the second-most walks in SEC play and a strangely high number of hit batsmen has exacerbated the lack of experience coming out of the pen.
It's been a bad enough season that the Hogs may well find themselves finished completely after this weekend's last road series against No. 4 Mississippi State, because they stand on the outside looking in with respect to the conference tourney's 12-team format in Hoover, Ala. And maybe after the brutal, 0-for-May stretch in which they are still mired, closing up shop for 2016 is the best avenue.
Bottom line: Van Horn, unlike some of his forbears on the gridiron and hardwood, has earned the right to have one rotten year after 13 pretty stellar ones. And there's no domineering sense of apprehension about the future, either. That's a great, and culturally unique, thing among Hog athletics. You can bet that Mike Anderson and Bret Bielema aren't in a position to pass off a down year as an anomaly at this point.