Magness Lake, in Heber Springs, is a magnet for swans
The Arkansas Razorbacks' 2015 baseball team is still resembling the 2004 squad one week into the postseason in more ways than one.
This Razorback bunch went to Stillwater, Okla. and promptly took three close — and at times, quite harrowing — victories in three days. Arkansas battled a tough Oral Roberts team to an 8-6 victory in the Friday opener, then used an unlikely five-spot in the eighth inning against host Oklahoma State to perch itself in the catbird seat on Saturday night, capping the 7-5 win with two dominant innings of relief from righty fireballer Zach Jackson.
St. John's, a quality fourth seed in the grouping, nudged the Cowboys out of the tourney on Sunday afternoon, and the Hogs more or less returned that favor in the clincher that evening. A ninth-inning run was expertly manufactured and Jackson gassed all three Red Storm hitters in the final frame to cinch the regional. Best of all, the Hogs parlayed all of this into a return to Baum Stadium for the Super Regional against Missouri State, and Arkansas fans lustily responded to the news by snatching up all Razorback Foundation and season passes available. Not many college baseball programs can boast of this kind of zealous following, but a public sale of tickets was rendered impossible, basically within a matter of hours.
Fans enthusiastically embraced that 2004 bunch, which was not coincidentally the last Arkansas team to host a Super Regional. Dave Van Horn was in his second year then, and Hog fans loved the quick resurgence to prominence that the feisty preseason also-ran symbolized. That squad had workhorse pitchers, a penchant for the dramatic, and a degree of coolness under duress that was pretty much unmatched.
The methodology is mirrored again. Though Andrew Benintendi has the possibility of being the Golden Spikes winner in addition to the numerous accolades he's already compiled, this is anything but a one-man show, and the fans respond to that. Tyler Spoon has matured into a true middle-of-the-order force, the corners are capably anchored by Bobby Wernes and Clark Eagan, and possibly nobody has been more clutch than senior outfielder Joe Serrano. He won the regional MVP nod for a passel of quality, productive at-bats, and that's the kind of thing he demonstrated in 2012 when Arkansas last went to Omaha by way of Houston and then Waco.
This Hogs team not only avoids the sweltering Texas heat this time, but returns to its sacred and beloved confines for a shot to get back to Nebraska for what is arguably college sporting's finest and most consistently nerve-jangling postseason forum. Baum has been good to the Hogs for so many reasons over the years, but this weekend it is primed to be the epicenter of college baseball for the best of all reasons. Missouri State is no slouch of a foe by any means, and the Bears did blank the Hogs 2-0 in Fayetteville earlier in 2015, but that loss feels like an eternity ago at this point. Arkansas surged from its early March DOA stature in all the proper ways. The defense has been so brilliant that when Michael Bernal made a wild throw leading to a run for St. John's on Sunday, it felt incredibly foreign to the seasoned eye that has seen some of the program's best infield glove work in decades. These slip-ups notwithstanding, few teams still with a pulse in early June have the combination of moxie and big-game composure that this team shows.
For Arkansas to get out of the Super Regional unscathed, Benintendi's power may need to return and the likes of Rick Nomura and Tucker Pennell may have to continue to be unsung hitting heroes. The Bears' pitching is top-flight at the front of the rotation and it appears evident that the Hogs will again be without workhorse Dominic Taccolini. But momentum is everything, and fan support may be something even greater. The ongoing, gradual crescendo of Arkansas consumer confidence may really hit a fever pitch Friday afternoon, and by Saturday or Sunday, depending on outcomes, it might qualify as the best summer weekend on the Hill in over a decade. The 2004 Hogs dutifully vanquished Florida State that year, and have designs on pushing aside another highly respected program this weekend.
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