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Cynic that I am, I fully expected to write this week about Arkansas's beleaguered baseball team closing out a mildly disappointing campaign with a quick exit from the NCAA regionals.
Oddly enough, the Razorback offense, which sputtered often in SEC play, did about what I thought it would during a three-game stint in Houston: 11 total runs, a cumulative batting average of .228 for the weekend, and zero home runs. It was anything but an offensive showcase, and frankly, I wonder if any hitting coaches are still bothering to order Tom Emanski's useful series of instructional VHS tapes anymore — I mean, for God's sake, Fred McGriff endorses it!
Yet, go figure, the Hogs blew through the Rice regional with a spotless 3-0 mark, and are now heading back to Texas this weekend to square off with Baylor in the best-of-three Super Regional. The centerpiece of the mostly punchless stint in Houston was a 1-0 nail-chewer over host Rice on Saturday night, which was bookended by two wins over Sam Houston State on Friday and Sunday. Arkansas earned its berth in the Round of 16 by having a pitching staff with tremendous guts and stamina, and by avoiding the dreaded plunge into the loser's bracket, which can make for a hellishly taxing weekend.
It has become folly to try to project what a Dave Van Horn-coached team will do in the postseason. His 2009 team was a gifted bunch, but plodded through a 14-15 conference campaign and seemed ill-suited to make a lengthy run through the NCAA tournament. Those Hogs promptly skated to Omaha by roaring through a regional at Oklahoma and a thrilling Super at Tallahassee. They then won two games at Rosenblatt Stadium before bowing out to eventual national champion LSU in the national semifinal.
Conversely, two years prior, Arkansas handily won the SEC West and took a three-headed pitching monster of Nick Schmidt, Jess Todd and Duke Welker into a home regional as the seventh overall national seed. Oklahoma State battered Todd in the second game at Baum, then ended the Razorbacks' promising season the following night. It was by all rights a premature exit, a letdown given how seemingly well positioned the team was.
What makes the 2012 Hogs remarkable is that they've nudged past the 40-win mark for the sixth time under Van Horn's watch despite being an utterly average offensive team. Their occasional struggles at the plate are reflected in the fact that they absorbed eight one-run losses this season, seven of which came in regular-season SEC play, but give credit where it is justly due: the Hogs also took two of three games at Florida, which secured the overall No. 1 seed in the national tournament, and won several tight contests as well.
Nevertheless, Arkansas had peaked at No. 3 in the national rankings several weeks ago, then got summarily shuttled down the elevator shaft with an uneven performance in league play. By the time the Hogs were shipped out of the conference tournament with two losses in 24 hours, they had fallen out of the rankings and completely out of consideration for being a regional host. Fortunately, they had done enough throughout the season to bolster their RPI and not find themselves stuck in a remote outpost to fight their way out of the regional from a position of disadvantage.
Baylor presents a more balanced and therefore more dangerous foe than Rice did. The Bears are, as they often have been under head coach Steve Smith, overwhelmingly well-stocked with pitching — none of its top three starters are particularly overpowering in the way a Kevin Gausman (LSU) or Chris Stratton (Mississippi State) is, but the trio of Josh Turley, Trent Blank and Tyler Bremer have combined for a 26-3 record and an aggregate ERA in the low 2s. Offensively they are anchored by stocky senior catcher Josh Ludy, who is hitting .368 with 15 home runs, and speedy junior outfielder Logan Vick (.344, 39 RBI, 17 SB). It's not a lineup full of mashers, but it's a consistent and well-disciplined team up and down.
That's the point of contrast with Arkansas, which has basically relied on two capable corner infielders in Matt Reynolds and Dominic Ficociello, and can't find much else in the way of clutch hitting. These Hogs play pretty ugly baseball, by and large, but they will find ways to scratch out runs and then let their steady arms hold serve. The win over Rice was substantive proof of just how they operate: the Hogs scored a single unearned run early, then starter Ryne Stanek battled out of myriad jams to fire seven shutout innings before Barrett Astin closed the door.
This late in the season, against this level of competition, three- and four-run games may not suffice.