"History is always happening" at Little Rock Central High School National Historic Site
In retrospect, I probably should've eased off those comparisons between 2015 and 2004 Arkansas baseball.
Ultimately, both teams — overachievers by preseason standards, and to date the only two Hog teams that have won a Super Regional on their home turf — fizzled in Omaha after a spectacular run. That comparison carried over to Omaha, where like their predecessors of 11 years prior, these Hogs ended up bowing out of the tourney after two losses to perennial collegiate powers. In 2004, it was Texas, then Arizona, that scooted the Razorbacks back home in a pair of routs; this time, Virginia and Miami dealt the death blows, though they weren't nearly as decisive.
The Hogs (40-25 at the end of it all) just didn't seem comfy with the notion of taking center stage in the opening game Saturday. As it played out, Arkansas finished 5-3 over eight NCAA tournament games, and after a 4-0 start where the Razorbacks plated 37 total runs, the Hogs limped to a 1-3 finish with only 10 more tallies on the board over those last four. Granted, save for Andrew Benintendi's historic campaign, this wasn't the kind of lineup that evoked fear from opposing pitchers, but it had been one that delivered consistently when called upon.
Inning after inning against Virginia went by without much fanfare. Arkansas stole a 2-1 lead midway through, offsetting an early Joe McCarthy solo homer off Trey Killian, and, then after falling back behind by a run, received the big-game jolt from Benintendi that seemed like it was something preordained. He ripped his national-leading 20th homer to tie it, then had the Razorbacks in decent position to retie it later when he drew a leadoff walk and quickly swiped second base. But Josh Sborz, Virginia's closer, essentially outlasted Razorback stalwart Zach Jackson in the end; whereas Jackson allowed an inherited runner to score the go-ahead run on Kenny Towns' double, and then permitted an insurance run in the 9th, Sborz was nowhere near as flawed in a five-strikeout, one-hit flourish.
Going to Monday's twilight eliminator against Miami, the Hogs demonstrated the same sluggishness. Keaton McKinney was dealing early, scuffled slightly in the fifth, and got pulled in a decision that many Hog fans would contend was premature and reeked of panic. Jackson Lowery came on, served up a two-run homer to Jacob Heyward, and that put the Hogs in yet another hole.
The grit that they've exhibited all season resurfaced. Bobby Wernes battled Miami reliever Michael Mediavilla for 10 pitches before spanking the tying hit, and after an uncharacteristic bout of defensive ineptitude for Arkansas allowed the Canes to go up 3-2, Brett McAfee tied it again with a clutch hit to plate Tyler Spoon. When the Hogs loaded the bases in the top of the ninth, and had Rick Nomura bidding to cap off a perfect day at the plate with a go-ahead hit, things seemed right with the world all over again.
Nomura harmlessly bounced out, though, and the bottom half of the frame spelled immediate doom for Jackson, whose velocity seemed to be perceptibly down after all the heat he had thrown in the Stillwater and Fayetteville weekends before. Heyward instead was the one who got to put a final sheen on a masterful day, driving home the walk-off winner and sending all those beloved guys in red to the dugout, heads hung low.
Coach Dave Van Horn was quick to say that there would be no tears from him because a trip to Omaha can never be seen as something to begrudge. This team, in particular, blistered through a murderous schedule and moreover beat back an unusually terrible non-conference performance to become a force in the country's undisputed top conference. Whereas many of the head coach's prior teams would struggle in late spring when the stakes got higher, this one coalesced nicely. There was a calm confidence about them, with Benintendi and Spoon buoying the offense and guys like McKinney and Jackson emerging as dominant entities on a staff that wasn't flush with experience.
For this being Van Horn's fourth (sixth if you include two at Nebraska), and the program's eighth, CWS berth without a title, it's a little easy for us to all wax pitiable about being a bridesmaid in what many contend is the best amateur sporting forum of the entire summer. But consider this: Vanderbilt won its first title last year after years of close calls near the end or inexplicable early exits, Florida's still searching for its first title after nine trips to Omaha, and Florida State's Mike Martin has been to 15 of these in 36 years at the helm and never left with a ring. The CWS is a 12-day pressure cooker now, because pitching depth is scant, and going into the losers' bracket early is a quick prescription for an exit prior to the best-of-three championship round.
Arkansas, in all reality, had only a puncher's chance at taking the title this year. This was a slightly undermanned bunch that just happened to boast one of the biggest names. Benintendi may yet leave for Boston — he was drafted seventh overall by the Red Sox, the highest pick for the program since Jeff King went No. 1 overall in 1986 — but he won't go without several accolades and a program-reinforcing reputation in his back pocket. As the Hogs flourished this year, it was the smallish but fiendishly talented center fielder who carried the torch. Van Horn may not find another like him on the recruiting trail, but what Benintendi did in a four-month stretch may have built something that lasted considerably longer. He restored the belief that college baseball can and should be a game built around the five-tool, do-everything guy.
Congratulations Tara, beautifully written!