Two and done 

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.


Speaking of Arkansas Razorback Baseball, Dave Van Horn

  • Bad year a blip

    May 19, 2016
    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. /more/
  • Don't despair about baseball

    April 21, 2016
    Arkansas's baseball freefall is not something atypical for a Dave Van Horn team. Being 21-15, 4-11 at the midway point of the conference season would seem so distressing, if you bought into the belief that records mattered all that much. /more/
  • Hogs CWS preview

    June 11, 2015
    When Arkansas gutted out a 3-2 win over Missouri State at Baum Stadium to cap off a sun-soaked, cuticle-clawing Super Regional best-of-three, it sent the Hogs to the College World Series for the fourth time under Dave Van Horn's watch. /more/
  • Hogs return to the Hill

    June 4, 2015
    The Arkansas Razorbacks' 2015 baseball team is still resembling the 2004 squad one week into the postseason in more ways than one. /more/
  • Baseball Hogs on a roll

    May 7, 2015
    We've noted a peculiar tendency for Dave Van Horn's Arkansas Razorback baseball squads to commonly defy expectations. You can see how this might be a wildly sliding scale, because when projections are modest the team almost always excels. In fatter years, those results trend leaner by the end. /more/
  • Baseball Hogs on rise

    May 29, 2014
    For as flawed as Arkansas's 2014 baseball squad seemed, the Razorbacks had precisely the sort of finish they needed. At no point was this team ever going to draw serious consideration for hosting a regional, but after teetering on the brink of the proverbial bubble for months, the last three weeks have represented a clear breakthrough. /more/
  • Diamond Hogs search for consistency

    March 28, 2013
    Baseball, for all its puffed-up charm as a piece of Americana, is really a pretty fiendish oddity. At the collegiate level, it's especially true. /more/
  • A beautiful day in Fayetteville

    February 21, 2013
    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. /more/
  • The good, the bad and the ugly

    January 30, 2013
    A week's worth of fodder from Razorback Country is akin to a Leone spaghetti western. /more/
  • Odds and ends

    February 22, 2012
    There's been significant activity across the Razorback athletics the past few days, so we'll start with two sports that haven't been given "Pearls" treatment before ending on well-trod ground. /more/
  • More »


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