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As the baseball bounces 

A couple of weeks ago, I did what I do best around here: I delivered a hardcore jinx to a then-rolling Arkansas baseball team. The Sports Illustrated cover hex ain't got nothin' on Pearls.

The Hogs had surged to the top of the SEC West Division at the midway point of the schedule, and that was after facing five conference foes that were ranked in the Top 15 nationally. There were a couple of oh-so-close whiffs that could've even elevated the Hogs to the top spot in the country with a bit better execution at the plate with runners on base and cleaner fielding, but it was mighty hard to argue with the results.

Then a seemingly innocuous trip to Starkville shifted things sharply the other direction, as the Mississippi State Bulldogs, still reeling from their upstart young head coach Andy Cannizaro resigning three games into the season due to personal indiscretions, trotted their .500 team out onto the diamond and promptly won three straight from the Hogs. From 10-5 to 10-8 in an instant, Arkansas looked suddenly and shockingly vulnerable, and with the team vying for a national seed and an opportunity to host Regional and Super Regional rounds in the NCAA Tournament if it can get that far, dropping three to the floundering Dawgs wasn't a good sign.

The opener was the bullpen's fault, as Blaine Knight was staked to a 5-0 lead that should always be good enough for the Razorback ace. But he ran into some trouble in the middle innings, and the Hog bullpen threw gas on the fire while the offense sputtered after its hot start. The next two games in a Saturday doubleheader roughly went the same way: Arkansas cranked out 23 hits in the day-night affair, which should be more than enough to carry a competent team to at least a split. But the Razorbacks were again short on clutch hits, leaving 20 men stranded over the two games, and the starting pitchers (Kacey Murphy first, then Isaiah Campbell in the nightcap) came a little unglued the second time through the State order.

Campbell, to be clear, is the liability on the Arkansas staff at this point. He's got a prototype physique and arm, and solid mechanics, but his command betrays him far too often to be a reliable weekend starter. He's looked great at times and awful at others, and that's why Coach Dave Van Horn didn't hesitate to bring his signature quick hook to the mound on Sunday when the Hogs were trying to finish off Alabama. More on that momentarily, though.

At any rate, Arkansas seemed to be hitting that unexpected, nasty lull that has occasionally befallen the Hogs during even their best seasons under Van Horn. But given one last nonconference opportunity to shine, the Hogs seized it masterfully by wiping out fourth-ranked Texas Tech at Baum Stadium on Tuesday to get back on the winning track. Although nasty weather prevented the Razorbacks from taking two from the Red Raiders, the one victory — in which reliever Barrett Loseke shook off an uneven season with 4 2/3 innings of perfect, 10-strikeout relief — got Arkansas back in the groove, and the Hogs conclusively showed that by sweeping Alabama to register their third series sweep out of seven league series.

Bama is the bottom-dweller in the West but still a feisty group, and the Hogs had to win all three games in unconventional fashion. The finale on Sunday was an overlong mess of a game — eight Hog pitchers gave out 15 walks, but Bama was oddly punchless even with all the available runs to score — and Dominic Fletcher turned a Dylan Duarte fastball inside-out for a three-run homer to give the Hogs a lead they wouldn't relinquish. One weekend, the team looked lost and in peril, but it took about five days to restore confidence in the Diamond Hogs, and they have accordingly made it through 45 games with 32 wins, they're back atop the division, and with LSU, Georgia and Texas A&M remaining on the slate, winning a modest five of nine games would have the Razorbacks staring at a high seed in the conference tournament and an opportunity to firm up that national seed they've coveted.

They will have to address two pitching woes: Campbell's aforementioned issues and Matt Cronin's apparent bout with mononucleosis, which robs the Hogs of their shutdown closer for the foreseeable future. If he can recover in time for the postseason, he's still going to need opportunities to regain strength and shake off rust, and that's not a luxury that presents itself in May. However, Loseke's recent emergence earned him SEC Pitcher of the Week honors, and he's got the lively stuff that can bedevil a bunch of fastball yankers like those that are all over top-ranked Florida's lineup.

Arkansas has arguably its most well-equipped team for postseason success, as we've documented here before, because the lineup is loaded with experienced, disciplined hitters and young, fearless upstarts while the pitching staff is incredibly deep. There's also the sting of last year's Regional loss to Missouri State still lingering in the memory banks of the coaches and most of the roster, and it should help motivate this group to flourish in May rather than flounder.

(This Pearls is dedicated to the memory of David McCollum, a quiet giant among sportswriters in Arkansas for decades who died Monday afternoon. This moonlighting columnist learned much under David's tutelage in many years of toiling at the Log Cabin Democrat, but mostly he valued him as a mentor and friend for years. Godspeed, D-Mac, and heartfelt condolences to Beverly and Gavin.)

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