Arkansas angler and fishing expert Billy Murray shares his extensive knowledge of the Diamond Lakes of Arkansas
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.
Having helmed the program to 12 NCAA tournament appearances in 12 seasons, Van Horn has been as consistent as anyone at getting the team at least as far as it should and often well beyond. Going into 2015, though, the outgoing talent and the raw brutality of the SEC, as always, made this a year of unusual skepticism. And after the Hogs limped to a 1-5 start in conference play against Vanderbilt and LSU, it appeared that Year 13 was going to be terribly unlucky. The pitching staff wasn't abundantly blessed with seasoned arms and the lineup seemed to strike more as potential energy than kinetic in present form. The talent, no question, was in place. But would a .500 bunch that had a scuffling RPI even get within the realm of consideration for postseason play? This time, the Hogs' nonconference ride had been so atypically rocky that it had put them in terrible position for the rivalry weekends ahead, and that Vandy-LSU tandem at the start didn't help.
What did help, and keeps on helping as we reach the last couple of SEC weekends, is that Arkansas has a fiendishly strong defense anchored by Bobby Wernes at the hot corner and a fleet outfield that scampers to everything hit its way. It also helps, incidentally, that the anchor of that outfield is the electric Andrew Benintendi, a draft-eligible true sophomore who might have been scarcely on the scouting radars after his modest freshman production (.276 and a single home run). He's now the toast of the league, smoking his league-leading 15th bomb in the last game of a three-game sweep of Alabama over the weekend, and pacing the whole field in batting average by nearly pushing the .400 envelope.
If Benintendi has been shouldering the load offensively, Wernes' highlight-reel work at third has been the cornerstone of a vastly advanced defense that has helped carry the team in close games. From that 1-5 start sprang a loose, confident team that has now won six consecutive series against the likes of Texas A&M, Auburn, and Alabama on the road and Ole Miss and Kentucky at home. The beauty of this surge is that it's boosted a flagging RPI while also getting a team given up for dead in the unthinkable position of maybe snatching a regional hosting honor away from another conference. The Hogs bolted into the rankings after vanquishing the Aggies with a valiant comeback after a rain-delayed Saturday game was resumed the following morning, permitting the Razorbacks to storm back from five runs down to capture a 9-8 win and then roast the Aggies in the rubber match behind unflappable freshman hurler Keaton McKinney.
McKinney did it again against Bama, closing out the Hogs' first sweep with a masterful two-hit complete-game shutout. He's been so good on Sundays while Trey Killian and Dominic Taccolini have labored at times on Fridays and Saturdays that it may force Van Horn to rethink his rotation come tournament time. Both of those hurlers bring considerable skill and experience into the picture, but neither has shown a measure of stability that the late-season grind virtually demands. Both also have the kind of arsenal necessary to buckle down at any juncture, against any lineup, and had Taccolini not had an epic debacle against Kentucky his overall stat line would be pretty compelling.
The last two weekends of league play present a two-edged sword. Only two of the 14 squads in the field have sub-.500 overall records and they are facing the Hogs, with Tennessee coming to Baum and the Razorbacks then traveling to Georgia. It's a possibility that four or five more wins are in the offing, but it also provides no boost to the overall tourney profile. Fortunately, Arkansas retains an outside chance of winning the West Division with that robust finish, and it would be almost impossible to send a division champion or co-champion into foreign lands for a regional.
Regardless, the good fortune that Arkansas baseball has at its disposal is astonishing given how the first 30 games of the campaign unfurled. Arguably the hottest team in the country at this point, this run is reminiscent of the ones that the 2004 and 2009 teams leveraged into Omaha trips. The team is spunky but smart, which is precisely the manner of Arkansas team that usually has reached higher pinnacles than the others.