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Power surge 

During that weird — and frankly, dull — era of college baseball where composite bats were being championed as the universal cure-all for player safety woes, Arkansas went to Omaha with a rather moribund offense but a considerably stout pitching staff. Despite the Hogs' pedestrian team offense (they finished that year with a .271 batting average and 39 homers in 68 games, but proved adept at playing station-to-station ball) they were on the precipice of being in the national title game for the first time in 33 years.

South Carolina, the two-time defending champions who had made a living off the rules changes that depleted offensive production, had all the answers. In a maddening 24-plus hours, the Hogs crumbled to the Gamecocks not once, but twice, and ended up finishing on the outside looking in. They were helpless as Arizona ended the Cocks' reign and won the Wildcats' fourth overall title.

That feeling of being just a shade or two lighter than the bluest of blue bloods has clearly pervaded the Hogs' plans. Dave Van Horn guided Arkansas to Omaha in just his second season (2004), then shook off a couple of disappointing early exits with better teams to get a seemingly average squad back to the Heartland in 2009. That was the first of an every-third-year pattern of getting back to college baseball Valhalla, and in order for the Razorbacks to make their fifth trip to the College World Series under Van Horn and their fourth in a ten-season stretch, the Hogs would have to vanquish South Carolina twice yet again.

There was a Sunday hiccup in which a home plate umpire with an obscenely unforgiving early strike zone took normally dependable Hog lefty Kacey Murphy out of his comfort zone almost immediately, and the Razorbacks' late power surge wasn't enough to offset a five-run fifth inning by Carolina that featured a grand slam by L.T. Tolbert off Jake Reindl. But that 8-5 loss forced the rubber match that the Hogs have, of late, thrived upon: in both 2012 and 2015, Arkansas had to go three full games to get out of Super Regionals against Baylor and Missouri State, respectively. So playing a tiebreaker clearly didn't faze a team that was, by all accounts, the most complete assemblage of talent by Van Horn yet.

This squad, though definitely teetering a bit after the Sunday debacle, clearly was energized by the late power surge in that loss. Carson Shaddy, the hometown senior who's enjoyed a remarkable senior year to cap off a sterling career, blasted a two-run bomb Sunday to get the Hogs their first longball of the Super in the 15th inning of action. Freshman Heston Kjerstad followed later with a long solo shot, and even if the Razorbacks couldn't muster anything else late, it was that burst of offense and the unexpected steadying hands of Bryce Bonnin and Cody Scroggins out of the bullpen late in the game that allowed the Razorbacks to do two things: get their lineup recharged for the win-or-go-home special, and keep the bullpen in an acceptable state of health and stamina.

What was undeniably critical for Monday's finale was the command of mercurial righty Isaiah Campbell and the batting order's ability to start fast against South Carolina freshman Carmen Mlodzinski. Arkansas was back in the home whites, batting second, and that enabled Campbell to come out and throw a relatively clean first inning (no hits, a single harmless walk) to get the crowd behind him and send his confidence soaring.

From there, the bats took over dutifully. Shaddy's three-run bomb set the Arkansas season record for homers (Eric Cole tagged another one later to set the mark at 94 and counting, nearly 2.5 times the number that 2012 team managed to nudge beyond the fences) and staked the Razorbacks to a 5-0 first-inning lead. Campbell locked in nicely for three more innings with his effortless delivery and well-harnessed movement. When he ran into a spot of trouble in the fifth, Van Horn yanked him with his pitch count rising a bit, but make no mistake, Campbell's four steady innings were absolutely crucial.

Barrett Loseke took over and earned the win with some competent relief, yielding only a meaningless solo homer which, by that time, only drew the Gamecocks within 10 runs. The Hogs' five-spot in the first inning was followed by another five-run inning in the fifth, and the game was in many ways a going-away party for some guys who suffered through Van Horn's worst year (26-29, 7-23 in the SEC in 2016) and soldiered back to post a 45-win campaign last year and get the program back to Omaha. Shaddy was great all weekend, but Luke Bonfield joined the party on Monday night with three well-struck hits and a season-best four RBI, and Cole, likely to depart after getting tabbed in the fourth round by the Kansas City Royals after a terrific junior year, reached base all five times (single, double, homer and two walks) and scored all five times he reached.

It was an anticlimactic but indisputably fun night at Baum Stadium, where Arkansas has simply demolished foes to the tune of a 35-4 record this year, and South Carolina was a scrappy and unyielding foe that had been responsible for giving the Hogs two of those defeats. But Mark Kingston had to go to his relievers too early and too often during the weekend, and that paucity of live arms was evident Monday evening. The Hogs, embracing high expectations and feeling invigorated, pounced on their conference rival and ended up with a 5-2 mark against the Gamecocks this season.

Longtime Southwest Conference rival Texas, which the Hogs knocked off in a midweek two-game sweep earlier in 2018, surged back to its 36th College World Series appearance and there is no more fitting first-game matchup in Omaha than the Hogs and 'Horns on Sunday afternoon. With defending champ Florida, overpowering No. 2 seed Oregon State and feisty newcomer Washington joining the field along with upstart Mississippi State, North Carolina and Texas Tech, there's a mix of traditional powers and unexpected entrants descending on Middle America this week. Arkansas is a deserving and dangerous member of the octet, and wouldn't mind having its first dogpile there to culminate a tremendous season.

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