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.
First order of business was cleaning up a muddy conference slate, and they did that by taking two of three against then-No. 20 Texas A&M at Baum Stadium and then nudging their league record over .500 with a sweep of basement-dwelling Missouri. That series was capped off by an improbable late rally to force extra innings, and when the Hogs finished off the Tigers 7-5 in the end it gave them their first series sweep of the season.
It was arguable whether the Hogs could make much hay at the conference tournament, but improbably they acquitted themselves fairly well. LSU pinned two losses on them, the last of which a run-ruling that ended the Hogs’ stay in Hoover on Saturday afternoon, but Arkansas took two games from Ole Miss and blanked Texas A&M in the opening round. It’s hardly any kind of bold declaration to go 3-2 in the SEC tourney but Arkansas has a pretty uninspiring history there, so this kind of showing represented an unqualified success.
The endgame here is that for the 13th straight year, Arkansas is in the national tourney, and this time going in with some obvious swagger. The once-moribund offense is showing late-season promise thanks to timely hits from newcomers like Clark Eagan, Michael Bernal and Alex Gosser. They’ve started to run a little more, Eric Fisher’s flexed his power bat and recent run production has been on an uptick. Over the final seven regular season games, the Hogs plated 46 runs, which certainly doesn’t connote an outburst, but is meaningful given how stellar the pitching and defense was over that stretch.
With nine shutouts among their 38 victories, and another batch of one- and two-run games, this staff is every bit as salty as the much more heralded ones of prior seasons. There is no lockdown guy like Ryne Stanek or D.J. Baxendale in the bunch — Jalen Beeks, Trey Killian and Chris Oliver have been stingy without being overpowering — but the group scarcely allows any baserunners at all and works deep into games. That’s where a heady bullpen asserts itself, and even if Michael Gunn creates his own trouble and Colin Poche has fits of wildness, there’s no shortage of options. Jacob Stone (4-0, 0.99 ERA, three saves and a remarkable 0.74 WHIP) has taken control when late innings end up on the precipice of trouble.
In the field, Arkansas has cleaned it up substantially as well, with only five errors in the last nine games, and that figure may be as critical an indicator of recent progress as any. For a team that walks on a razor wire all the time (21 one-run contests, representing more than a third of the overall slate to date), sharp glove work matters much.
Arkansas’s reward for its ending flurry was a trip to Charlottesville, Va., for a regional that features host Virginia, fellow commonwealth denizen Liberty and Patriot League upstart Bucknell. It’s an unusual foursome considering that Arkansas is the clear geographical interloper of the bunch, and probably the No. 2 seed that Virginia didn’t realistically want to draw, given that the Hogs have generally upgraded their level of play against the nation’s best this spring. The Cavaliers are a 44-win monster and a home-field juggernaut, but they had a mildly disappointing finish and therefore lost out in an effort to secure the tourney’s overall top seed.
The Hogs open against Liberty on Friday night, neatly securing a primetime ESPNU tilt with the Flames. Liberty will in all likelihood turn to Trey Lambert (11-2, 2.10 in 15 starts) and though he’s been phenomenal all season, he’s more or less fresh meat to a lineup that has, strangely, had few problems challenging frontline starters this season. The real test for the Hog pitchers comes in the form of Ryan Seiz and Alex Close, two stout kids with better power numbers than anyone in the Hogs’ lineup (combined .343 with 20 homers and 87 RBI), but the rest of the offense is far less dynamic. And these kids are a free-swinging bunch, striking out once every 4.8 at-bats and rarely walking, which plays well to the strengths of Killiam or Beeks, who is still battling a sore left elbow.
It seems like it’s now the custom rather than the exception, but Arkansas looks like a team much better suited to taking its show away from home for the NCAA regionals. The Hogs’ wealth of pitching is the kind of asset that has made them worthy of extended play in June each year, and it’s also the sort of trait that pins all the pressure on the host. Virginia is a worthy high seed, without question, but the Cavs are also more than capable of overlooking Bucknell in anticipation of a grind-it-out matchup with the Hogs. As it was two years ago when the Hogs authored an improbable run to Omaha, they are finding the makeup of a championship contender amid a sea of obvious flaws.