Even with a rather jarring home/road split, Arkansas’s accomplished baseballers posted their best national seeding for the tournament ever, and had itself situated to crest the 40-win mark for the 10th time in Dave Van Horn’s 16-season tenure. Hosting a regional last year ended up being a bit of a drag after the Hogs soldiered out of the loser’s bracket in the SEC tournament to make a sprint toward a conference title, only to lose the championship game to those greedy Cajuns. The Hogs were a bit gassed from the extra time and effort expended in Hoover, got beat by a stout Missouri State team early in the Fayetteville regional, then dropped the decisive seventh game after surging out of the loser’s bracket for the second straight weekend to force an eliminator.
Obviously, Arkansas had less pitching depth last year — or let’s say, what depth was there was quite lacking in useful experience — so the Hogs’ 45-19 campaign ended thusly. But it was a big resurgence from the lost 2016 season, and it really staked expectations high for 2018. The Hogs delivered for the most part, and after again bowing out in the SEC tournament to LSU, they got the last laugh this time by blitzing through the Fayetteville Regional with a spotless 3-0 mark as the Tigers saw their season end with two decisive routs at the hand of Oregon State, the Corvallis Regional host.
This season is by no means about simply trying to one-up longtime league powers like the Tigers or shake off new-school threats like Florida, the defending national champs who are well positioned to make a bid at a repeat. No, this Arkansas team is balanced throughout the lineup, strengthened by a bullpen that can capably rescue any starter in peril for long stretches, and infield/outfield defense that, while adventurous at times, seems to make dazzling plays at a far greater clip than those intermittent gaffes. (See, for example, freshman left fielder Heston Kjerstad, who inexplicably let a lazy fly ball glance off his glove for a two-base error in the Regional final against Dallas Baptist, then later saved the Hogs’ precarious one-run lead by snatching a home run away from the Patriots’ burly slugger Devlin Granberg.)
That preserved a bravura seven-inning stint from Jake Reindl in long relief of the immediately ineffective starter, Isaiah Campbell, who was pulled 13 pitches into his start after yielding two walks and a hit to load the bases in the first inning. Van Horn, known for his quick hooks on pitchers who can’t find the zone, didn’t hesitate to trot out and pull the inconsistent redshirt sophomore, who leads the staff in walks allowed despite throwing a good 25 to 30 innings less than the Hogs’ top two starters, Blaine Knight and Kacey Murphy.
Reindl delivered immediately, as he got the Hogs out of that initial jam by yielding only one run on a harmless groundout before striking out slugger Tim Millard and then coaxing a popup from Matt Duce. The Pats manufactured another run in the second inning, but Reindl calmly worked through that and let his offense catch up. Eric Cole’s RBI groundout in the third got the Razorbacks on the board, and they followed in the fourth inning with what ultimately ended up as the decisive hit, Grant Koch’s clean single to right to put Arkansas ahead 3-2. Kjerstad, soon after atoning for his error with his fielding brilliance, made a contribution with the bat by stroking an RBI hit with two outs for a key insurance run.
Closer Matt Cronin blew through the Patriot bats for the most part in allowing a single run in the 9th, but striking out four over two frames, to log his 12th save of the year. The celebration that ensued when Cronin got Millard to fly out routinely to left was appropriately muted; just shy of 10,000 Hog fans at Baum Stadium rose to their feet and applauded the effort, but after a workmanlike three games in which the Hogs outscored all three of the Regional invitees by an aggregate 24-7, you got the sense that players and backers alike recognized that this was merely the necessary first component of what they hope and believe will be a triumphant, historic trilogy for the program.
The second component of the 2018 Razorbacks’ story comes next weekend, again at Baum, for the Super Regional, and it will predictably involve a familiar SEC rival, South Carolina. The Gamecocks were notably the only league foe that won a game at Baum Stadium this year, taking the Friday night game against the Hogs in April but then getting shut out the next two days thanks to yeoman pitching efforts by Murphy and Campbell. They’ll be pesky foes for sure, but ostensibly stronger SEC teams like Ole Miss, Georgia, LSU and Texas A&M have all exited the tourney already, and Florida, Mississippi State and Vanderbilt are pressing onward after having to do hard work to get through their respective regionals.
Arkansas’s sole source of real bedevilment this year is getting clutch hits in the nip-and-tuck games. The Hogs’ record in one-run affairs was a pedestrian 9-10, and some would reflexively opine that such a record comes from the bullpen being inefficient, which is not the case. Cronin’s dozen saves tell the story of what a lockdown closer he’s become, but the rest of the staff has another 11 saves as well, and the team’s 3.47 ERA is certainly good enough to build a championship run on. Where a .300 hitting team with 90 homers and no easy outs in the order has suffered, and given away some closer contests, is in the lack of timely hitting. Arkansas has left a whopping 510 men on base through 60 games, or about 8.4 per game.
If the Hogs want to send Carolina out of their yard on the wrong end of a best-of-three for the second time in two months, they’ll need to make good on every serious scoring threat and get Campbell to go longer, if he’s ultimately needed. But the momentum Arkansas cultivated in the regional cannot be understated; with so many other conference foes having to struggle to stay afloat, Arkansas is unusually fresh and well-positioned for the fight, and could even be in better shape if they can win on Saturday and Sunday to make the Monday rubber match moot.