Razorback junior right-hander Blaine Knight / Photo: ArkansasRazorbacks.com
The fact that ace Blaine Knight will be on the mound at 2 p.m. Friday when Arkansas opens NCAA Regional play against Oral Roberts University tells us two things.
First, how much Razorbacks coach Dave Van Horn respects the Golden Eagles, and second, how much confidence he has in Knight’s fellow right-hander Kacey Murphy.
There is a lot of truth in the thought that winning the first game in a regional is the key to winning the double-elimination tournament. However, it’s not uncommon for top seeds to hold their ace for the second game. The second game is either the contest that can propel a team into the championship round or save the squad from elimination.
It’s a piece of strategy a coach can go to if they are relatively confident in their pitching staff. Why waste your ace against a fourth-place seed?
Van Horn considered all his options before naming Knight the starter for Friday’s game. One variable, he no doubt considered, was that ORU coach Ryan Folmar will likely put Miguel Ausua (8-1, 3.27 ERA) on the mound. Ausua gave the Razorbacks (39-18) fits last year, giving up a single hit to the Hogs in 6 1/3 innings in a game the Razorbacks struggled to win, 3-0.
While it might be nice to save Knight (10-0, 2.78 ERA) for Saturday, Van Horn’s experience tells him to not overthink the decision. Van Horn would look foolish Saturday sitting in the loser’s bracket if he opted not to go with his ace.
However, the play of Murphy (7-4, 3.15 ERA) probably made the decision that much easier. Murphy has gotten stronger and stronger for the Razorbacks as the season has progressed.
He places his pitches like a marksman and has been zipping strikes by batters with a confidence that makes him the Hogs 1B pitcher rather than the No. 2 man on the staff.
Maybe Murphy’s best attribute is his unflinching nerve on the mound. In SEC play, a starting pitcher is going to find himself in jams, or he’s going to make a mistake that the opponent is going to take advantage of. It’s just part of playing in the most competitive conference in the nation. Murphy knows how to pitch out of jams, and he doesn’t worry about the previous pitch. He’s always advancing forward.
Isaiah Campbell (4-6, 4.01) will get the ball in the Razorbacks’ third game, which hopefully won’t come until the championship round on Sunday. Campbell has been effective for the Razorbacks through four to five innings. The problem for Van Horn is accurately guessing when to seek relief for Campbell.
However, if Knight and Murphy can get the Razorbacks to Sunday unscathed, I like the Razorbacks’ chances of beating the field. The Hogs should have enough depth to win one of two at Baum Stadium on Sunday and Monday, if need be.
Jake Reindl and Barrett Loseke have been more than solid in middle relief and when called upon to close, while Matt Cronin has often been overpowering when he comes in to slam the door. Those three must be on their game for the Razorbacks to be their best, but there is no reason not to expect them to pitch well when called upon.
For the Hogs to stay in the upper half of the bracket, they are going to have to hit, and few teams do it better than them. Arkansas is batting .299 going into the regional, and have 84 home runs on the season.
Freshman third baseman Casey Martin, who made the All-SEC Tournament Team last week, leads the team with a .343 batting average, followed by fellow freshman Heston Kjerstad at 336. Senior Carson Shaddy is hitting .327, followed by Luke Bonfield at .309, Dominic Fletcher at 289, Jax Biggers at .284 and Grant Koch at .257. Arkansas’ hitters ought to be confident and as relaxed at the plate as possible in regional play at Baum Stadium.
While fielding has been a slight issue at times this season, the Razorbacks played clean and solid defense last week in the SEC Tournament. That has to carry over into regional play this weekend for the Hogs to have the best chance to advance into Super Regional play.
When Knight, Murphy, and Campbell have been solid on defense and productive at hitting, they’ve been as effective as almost any starting pitching staff in the nation.
Razorback fans should be some factor at Baum Stadium. That’s the advantage the Razorbacks earned by having an outstanding regular season against one of the toughest schedules in the nation. That doesn’t mean ORU or Southern Miss or Dallas Baptist will be in awe of the atmosphere, but the fan support should inject some extra juice into the Razorbacks’ performance.
It should be an exciting weekend at Baum Stadium.
2018 Fayetteville Regional Schedule
Friday, June 1
Game 1 – No. 1 Arkansas vs. No. 4 Oral Roberts, 2 p.m. CT (ESPN3)
Game 2 – No. 2 Southern Miss vs. No. 3 Dallas Baptist, 7 p.m. CT (ESPN3)
Saturday, June 2
Game 3 – Loser Game 1 vs. Loser Game 2, 2 p.m. (ESPN3)
Game 4 – Winner Game 1 vs. Winner Game 2, 7 p.m. (ESPN3)
Sunday, June 3
Game 5 – Winner Game 3 vs. Loser Game 4, 2 p.m. (ESPN3)
Game 6 – Winner Game 5 vs. Winner Game 4, 7 p.m. (ESPN3)
Monday, June 4
Game 7 – Winner Game 6 vs. Loser Game 6 (if necessary), 6:30 p.m. (ESPN3)
Free Shuttle Service for Regional
From the UA:
Due to the Walmart Shareholders Meeting at Bud Walton Arena on Friday and the capacity crowds expected, fans attending this weekend’s NCAA Fayetteville Regional (June 1-4) are strongly encouraged to take advantage of a free transportation roundtrip shuttle service to Baum Stadium.
Public parking will be extremely limited near the stadium for the NCAA Regional and will be filled on a first come, first serve basis in the Baum East and the KeyTronics GRASS (Beechwood Avenue – northwest of Baum Stadium) lots.
Additional parking will be available in Lot 56 located on the corner of Martin Luther King Boulevard and Razorback Road. From Lot 56, fans can utilize the free fan shuttle service picking up in the southeast corner of Lot 56 (near Razorback Soccer Field). Fans will be dropped off curbside at Baum Stadium.
Razorback Foundation members who have a designated 2018 baseball parking pass may use their pass(es) to park in the same lots they used during the regular season.
The free shuttle service will start two hours prior to the first pitch of the first game and will run throughout the second game and post-game, picking up behind the home plate plaza.
Due to the limited space and anticipated capacity crowds, fans are encouraged to carpool and to arrive early.