It’s been quite a week to be a Razorback fan. There’s nothing like a winning program to add an extra zip into everyone’s step. It just seems to lighten the load a little.
Dave Van Horn’s Arkansas Razorbacks baseball squad captured the imagination of the area with its quest to earn a berth in the College World Series. Mission accomplished.
The eight-team tournament gets underway Saturday at TD Ameritrade Stadium in Omaha, Neb., but the Razorbacks (44-19) don’t play until 1 p.m. Sunday when they face old Southwest Conference foe Texas (42-21) on ESPN.
Van Horn and the Razorbacks made their way to the Mecca of college baseball Thursday, and as the team boarded the bus to the airport, Van Horn made the statement that the Hogs weren’t just going for the trip, but that they intended to win it.
That’s exactly what every Arkansas fan wanted to hear.
Fayetteville and Northwest Arkansas are great places to live and work for so many reasons, but a title-chasing Razorback squad just seems to accentuate what is already great about our corner of the state.
And didn’t Fayetteville and the surrounding area look great on the ESPN family of networks during the Fayetteville Regional and Super Regional? The commentators and analysts talked up the area and pointed out the absolutely unique atmosphere created by the fans who enjoy the copious amenities at Charlie Baum Stadium.
Bobby “Hognoxious” Smittle got the lion’s share of the face time, but frankly, he’s earned it over the years for his undying support and dedication to Razorback baseball. However, he was just a part of the flavor at Baum Stadium. The Hog Pen and the antics of fans who gather on the berm to support the Razorbacks and to party a little bit while doing it became a go-to staple of the broadcast crew when they needed to fill some time.
That’s the type of marketing value the University of Arkansas and Fayetteville can’t purchase. It only comes when there is an entity that warrants or draws national coverage. That entity, that star, is Razorback baseball, and it was on full display last weekend.
Now, collegiate baseball obviously doesn’t have the impact or popularity of football or basketball, but collegiate baseball is bigger than it has ever been thanks to the increased television coverage from the SEC Network and other such entities.
As part of the eight-team field at the CWS, the OmaHogs will continue on national display for as long as they play well enough to stay on that stage. More than a few experts feel the Razorbacks have the right combination of pitching and hitting to win the whole thing in what is the program’s ninth appearance in the CWS.
Legendary former Razorbacks coach Norm DeBriyn guided the Hogs to the CWS in 1979, ‘85. ‘87, and ‘89, and they almost made it back in his final year as coach in 2002. Van Horn returned the Razorbacks to the CWS in 2004, 2009, 2012, and 2015, but this may be his most balanced squad. It was heartening to hear Van Horn speak so fondly of his his college coach following Monday’s victory over South Carolina, and how much it would mean to Van Horn for this Razorback team to capture a title in Norm’s honor.
Make no mistake. This is a formidable Razorback baseball team.
Blaine Knight, who earned All-American honors along with UA second baseman Carson Shaddy this week, and Kacey Murphy, give the Razorbacks two strong starting pitchers, and while Isaiah Campbell has not been as consistent as the other two, he has be an asset as a third starter more often than not this season.
Barrett Loseke and Jake Reindl have come through for the Razorbacks in middle relief on most occasions this season, and Matt Cronin has been a flame-throwing assassin in his closer role.
One through nine, the Hogs may have the most consistent batting lineup in all of college baseball. When one hitter is struggling, it seems another steps to the fore to grab the slack. Right fielder Eric Cole, third baseman Casey Martin, and left fielder Heston Kjerstad form a potent top third of the lineup. Martin and Kjerstad played so well this year that both were named freshmen All-Americans.
Shaddy has also been highly productive all season, batting in the middle third of the lineup while designated hitter Luke Bonfield, center fielder Dominic Fletcher, first baseman Jared Gates, catcher Grant Koch, and shortstop Jax Biggers have had their moments.
The soft spot in the Hogs’ armor would have to be their defense, but honestly, it’s hasn’t been that soft since some early season struggles that the Hogs mostly shook off early in the SEC season. Solidifying Gates, a senior, as the regular starter at first base made a difference both in the field and at the plate, particularly in the SEC Tournament and the regional.
As strong and steady as the Razorbacks have been all season, I’m not sure if we have seen them totally gel with their best pitching, hitting, and defense all at top form at the same time.
If the Razorbacks are capable of cranking up their play a notch at the CWS, then Razorback fans could be celebrating a national championship in a week and a half.
2018 College World Series Schedule – TD Ameritrade Park, Omaha
Saturday, June 16 at 2 p.m.
Oregon State vs. North Carolina
Saturday, June 16 at 7 p.m.
Washington vs. Mississippi State
Sunday, June 17 at 1 p.m.
Arkansas vs. Texas
Sunday, June 17 at 6 p.m.
Texas Tech vs. Florida
Monday, June 18 at 1 p.m.
Monday, June 18 at 6 p.m.
Tuesday, June 19 at 1 p.m.
Tuesday, June 19 at 6 p.m.
Wednesday, June 20 at 6 p.m.
Thursday, June 21 at 7 p.m.
Friday, June 22 at 2 p.m.
Friday, June 22 at 7 p.m.
Saturday, June 23 at 2 p.m.
Saturday, June 23 at 7 p.m.
Monday, June 25 at 6 p.m.
CWS Finals Game 1
Tuesday, June 26 at 6 p.m.
CWS Finals Game 2
Wednesday, June 27 at 6 p.m.
CWS Finals Game 3*