When the brackets were released for the NCAA Baseball Tournament back on Memorial Day, the Arkansas Razorbacks and their fans could see that their shot at a national title would likely have to go through the defending national champion and top-seeded Florida Gators.
The Hogs (46-19) and Gators (49-20) meet for the fifth time this season at 7 p.m. Friday in the Bracket semifinals of the College World Series at TD Ameritrade Park at Omaha, Neb.
The Mississippi State Bulldogs (39-27) face Oregon State (51-11-1) at 1 p.m. in the Bracket 1 semifinals. Both are scheduled to be televised by ESPN.
Arkansas vs Florida – Bracket semifinals
Date: Friday, June 22
Time: 7 p.m.
Location: TD Ameritrade Park, Omaha
So, at least one SEC team is guaranteed to be in the CWS finals, which begins on Monday.
This is only the second time three teams from the same conference have advanced to the semifinals of the College World Series. The last time was in 2011, and it was also three SEC teams with Florida, Vanderbilt, and South Carolina filling the spots. Florida advanced to the championship series by beating Vanderbilt, but South Carolina defeated the Gators, 2-1 and 5-2, to win the national title.
The Gators advanced to the semis by defeating Texas Tech, 9-6, Thursday night, and Florida looked to be back to midseason form in dispatching the never-say-die Red Raiders.
The Gators led 5-0, but when Texas Tech crawled back in the game with three runs in the seventh and three runs in the eighth, Florida just kept putting runs on the scoreboard to keep the Big 12 bombers at bay.
It seems elimination games bring out the best in the Gators. Kevin O’Sullivan’s square is 7-0 in elimination games dating back to last season.
Even though Florida had to fight its way out of the loser’s bracket, most of TV’s talking heads spouting an opinion about tonight’s matchup are picking the Gators over the Razorbacks because Florida ace Brady Singer (12-2, 2.33 ERA) is likely to start, while Dave Van Horn indicated he’ll go with his No. 3 starter Isaiah Campbell (4-6, 4.19 ERA).
It is the conventions call with Florida being the defending national champion, ranked No. 1 practically all season, and being the top seed in the tournament.
But it somewhat ignores that the Hogs have been the most consistently strong team thus far in the CWS with an 11-5 victory over Texas last Sunday and a 7-4 victory over Texas Tech last Tuesday.
The Razorbacks may not have the most dramatic or even dynamic squad left in the CWS. They do not have a standout star, but they do have a cluster of fine hitters who can pound out hits with any squad in the nation. Singer just had two losses on the season, but the Razorbacks are on of the squads that tagged him with a 6-3 loss on March 23 at Gainesville.
The Gators did bounce back and win the final two games of the series, 17-2 and 5-4. And Campbell was knocked out of the game in that 17-2 loss on March 24.
That said, the Razorbacks did whip the Gators, 8-2, in the second round of the SEC Tournament to knot their record against each other at 2-2, which the ESPN and SEC Network researchers neglected to feed to their analysts on air Thursday night when they were hyping the Gators after their defeat of the Red Raiders.
While I’m not sure it’s in Arkansas coach Dave Van Horn’s no-nonsense approach to play the no-respect card when motivating his team, there’s more than enough ammunition for him to do so.
All of that said Campbell does need to pitch a solid game and get the Razorbacks through four to five innings. A lot is riding on his performance, and the better he pitches the better chance the Razorbacks have of advancing to the championship series.
In the Razorbacks’ favor is that the Gators have to beat the Hogs twice to advance to the best-of-three game championship series, which begins Monday, and that Arkansas ace Blaine Knight should be ready to start Saturday if necessary.
However, for Arkansas to have the best shot at winning a national title, they need to defeat Florida tonight and have Knight ready to start on Monday.
Jake Reindl will be ready for middle relief tonight, with Matt Cronin on call to close the game out.
Singer will be a challenge for Razorbacks hitters tonight, but Arkansas hitters have been able to figure out most pitchers during their second time through the batting order and crack open a big inning, or to make hay when a reliever comes on.
It will be tough for the Razorbacks to crack Singer in similar fashion, but Arkansas has beaten Florida with him on the mound before so there should be no fear going into the ballgame.
This Arkansas squad has a competitive nature that has been on display all season. The Gators are a tough opponent, maybe the toughest, but there’s no reason to believe the Razorbacks won’t respond by playing excellent baseball themselves.