Heartbreaking losses don’t define 2018 Diamond Hogs

Sometimes the other team is just better.

Unfortunately, for a very good Arkansas Razorbacks team and their thousands of ardent fans, that was the case Thursday in the College World Series.

Thanks to a pitching performance for the ages by freshman Kevin Abel, the Oregon State Beavers shut out the Hogs, 5-0, to capture coach Pat Casey and the program’s third national title at T.D. Ameritrade Park at Omaha, Neb.

Abel pitched a two-hit complete game to run his record in the CWS to 4-0 and to tag the Razorbacks with their first shutout of the season. Abel retired the last 20 batters he faced, and struck out 10.

Perhaps the easiest way for longtime Arkansas fans to frame the Razorbacks’ final two games in the CWS will be as two more disappointments in a herd of close-but-no-cigar moments over the course of their history with the program. It’s an easy narrative, one I’ve contributed to before on more than one occasion. As Hog fans, we do love to wallow at times.

However, the losses to Oregon State on Wednesday and Thursday had absolutely nothing to do with any of those previous heartbreaking losses from days gone by.

If you want to rehash old nightmares about missed opportunities, phantom traveling calls, unfortunate fumbles, inopportune interceptions, and, yes, now misjudged pop fouls, be my guest. The Razorbacks’ history is littered with examples, but to one degree or another, every program’s history is. The Hogs don’t have a patent on losing, and as fans we shouldn’t act like they do.

Every time there is a hero, there is a goat. Hearts are broken on every playing date of every season.

Arkansas’ program isn’t snakebitten in baseball or any other sport. The Razorbacks win more often than not in the major sports, but it is difficult to be the very best in any collegiate sport.

As the cliche goes, a team not only has to be good, but also lucky to win a national title.

Oregon State also got a bit of luck with Monday’s rainout. However slight, it negated the pitching advantage the Razorbacks had earned by advancing through the winner’s bracket. The extra day’s rest evened the playing field for the Beavers, who battled their way through the loser’s bracket.

That said, it always helps to be the better team, and Oregon State proved to be that over the course of the three-game series. The Beavers’ pitching staff was better, and their hitters were, too.

Arkansas’ 4-1 victory on Tuesday felt tenuous to me, and their lead through the bulk of Wednesday’s 5-3 loss never felt safe. When the Hogs failed to score in the third inning Thursday after loading the bases with just one out, it seemed clear a national title was not mean to be.

Despite how it ended, what the 2018 Razorbacks accomplished this season was tremendous. They were a strike away from being national champions Wednesday night. Give Oregon State credit for kicking the door down when they saw a crack.

I would agree that there is no true consolation for the loss, and it will be remembered by the players and coaches for the rest of their lives. However, the Hogs’ falling short only defines that team as much as the Razorbacks and the fans allow it.

This was a fantastic baseball season for the Razorbacks, arguably the best in the program’s history along with the 1979 season when Norm DeBriyn’s Razorbacks lost twice to Cal State Fullerton in the College World Series finals.

No doubt this is a tough time for all the Razorbacks, particularly the seniors. Having never played for a national title, I certainly don’t have any understanding of how players like Carson Shaddy, Luke Bonfield, and Jared Gates feel at the moment, but I do know that those games meant more to them than they did to the Razorbacks’ most loyal fan.

Certainly, as a Razorback fan dating back to my childhood in the 1970s, I feel a heaping measure of disappointment, but it’s nowhere nearly as great as the pleasure I get from following the Hogs — win, lose, or draw — on a daily basis.

And when I look back on this season, I’m going to remember the play of Shaddy, Bonfield, Gates, Grant Koch, Eric Cole, Jax Biggers, Blaine Knight, Kacey Murphy, and others fondly. I will remember the great plays and victories much more so than the losses.

I know that because when I think about former Razorbacks like Kevin McReynolds, Jeff King, Sidney Moncrief, Ron Brewer, Marvin Delph, Greg Koch, Billy Ray Smith, U.S. Reed, Brad Taylor, Dan Hampton, Joe Kleine, Darrell Walker, Steve Atwater, Quinn Grovey, Madre Hill, Clint Stoerner, Anthony Lucas, Brandon Burlsworth, Lee Mayberry, Oliver Miller, Matt Jones, Ronnie Brewer, Jonathan Modica, Darren McFadden, Hunter Henry, and scores of others, I always think more about the victories and their great plays than the losses and mistakes.

I believe most fans are that way even if we do like to moan and groan from time to time.

Again, this was a fantastic season that saw the Razorbacks go 48-21, which is the highest win total for the Razorbacks under head coach Dave Van Horn.

Gates, Knight, Dominic Fletcher, Heston Kjerstad, and Casey Martin made the CWS All-Tournament team for their play over the last two weeks, and when you consider that sophomore Fletcher and freshmen Martin and Kjerstad will form the nucleus along with pitcher Matt Cronin, it’s not inconceivable that the Razorbacks will make a return to Omaha next June.