Van Horn wary while Diamond Hogs excite fans

Former Dallas Cowboys coach Jimmy Johnson famously explained once that he didn’t speak to the media but through them.

Johnson, who played nose guard for the Arkansas Razorbacks’ 1964 national championship team and earned a degree in psychology, often spoke through the media to fans, but sometimes he used the media to drive a message home to his players.

Arkansas Razorbacks head baseball coach Dave Van Horn isn’t above using a bit of psychology himself.

Seconds after acknowledging that his Hogs were atop the SEC Western Division by a half game over Texas A&M after Arkansas swept Mississippi State in a weekend series, Van Horn made the point that the difference between No. 1 and No. 6 in the West was about as thin as a sheet of paper.

Things are so close that a pitch or a hit here or a walk or an error there is almost enough to turn the most of the division standings topsy-turvy.

Van Horn pointed to the Bulldogs as an object lesson. Mississippi State came into Fayetteville ranked as high as No. 2 in the nation by one poll, leading the West and tied with Georgia for the overall SEC lead. However, with victories of 5-3, 12-5, and 10-2, over the Bulldogs, the Razorbacks sent Mississippi State back to Starkville to lick their wounds two games behind Arkansas.

Van Horn wants his No. 6 Hogs wary this weekend when No. 21 Tennessee, coached by former Van Horn assistant Tony Vitello, comes to town. While it would be surprising if the Vols managed a sweep of the Razorbacks, it wouldn’t be a shock. The Vols are a very capable baseball team, and while the Razorbacks certainly deserve their No. 6 ranking, Arkansas is far from invulnerable.

There is a lesson for anyone who was in earshot of Van Horn’s lecture, but the message was clearly intended for his young-ish baseball team. A bad weekend can easily erase all the gains the Hogs made last weekend. In fact, the Hogs can play well and still not win the series like they did at Vanderbilt and Ole Miss earlier this season.

In the grand scheme, standings 3/5ths of the way through a season aren’t totally meaningless, but they don’t guarantee anything either.

Arkansas players have to know that and play like that for the Hogs to even have a shot of maintaining the ground they’ve gained.

Fans, though, can be more cavalier. We can let it go to our heads without it having one iota of influence on the Hogs’ midweek games with Northwestern State or the league series against the Vols.

And as Hog fans, we need something to celebrate after an absolutely average basketball season and a completely miserable football season.

For too long we’ve relied on Van Horn’s baseball team to provide most of the fireworks for the program, so pardon Hog fans if we get a little too rowdy at Razorback baseball games.

Even if there are four more series left in regular-season SEC play, it is exciting to see Arkansas listed at the top of the Western Division standings. You have to take pride where and when you can.

There is a lot for Hog fans to take pride in with this team.

It was great to witness shortstop Casey Martin of Lonoke as he not only pulled himself out of an extended slump but also was named SEC Player of the Week. He broke his slump by hitting .471 last week with eight hits and 10 RBI.

Likewise, it was thrilling to watch freshman pitcher Conner Noland of Greenwood put the clamps on Mississippi State, holding the Bulldogs scoreless for 7 2/3 innings in Sunday’s Game 3.

Noland threw only 15 pitches the previous weekend in his Game 2 start at Vanderbilt before being relieved. Watching him pitch so well against the Bulldogs was thrilling.

In our zeal as fans too often we make snap judgments on players, not allowing them to grow into the potential that we read about during their recruitment. If a blue-chipper isn’t playing or playing well, we wonder what’s wrong?

Sometimes there’s nothing wrong. Sometimes a player just needs more time to grow and mature. Sometimes he just needs an attitude adjustment, and sometimes just another chance in a better situation.

The great thing Hog fans have in Razorback baseball under Van Horn is we usually get to experience a number of such personal triumphs play out during the course of a season as the squad almost always advances to postseason play.

It’s hard to know just how good this Razorback baseball team actually is, but it is pretty amazing how well Van Horn has managed his roster after losing so much talent and experience last season.

Just think of how well freshmen Jacob Nesbit and Christian Franklin have played at third base and left field.

How huge has the acquisition of graduate transfer Trevor Ezell been? He came as a second baseman, but has not only worked himself into being a trusty first baseman, but also a solid leadoff man.

Pitcher Isaiah Campbell was hit and miss on the mound this time last year, but today he is among the best hurlers in the loaded SEC.

So even though nothing is settled and nothing is guaranteed for this baseball season, Razorback fans have a lot to be excited about with their baseball team, and that is a great feeling.