Diamond Hogs questing for national title with SEC trophies in the bag

The No. 1 Arkansas Razorbacks baseball team has already turned the page on their accomplishments so far this season.

After a day off Monday to rest up from winning the program’s first SEC Baseball Tournament title, Dave Van Horn and his coaching staff, no doubt, have the Razorbacks looking forward to Friday when they begin their host role as the No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA Baseball Tournament.

The Hogs really can’t afford to look back at the moment. Their minds have to be on their next opponent, and their next game.

Next up for the Razorbacks

Opponent: vs New Jersey Institute of Technology
When: 2 p.m. Friday, June 4
Where: Fayetteville
Television: ESPN3 (streaming)

» See tournament bracket

However, as fans, we have the luxury of looking back and taking stock on just what kind of season the Razorbacks have given us up to this point. It’s been historic, even for a program as well respected as the one Norm DeBriyn built and Van Horn improved.

With a tip of the hat to DeBriyn’s great squads and Van Horn’s as well, no Razorback baseball team has accomplished as much as this one has up to this point in the season.

Winning the SEC regular season title by two games and winning all 10 series for just the second time since the SEC went to its current 30-game format is something Hog fans can treasure.

Doing that showed remarkable consistency, desire, and indeed talent in what is the best conference in the nation by far. Winning the SEC regular-season title by two games borders on dominance.

Conventional wisdom last week was that the Hogs’ work in the regular season had likely wrapped up not only a top-eight national seed for Arkansas but also the No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA Tournament, even if they whiffed and went 0-2 in the SEC Tournament.

The argument was that the Razorbacks had already done their work. There was nothing for them to prove in Hoover, Ala.

Thank goodness, Van Horn and his Razorbacks aren’t conventional thinkers.

As coy as Van Horn may have acted prior to the tournament, he and his Hogs went to Hoover to win, and that they did.

After opening play with a 11-2 shellacking of Georgia, the Razorbacks faced defending national champion Vanderbilt and their ace Kumar Rocker. This was a game Hog fans both wanted and yet feared.

By a quirk of scheduling, Arkansas had not played the No. 3 Commodores this season, and while the Hogs had held on to the No. 1 ranking since mid March, some wondered if the Hogs were truly better than Vandy.

It was a tight game, just like so many in the regular season, but the Hogs scrapped and found a way to win 6-4 with SEC Pitcher of the Year Kevin Kopps closing out Vandy with another dominating performance.

Next up was No. 12 Ole Miss, who had been turning heads in the tournament from Day 1. It seems, the Rebels are always a thorn in the Hogs’ side no matter the sport, and Ole Miss was particularly prickly last Saturday, but Arkansas garnered clutch relief pitching performances by freshman Heston Tole and Connor Noland to secure a 3-2 victory over the dreaded Rebels in an elimination game.

The title game pitted the Hogs against Tennessee, coached by former Van Horn protégée Tony Vitello, who suddenly is the hottest name in college baseball with both Texas A&M and LSU presumed to be courting him through back channels to take over their programs.

The game became huge for both programs. The Vols hadn’t won the SEC Tourney since 1995, and while the Razorbacks had played in the title game four times, the Hogs had never carried the championship hardware back to Fayetteville.

The game played out very familiarly to Razorback fans. The Hogs fell behind early 1-0 in the first, but as the Vols’ starting pitcher wore down, the Razorbacks only got stronger. Arkansas scored three in the top of the fifth to turn the game around.

Tournament MVP Jalen Battles got the first of three RBI on a single to right, scoring Cullen Smith from second. Zack Gregory then brought home Casey Opitz from third with a single before Matt Goodheart’s sacrifice fly to left to put the Hogs ahead, 3-1.

Arkansas added an insurance run with Battles’ solo homer in the seventh for a 4-1 advantage, before putting the ball in Kopps’ hand once again.

Tennessee wouldn’t go down without swinging, though. Designated hitter Pete Derkay touched up Kopps, who was named the National College Baseball Writers Association Pitcher of the Month for the second time in a row on Monday, for a home run to cut the Arkansas lead to 4-2. However, Kopps promptly mowed down the next two batters.

In the eighth, the Razorbacks all but put a bow on the title with a three-run inning. Smith, who played first base for the injured Brady Slavens, slapped his third homer of the tournament, this time a two-run shot that extended the Razorback lead to 7-2.

Kopps then struck out two more Vols and coaxed a fly ball to center field for the final out, wrapping up a huge victory for the Hogs.

How huge?

Based on the smile Van Horn wore when he accepted the championship trophy from SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey, the tournament title was extremely meaningful to the veteran coach, who has now won everything anyone can win as a college coach except for a College World Series championship.

That’s still on the table for the Razorbacks.

Van Horn’s 2018 Hogs got as close as a team can get to winning a national title without doing it. Just a misjudged fly ball away.

It’s hard to compare teams, but I’d say this Razorback squad is a bit better. The 2018 squad had better starting pitching, but their bullpen was not as deep as the current squad’s, and Kopps is an unmatched cherry on top. He’s a dominating closer that throws as many innings as a starter over a two-game period, thus positively affecting two games instead of just one.

As for the everyday players, it seems the Hogs are more talented this year, too. This is a great defensive baseball team with Casey Opitz setting the tone behind the plate, Robert Moore and Battles, who is coming into his own, up the middle at second and shortstop; and then Christian Franklin covering a ton a ground in the outfield. If Slavens can return from his sprained ankle, the Hogs become even better, allowing Smith to return to his more familiar third base.

There is also plenty of pop at the plate with four Hogs with 12 or more home runs — the number increases to five when Slavens, who has hit 13 dingers, returns. Moore has 13 with Cayden Wallace, Franklin, and Goodheart each hitting 12. Smith isn’t far behind their pace with 9 homers.

The Hogs (46-10) begin their quest to return to Omaha, Neb., the home of the College World Series, at 2 p.m. Friday when they face the New Jersey Institute of Technology Highlanders (26-22) at 2 p.m. The game can be streamed on ESPN3.

The second game of the regional is at 7 p.m. and pits the Big 10 champion Nebraska Cornhuskers (31-12) against the Northeastern Huskies (36-10) in a game that will also be streamed by ESPN3.

Taking a hint from former Rice head coach, Van Horn chose to play in the early time slot just in case rain becomes a factor. If there are delays, playing in the earlier game would give his squad a better chance for rest in what can become a taxing double-elimination format.

It doesn’t matter what time the Hogs’ play, Razorbackers will pack out Baum-Walker Stadium.

All four participants in the Fayetteville Regional won their conference championships. The Cornhuskers are coached by Will Bolt, who played on both of Van Horn’s Nebraska College World Series teams in 2001 and 2002 prior to when Van Horn took over the Arkansas program from DeBriyn.

In looking over the NCAA field, the Razorbacks have beaten nine of the top 16 seeds in the tournament at least once this year. Should the Hogs advance to Omaha, they could see Vanderbilt and Ole Miss again if the Commodores and Rebels advance that far. All three are on the same side of the bracket and would be podded together.

The Texas Longhorns are the No. 2 overall seed. I’m sure many longtime Hog fans wouldn’t mind seeing these Hogs face the Steers in CWS finals for old time’s sake. if you remember, the Hogs beat Texas, 4-0, the first weekend of the season. However, that’s putting the cart before the horse. There is a lot of baseball to be played before something like that is a legitimate possibility.

The Razorbacks have been the best team in college baseball for two months now, but there are absolutely no guarantees on advancing to Omaha. That distinction has to be merited over the next two weeks of play.

However, I wouldn’t bet against these Hogs.