Hogs bounced from SEC Tourney await NCAA assignment

After going 0-2 in the SEC Tournament and 4-7 in their last 11 games, the No. 5 Arkansas Razorbacks now return to Fayetteville to await word on whom and where they will play in the NCAA Baseball Tournament.

Sunday the NCAA announces the Regional sites, and at 11 a.m. on Monday the entire 64-team field team will be disclosed on ESPN2.

Despite the Hogs’ recent struggles, Arkansas is expected to host a Regional next weekend and be one of the top-eight national seeds, which would allow them to host a Super Regional on June 7 if the Razorbacks advance to the second round.

The Hogs (43-14) were the No. 2 seed in the SEC Tournament by virtue of winning the SEC West title, but the Razorbacks lost 6-5 to South Carolina on Wednesday and 9-6 to Kentucky on Thursday at Hoover Metropolitan Stadium.

The early exit from the conference tournament could turn out to be a blessing in disguise for the Razorbacks, who have been on the road since May 18 when they left Fayetteville for their final regular-season SEC series at Texas A&M. The Razorbacks traveled straight from College Station, Texas, last Saturday to Hoover, Ala. for the conference tournament.

“So, we’ve been out on the road about a week,” Arkansas baseball coach Dave Van Horn said. “Obviously didn’t like the way — I didn’t like the outcome — but we know that we have got a big week ahead of us, and we’ve got to get ready for next weekend.”

If all goes as hoped, the Razorbacks won’t exit Fayetteville until they earn a trip to Omaha, Neb. For the College World Series, which opens June 14.

Considering how the Hogs have played the last two weeks, advancing to Omaha might seem like wishful thinking to some, but then again, Van Horn is an excellent motivator. Two seasons ago, the Razorbacks made it to the College World Series after a similar set of circumstances.

With a few days rest at home, the Razorbacks should be refreshed and be ready to compete for another trip to Omaha.

Of course, there are no guarantees. If the Razorbacks aren’t able to recapture the excellence they played with earlier in the season, there is no doubt another team could enjoy the opportunity of celebrating at Baum-Walker Stadium instead of the Hogs.

The loss to South Carolina on Wednesday went down to the very last out, but Thursday’s game against Kentucky was an odd one.

Razorback left-handed ace Hagen Smith, whose excellence this season has him in the running for the Golden Spikes Award, had a rough outing, lasting only two innings before Van Horn pulled him, saying he thought Smith was “too amped up.”

Two early errors allowed Kentucky to jump out of the gate with a 2-0 lead in the first inning. The Hogs continued to struggle with Gage Wood and Brady Tygart on the mound until Arkansas fell behind 6-0 in the fifth inning.

Mason Molina pitched the final two innings, and Van Horn liked his work. Van Horn credited Tygart with good work until he left an 0-2 pitch straight down the middle, resulting in a big home run for Kentucky.

“We didn’t play a clean game,” Van Horn said “The first inning we got behind early, threw the ball away, and didn’t catch a ball at second, and you know, bang, we gave them two runs. They’re tough to catch because when they get ahead of you, they can do some things.”

The Hogs got back in the game in the sixth by scoring 4 runs. Peyton Holt picked up three of his four RBI with his three-run homer as the Razorback pulled within 6-4 of the Wildcats.

“…I was proud of our team for battling back. Got back in the game with Peyton’s [Holt] swing with two outs, drove in three,” Van Horn said. “All of a sudden, we’re down two.”

However, Kentucky scored three runs in the seventh to take a 9-4 advantage.

“The inning that killed us was probably the bottom of the seventh,” Van Horn said. “Kind of ran the momentum back over to them, and we found ourselves back down by five.”

Jared Sprague-Lott homered in the eighth, and Holt sent his second shot over the fence in the ninth, but it was too little, too late for the Hogs.

Van Horn lamented the fact that his Razorbacks did not come up with the clutch hits needed to have a better showing at Hoover.

“We left a lot of runners on base in the last two days,” Van Horn said. “Really the biggest hit we got was that three-run homer.

“We got a hit here or there or a sac fly (Wednesday), but (Thursday’s) game was, again, in our big inning we needed another hit.”

Van Horn said the focus between now and the beginning of the NCAA Tournament is improvement in all phases.

“We’ve got to get better,” Van Horn said. “That’s what I just told them. We’ve got to get more production up and down the lineup. It’s spotty right now. I think the Guys are trying too hard, trying to do too much instead of just taking what’s given.

“What I’m talking about is maybe a couple of guys going out of the zone, and putting themselves in a bad count. We’ve got to flip that. Take the pitch and work for the next one. Yeah, we have to swing the bats a lot better when we get to the regional.”

While the Hogs were no doubt disappointed in their performance at Hoover, Van Horn said the message to his team is that they are right where they want to be going into NCAA play.

“It’s time to take a step forward,” Van Horn said. “We kind of went backward a couple of weeks ago, sideways. We’ve been up and down. We need to make a move and finish this thing up the right way.”

And the right way for the Razorbacks hopefully ends with a trip to the College World Series.