Fayetteville, Ark.– For the third time in four years Arkansas head coach Dave Van Horn has the Razorbacks (42-19) in the Super Regionals.
On Saturday at 4:00 p.m. CST the Hogs will look to advance to the College World Series for the first time since 2009 when they take on the Baylor Bears (48-15) in Waco, Texas.
The Arkansas Razorbacks began the season as a preseason Top 10 team with aspirations for a SEC West divisional title along with a shot to overtake preseason No. 1 Florida for the SEC overall conference title.
Through a late March series with Mississippi State, the Hogs were ranked as high as No. 4 by Collegiate Baseball and No. 3 by Baseball America. Then LSU happened.
The Razorbacks went on the road to face one of the best teams in the nation losing two games by one-run each with the Sunday game going into extra innings (2-1 and 3-2). After facing a sweep on the road to then No. 15 LSU, the Hogs dropped dramatically in the polls, a drop that continued until winning the Rice regional.
The Hogs struggle at the plate coincided with their win-loss record for six of their remaining seven SEC weekend series.
During that stretch the Hogs earned series wins over Georgia, Florida, and Tennessee but lost three games to Kentucky at home, all by one-run, lost another series to Ole Miss (another one-run loss Saturday game, 1-0), was defeated 2 games to one in a series against South Carolina, lost another one-run game to open the Auburn series, and finally closed out strong on the road against Tennessee.
While the Hogs may have disappointed to a certain degree in the win-loss column and collecting division titles during 2012, this gritty team has been close all year.
If the Hogs continue their focus at the plate, play strong defense in the field, and the pitching staff continues their dominate performance on the mound this determined Arkansas team has an excellent chance to advance to the CWS against a Baylor team that has not been tested throughout the season.
Arkansas is led at the plate by junior third baseman Matt Reynolds. Reynolds, an All-SEC performer and third team All-American, led the Hogs in almost every major offensive category throughout the year including homeruns (7), batting average (.343), doubles (20), RBI (42), stolen bases (15), total bases (114), and slugging percentage (.535).
Senior shortstop Tim Carver sets the pace at the top of the order for the Hogs. Carver is tied with Reynolds for the team led in total hits (73), is second on the team with a .307 batting average, and second with 14 stolen bases.
Van Horn looks to play small ball with his lineup. Carver’s ability to get on base and cause problems for opposing pitchers helps the Hogs play the game 90 feet at a time while at the plate. A sacrifice bunt here, a stolen base there, and a base on balls constitutes a Razorback rally.
The leader on the field with his steady play is first baseman Dominic Ficociello. The converted high school shortstop registered 552 putouts with 32 assists while only committing four errors on the season.
Ficociello, a sophomore, is also one of the top hitters on the Hogs lineup. A late season slump has dropped his average from the .330 to .320 range he hit for the majority of the season to .300. He is tied with OF Derrick Bleeker and OF/DH Sam Bates for second on the team with six homeruns and is second on the team with 37 RBI.
The Hogs have a nice receiver set with Jake Wise and John Clay Reeves.
Reeves is hitting .317 in 25 appearances with 17 games started. Wise is the everyday starter with 44 on the season and is hitting .247. Their framing and game calling has greatly affected one of the top pitching staffs in college baseball.
The Hogs have the great fortune of having two aces to roll out for games 1 and 2 of the Waco Super Regional- junior D.J. Baxendale (7-4, 2.83 ERA) and sophomore Ryne Stanek (7-4, 2.83 ERA).
If you blinked you may have thought that you were seeing double or there was a typo between the two right-handed pitcher’s stats; no typo. Their opposing batting average is almost identical as well, Baxendale allows .237 and Stanek has a .239.
Baxendale leads the team in starts (17), innings pitched (92.1), and strikeouts thrown (85).
Baxendale and Stanek have alternated the Friday ace role throughout the season. Baxendale was moved to the Sunday role after the LSU game and found his groove on the mound after a couple of rough March outings.
Stanek was bumped from the Friday spot after a back strain he suffered during theSouth Carolinagame caused him to miss a start against Auburn. Van Horn got a scare when a first inning line drive against Tennessee hit Stanek’s shoulder the following weekend forcing him to immediately leave the game.
Stanek bounced back to take the ball in the SEC Tournament and Houston regional returning to mid-season form.
The Hogs have two potential starters to turn to should the Waco Super Regional extend into a third day with Randall Fant (2-2, 3.26 ERA) and Nolan Sanburn (4-1, 2.58 ERA).
Fant has made 12 starts on the season, third most on the team behind Baxendale and Stanek. In 47 innings he has struck out 34 while walking eight batters.
The Arkansas bullpen is deep and talented. Van Horn can give the ball to Barrett Astin (3-5, 2.22 ERA, 10 saves) as early as the eighth inning if needed. The Razorbacks also have Colby Suggs (6-0, 1.29 ERA) and Cade Lynch (3-1, 2.11 ERA) for middle and set-up relief.
Lynch has experienced complications with migraine headaches since the SEC Tournament spending extra time in Birmingham once the Hogs departed for Fayetteville. On Tuesday Lynch was in Houston seeing a specialist in hopes of resolving his medical issues to be available for Super Regional action.
The Hogs closed regional play with the best team ERA out of the 64-team field posting a 0.33 ERA in 27 innings allowing just one earned run.
The one downfall of the Hogs all season has been their defense. Arkansas has committed 10 more errors than their counterparts (76-66) on the season. Shortstop Tim Carver leads the team with 22 of those 76 errors. Second baseman Bo Bingham is second on the team with 12 errors followed by 10 from Reynolds.
Since the Hogs play small ball instead of trying to outscore their opponents, defense is the key to keeping the score close and allowing the pitching staff to stay in the game. Unforced errors not only take a toll on the team’s mental approach but can wear down pitchers by driving up pitch counts to extra batters.
Baylor hits well as a team (.317) but has not consistently faced a pitching staff as good as the Razorbacks. The Bears pitchers have great stats on paper but are not on par with the arms the Hogs have seen throughout SEC action.
With a little bit of defense and a couple of timely hits, this gritty Arkansas team has a great shot of making it to the College World Series in Omaha.
Saturday 4:00 p.m., ESPNU
Sunday 3:00 p.m., ESPNU
Monday 3:00 p.m., ESPN2
* All times CST