FAYETTEVILLE – As a No. 5 seed among the eight teams seeded nationally, the 41-17 overall SEC West co-champion Arkansas Razorbacks not only host the double-elimination Fayetteville Regional starting Friday at Baum-Walker Stadium but if they win the Regional will host the winner of the Oxford (Miss.) Regional in the best 2 of 3 Super Regional the following weekend with that Super Regional winner advancing among the elite eight playing for the College World Series national championship in Omaha.
By Nate Allen
Coach Dave Van Horn’s Razorbacks learned Monday with the announcement of college baseball’s 64-team tournament bracket that they open at 1 p.m. Friday against the Central Connecticut State Blue Devils.
CCSU, 30-21, advanced to regionals by winning the Northeast Conference tournament over regular season Northeast Conference champion Bryant.
The second-seeded California Golden Bears, 32-18 and fourth in the Pac 12, and the third-seeded TCU Horned Frogs, 32-26 and a finalist of the Big 12 Tournament losing the championship game to Oklahoma State, play Friday’s winner’s bracket game at 6 p.m.
Saturday’s schedule has a 1 pm. loser’s bracket game and 6 p.m. winner’s bracket game.
As host of the top seed, Van Horn chose the afternoon game time, citing advantages in case rain disrupts the evening game plus getting a night’s rest while Saturday’s opponent plays.
The loser’s bracket final is 1 p.m. Sunday with its survivor playing the lone unbeaten for the championship at 6 p.m. Sunday with a 6 p.m. Monday winner take all game if necessary.
In Oxford, Miss. the hosting top-seeded Ole Miss Rebels, Friday play fourth-seeded Jacksonville State, and No. 2 seeded Illinois plays No. 3 seeded Clemson.
Asked about possibly meeting SEC rival Ole Miss, and bracketed to play SEC rival Georgia in Omaha if both win their regional and super regional, Van Horn replied , “You’re way ahead of me. I haven’t looked that far down the road. I’m just going to try to get through Friday and this regional.”
Arkansas hosts its third consecutive regional losing in 2017 to Missouri State in the championship game and last year winning the Fayetteville Regional and advancing to Omaha for its national runner-up College World finish against Oregon State.
“First off it’s great to be playing at Baum,” Van Horn said. We’ve been on the road for 10 or 11 days (finishing the SEC season two weekends ago at Texas A&M and going straight from College Station, Texas to play three SEC Tournament games last week in Hoover, Ala.) I think the guys are excited about getting back and playing in front of their crowd and sleeping in their own beds. It feels good. It’s always good.”
Surveying the Fayetteville Regional, Van Horn acknowledged he’s got a lot of homework to do regarding CCSU Coach Charley Hicks’ Blue Devils.
“We don’t know a whole lot about Central Connecticut,” Van Horn said. “We will try to find out about them as much as we can. Cal and TCU have always been good in baseball. TCU has been to the World Series a few years back and went like four or five years in a row. It’s going to be a great regional.”
Cal and TCU have the names but Van Horn can recall fourth-seeded Bryant of the Northeast Conference upsetting his top-seeded Razorbacks, 4-1 opening the 2013 Manhattan (Kan.) Regional.
Arkansas came back that regional to beat Wichita State 3-1 and beat Bryant, 12-3 in the loser’s bracket final but paid the price of that opening loss when edged 4-3, by host Kansas State.
“Four seeds, they are dangerous,” Van Horn said. “They come in with nothing to lose, no pressure on them, happy to have the opportunity to play in a regional. Our job as coaches is to make sure our team shows up and takes care of business and plays well. A lot of times these teams will have a really good arm, a first-round player, and you’ve got to make sure you are educated on that as much as you can.”
Nevertheless, Van Horn does consider saving his ace, fourth-year junior right-hander Isaiah Campbell, 10-1, 2.37 earned run average, for a Saturday start against Cal or TCU.
“We’ll look at that,” Van Horn said Monday. “We’re trying to get as much information on Central Connecticut as we can. Are they right, left, switch? Just try to find out about their starting pitching. Obviously we’ve already peeked at their statistics as far as batting averages and home runs ad stuff offensively but we need to dig deeper into a little bit more and then we’ll probably make a decision on that tomorrow.”
Van Horn was asked what can remedy the late season hitting slump of the previously hard-hitting Hogs.
“I think they were a little tired to be honest with you,” Van Horn said. “I felt like our swings were maybe just a little bit slower than normal, a little fatigued. I’m hoping we can talk about it in a week that we’re still playing. We just need to rest a little bit.”
Hard-hitting sophomore shortstop Casey Martin, hitless in Arkansas’ three SEC Tournament games, said it’s not only rest but specifically relaxing.
“We need really to revaluate our hitting approach,” Martin said. “I think sometimes we’re trying to do a little too much. Because “we’re not scoring a lot of runs, not barreling the ball up, we tend to press at the plate. I just think we need to relax, see a little more pitches and we’ll be all right.”