Tom Murphy is a reporter for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. A graduate of Louisiana Tech University, he is a member of the Football Writers Association of America, and voter for the Heisman Trophy and AP Top 25 football poll.
NCAA Charlottesville Regional:
Cause to pause reignited Hogs
Arkansas coach Dave Van Horn talks from the dugout during the first inning of a SEC Tournament game against Ole Miss on Wednesday, May 21, 2014 at Hoover Metropolitan Stadium in Hoover, Ala.
CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. -- Arkansas Coach Dave Van Horn knew he had to rally the troops.
His Razorbacks baseball team had just split a doubleheader at home against Auburn, which would finish last in the SEC West, to drop the three-game series April 26.
Arkansas had already won series at Baum Stadium against SEC powers Alabama, South Carolina and Vanderbilt, making the loss to Auburn all the more frustrating. Worse, the Razorbacks were 29-18 overall, 10-11 in the SEC, and seemingly headed in the wrong direction.
At a glance
At Davenport Field Charlottesville, Va.
All times Central
Virginia (44-13) vs. Bucknell (30-19-1), 1 p.m.
Liberty (41-16) vs. Arkansas (38-23), 6 p.m. (ESPNU)
The prospect of not extending their NCAA regional streak to 13 seasons was a reality if they didn't kick it into gear soon. Two of their last three SEC series were on the road, where they hadn't won a series all season.
But Van Horn said that losing the Auburn series might have been an unforeseen blessing.
"Looking back on it, maybe it was a good thing we lost two out of three there. If we weren't going to win the league, maybe it just kind of woke us up. It gave me a chance to talk to the team a little bit more about where we were and what we needed to do."
Van Horn shuffled his lineup -- inserting freshman Clark Eagan at leadoff, moving freshman Andrew Benintendi to the three hole and first baseman Eric Fisher to the No. 5 spot in the order -- and the Razorbacks played through injuries to starting pitcher Jalen Beeks, catcher Jake Wise and designated hitter Blake Baxendale on their way to a 9-3 finish.
The Razorbacks went 5-1 in their final two SEC series against Texas A&M and Missouri and won three games at the SEC Tournament to earn a No. 2 seed in the NCAA regional in Charlottesville, Va.
Arkansas (38-23) takes on No. 3 seed Liberty (41-16) at 6 p.m. today at Davenport Field. Regional host Virginia (44-13), the No. 3 national seed, hosts Bucknell (30-19-1) at 2 p.m. in the double-elimination regional.
The Razorbacks acknowledge their response to losing the Auburn series brought their season back from the brink.
"We might have had a little pressure on us right there, knowing we had to finish up the season strong, because at that time we weren't guaranteed a regional. We weren't guaranteed postseason," pitcher Trey Killian said.
"He pretty much told us we're just going to start a new season right now," second baseman Brian Anderson said. "We're going to start fresh."
A new batting order rejuvenated the Razorbacks.
"As a coach, you know when you write up the lineup and it just doesn't feel right," Van Horn said. "This one kind of feels right, you know?"
Van Horn said he likes that the lineup alternates left-handed batters with right-handed batters from Eagan to Joe Serrano to Andrew Benintendi to Anderson to Fisher to Tyler Spoon.
"It puts a little bit of pressure on the opposing coaches to make a change," Van Horn said. "Are they going to make a change for just one hitter or leave him in for two? It's worked out. Guys have come through with some big hits."
In 12 games since inserting Eagan in the starting lineup before an 11-1 victory at Ole Miss on May 4, the Razorbacks are 9-3 and averaging 5.3 runs per game, all against SEC competition. In the 49 games before that, Arkansas was 29-20 and averaging 5.0 runs per game, with many of the games against lower-level competition.
Arkansas is 10-3 (.769) with Eagan leading off and 28-20 (.583) with Benintendi, Spoon or Serrano leading off.
"It really started hitting me at Missouri," Anderson said. "Every time I came up to the plate he was on base."
Eagan is hitting .311 with a team-leading on-base percentage of .434, with Anderson's .384 second best.
"I've hit leadoff my whole life, so I knew I was comfortable in that role of getting on, getting over and touching home plate," Eagan said. "I hit in the fall, so I knew I was capable of hitting at this level."
Eagan and freshman catcher Alex Gosser, who is batting .273 in just games, have helped spark Arkansas late in the year. Should catcher Jake Wise (hand) and Blake Baxendale (hamstring) be ready to play in Charlottesville, Van Horn will have added options at designated hitter and catcher and pinch-hitting situations.
But Van Horn made it clear he's not messing with a good thing regarding his retooled batting order.
"I'm not going to change our lineup now," he said. "If they're all healthy, I'm going to put Clark Eagan at the top of the lineup."
Sports on 05/30/2014