Matt Jones is the online sports editor for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette and Northwest Arkansas Newspapers.
NCAA Charlottesville Regional:
Hogs can't look past talented Liberty
Liberty coach Jim Toman watches from the dugout during a Feb. 18, 2014 game against Old Dominion.
FAYETTEVILLE Arkansas and Virginia are perennially two of the top programs in two of the nation's best baseball conferences.
As the top two seeds in this weekend's NCAA Charlottesville Regional, the Razorbacks and Cavaliers are expected to meet at some point this weekend, perhaps multiple times. But Arkansas coach Dave Van Horn has a caution for any fans looking ahead to a potential showdown with Virginia: Liberty is good, too.
"I know three weeks ago they were probably on the bubble to host a regional," said Van Horn, whose own team only solidified its position in the regional during the same time frame. "They're a really talented club and have a lot of pitching depth. It's a team that took South Carolina as far as they wanted last year in their regional down there, and knocked off Clemson. This is a team with experience and it's going to be a major challenge for us."
Liberty was college baseball's second-best team from a non-power conference throughout the regular season, second to only national seed Louisiana-Lafayette. The Flames were 38-11 following a weekend sweep of Coastal Carolina on May 11, but lost five of their last eight games, including twice in their final regular season conference series and twice more at the Big South Tournament.
Despite the late season sputter, Liberty still finished with the No. 30 RPI in the NCAA's final rankings and earned the school's first at-large bid ever to the regionals. And despite falling to a No. 3 seed in the regionals, the Flames will play Friday's game an hour from their campus in Lynchburg, Va.
Liberty is coached by Jim Toman, an 18-year assistant coach to Ray Tanner at North Carolina State and South Carolina. Toman, the 2002 national assistant coach of the year, was the Gamecocks' recruiting coordinator and helped assemble much of the core who helped South Carolina to back-to-back national championships before leaving to coach Liberty.
His success coaching pitchers and catchers has continued with the Flames. Much of Liberty's success can be attributed to its pitching staff, which is ranked one spot ahead of Arkansas nationally with a team ERA of 2.62.
Friday's starter, Trey Lambert, has been the team's leader - an 11-game winner with a propensity to last late into games. Lambert won't be starstruck by the SEC's Razorbacks. He beat Clemson in the regional round last season and Liberty has played eight games this year against teams either in the ACC or SEC, winning four times.
"The guy can pitch," Van Horn said. "He's a veteran and he's not going to be intimidated. It's going to be a tough match for us."
Winning the first game will be important for Arkansas. It has been 25 years since the Razorbacks last advanced out of the double-elimination regional round when losing their first game.
Staying in the winner's bracket will be even more important this weekend as Jalen Beeks will be available for only about 50 pitches. Arkansas' 11-1 loss to LSU in last week's SEC Tournament semifinals provided a glimpse of what a worn-down pitching staff can look like matched against a fresh one.
The Razorbacks can also draw from their experience at last year's regional in Manhattan, Kan., when little-known Bryant beat Arkansas 4-1 in the opening game.
"If you don't win game one and your goal is to win the regional, you've got to win four in a row," Van Horn said. "Obviously winning game one is big if your goal is to get out of here and move on to the super regionals, which ours is.
"We'll do whatever we have to do to win that ballgame. We'll throw whoever we need to throw and take it from there."