A vintage year: Hogs baseball team cherishes feats despite one that got away

By: Tom Murphy
Published: Sunday, July 1, 2018
Arkansas second baseman Carson Shaddy walks to the dugout during a College World Series championship game against Oregon State on Thursday, June 28, 2018, in Omaha, Neb.
Photo by Ben Goff
Arkansas second baseman Carson Shaddy walks to the dugout during a College World Series championship game against Oregon State on Thursday, June 28, 2018, in Omaha, Neb.

FAYETTEVILLE -- The Arkansas Razorbacks nearly snagged a College World Series championship away from Oregon State last week.

Historians will look at an uncaught foul pop down the right-field line as the moment the championship slipped away in the second game, and that would be accurate. Had any one of three defenders made that catch on a Cadyn Grenier foul pop, the Razorbacks would have celebrated the school's first national championship near their first-base dugout at TD Ameritrade Park in Omaha, Neb.

Instead, the day after the Beavers rallied for a 5-3 victory, the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville had to settle for a runner-up finish, the second in school history and the first since 1979.

"We thought we were going to have a good team," 16th-year Coach Dave Van Horn said after Thursday's 5-0 loss in the winner-take-all championship game. "We knew the SEC was a league that was going to be older, and it was going to be a battle to even win our division or league. But we did feel like we had a chance to play in Omaha."

The Razorbacks and their traveling band of red-clad fans overwhelmed Omaha and nearly overtook an Oregon State team that held nearly every statistical advantage in the matchup.

The Beavers had a better team batting average by more than 20 percentage points, a better team ERA by more than 0.2 runs per game and a better fielding percentage.

Arkansas had a big edge in home runs, but the Hogs hit none in the championship series while the Beavers blasted two.

The Razorbacks got better starting pitching in the first two games, highlighted by Blaine Knight's performance in a 4-1 victory in Game 1. But Oregon State had far superior bullpen work in the first two games, and Kevin Abel didn't need any relief in his two-hitter in the finale of the College World Series.

Arkansas won an SEC West co-championship and knocked out defending national champion Florida during its 3-0 start at the College World Series.

Catch Grant Koch talked about what he'll take away from the season.

"I think it's the team we had and the bond that we created," he said. "It's a bond that's going to go forever, making a run like this on the biggest stage of college baseball with all our fans."

Senior second baseman Carson Shaddy also noted the presence of Hogs fans in Omaha.

"I definitely wish some things had gone our way," Shaddy said. "I'm just so thankful for all the support they've given me in my five years and letting me be very passionate about the Hogs."

Pitching coach Wes Johnson said the deep ride into the College World Series was "great for the state of Arkansas and great for our program, and we're working to get back here next year."

Junior Eric Cole said he wouldn't call the finish frustrating.

"We were in the national championship in a game three, and we were a strike away from winning it, so I mean I can't call it frustrating," Cole said. "Looking back on it there are things we all wish we could change, but it happened. I think everything we look back on from here on out is going to be happy and something we really find special that we're going to take with us for the rest of our lives."

Knight won a school-record 14 games, and Matt Cronin finished with a school-record 14 saves. The Hogs hammered a school-record 98 home runs with five players hitting at least 10.

The Razorbacks finished with 48 wins, three shy of the school record of 51 held by the 1985 and 1987 teams coached by Norm DeBriyn.

"I'm just proud of the way they played," Van Horn said. "Won 48 games playing the schedule we played, one of the top two [strength of schedules] that was played. We won a lot of games, a lot of close games, and we learned how to get here."

The Razorbacks' .296 batting average, 3.55 ERA and .972 fielding percentage did not make the top 10 all-time at Arkansas, and yet the CWS runners-up will be in the conversation as perhaps the best Razorback team ever.

The Arkansas players shared tears and lots of postgame hugs in the locker room shortly after their loss Thursday.

"We played really well all year with the No. 1 or No. 2 strength of schedule in the country," Knight said. "I'm super proud of this team. This team is one of a kind. They'll always be some of my closest friends. I'll remember this ride forever."

There is expected to be substantial turnover on the pitching staff and among the position players, topped by Knight and left-hander Kacey Murphy, starters who are both very likely to sign professional deals.

Among the everyday players, the top two hitters in freshmen Casey Martin (.345) and Heston Kjerstad (.332) return, but the next three -- Shaddy (.330), Cole (.313) and Luke Bonfield (.296) do not.

Among drafted juniors, Cole; catcher Grant Koch, who started 62 of 66 games; and shortstop Jax Biggers (.280), all drafted in the top 10 rounds, are likely to depart.

The Razorbacks might hang on to third starter Isaiah Campbell, who could be at the top of the rotation next season, but key right-handed relievers Barrett Loseke and Jake Reindl have tough decisions to make. Campbell was drafted in the 24th round by the Angels, while Loseke and Reindl were taken with back-to-back picks in the 17th round by the Yankees and Cubs, respectively.

"As of right now, Isaiah's planning on coming back," Van Horn said Friday. "He's got another year for what we call a bargaining power year. He thinks he could move to the top of the rotation.

"With Loseke, I'd say they're going to go in and pay him more than they need to normally in that round, and he deserves it. If he gets what he wants, I think he'll sign.

"I think Jake's on the fence a little bit. Another great student. Loseke's a great student. Jake's real close to getting his degree. He'll probably sit and think about it for the next few days."

Campbell said his class will be able to reflect on turning the program from a losing season in 2016 into a second-place finish two years later.

"Going from the bottom of Arkansas baseball to the top, second place," Campbell said. "I mean we wanted to win it all, but the brotherhood and camaraderie we've gotten the past few years have been awesome."

Razorbacks wrapup

RECORD 48-21

COACH Dave Van Horn (16th year)

ASSISTANT COACHES Wes Johnson, Nate Thompson

STAFF Clay Goodwin, Blaine Kinsley, Craig Parry, Jake Arledge, Colby Suggs, Zach Barr

NOTEWORTHY NCAA runners-up with a 4-2 record at College World Series. ... Eliminated defending national champion Florida in the CWS Bracket 2 finals and went 3-0 to win the bracket. ... Won NCAA Fayetteville Super Regional 2 games to 1 over South Carolina. ... Won NCAA Fayetteville Regional with a 3-0 record vs. Oral Roberts, Southern Mississippi and Dallas Baptist. ... Tied for SEC West championship with Ole Miss.

Top Hogs

Category leaders for the Razorbacks in 2018:

PITCHING

VICTORIES Blaine Knight, 14*

SAVES Matt Cronin, 14*

ERA Barrett Loseke, 2.68

STRIKEOUTS Blaine Knight, 102

INNINGS Blaine Knight, 112 1/3

OPP. BA (STARTER) Kacey Murphy, .227

OPP. BA (RELIEVER) Matt Cronin, .154

OFFENSE

BATTING AVG. Casey Martin, .345

RBI Heston Kjerstad, 58

HITS Eric Cole, 88

RUNS Heston Kjerstad, 65

SLUGGING PCT. Carson Shaddy, .609

ON-BASE PCT. Carson Shaddy, .426

HOME RUNS Cole/Kjerstad, 14

DOUBLES D. Fletcher/Kjerstad, 16

TRIPLES Shaddy, 2

STOLEN BASES Martin, 8 of 9

DEFENSE

FIELDING PCT. Eric Cole, 1.000 School records

Sports on 07/01/2018

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