NCAA SUPER REGIONAL SOUTH CAROLINA AT NO. 6 ARKANSAS:

Expected Hogs face surprise foe

By: Tom Murphy
Published: Saturday, June 9, 2018
South Carolina coach Mark Kingston talks to reporters following practice Friday, June 8, 2018, in Fayetteville.
Photo by Ben Goff
South Carolina coach Mark Kingston talks to reporters following practice Friday, June 8, 2018, in Fayetteville.

FAYETTEVILLE -- One team was put together for a power run through the NCAA playoffs and is trying to match those expectations. The other turned its season around in the nick of time, is on fire at the perfect time and has the power of the past on its side.

The No. 6 Arkansas Razorbacks (42-18) take on the plucky South Carolina Gamecocks (36-24), who were 13-11 early this season, this weekend for the right to advance to the College World Series.

Today's first pitch at 5:30 p.m. at Baum Stadium will match unbeaten Arkansas right-hander Blaine Knight (11-0, 2.74 ERA) against South Carolina right-hander Adam Hill (7-5, 3.99).

Arkansas is 32-3 at Baum Stadium and riding a 14-game winning streak at home. The last team to beat the Razorbacks here -- South Carolina -- is the only SEC team to do it this season. The Gamecocks' 3-2 victory on April 12 came when Knight was lifted after four innings and 70 pitches with a 2-1 lead.

University of Arkansas, Fayetteville Coach Dave Van Horn has led six teams to the College World Series, but he knows reaching Omaha is a difficult pursuit.

The Razorbacks caught some breaks, starting with the return of the junior ace Knight and seniors Carson Shaddy, Luke Bonfield and Jared Gates. Those veterans mixed with key position players around the diamond, a second quality starter in lefty Kacey Murphy, and a versatile bullpen to form a strong nucleus.

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No. 6 ARKANSAS BASEBALL

vs. South Carolina

WHEN 5:30 p.m.

WHAT NCAA Super regional

WHERE Baum Stadium

RECORDS South Carolina 36-24; Arkansas 42-18

STARTING PITCHERS South Carolina RHP Adam Hill (7-5, 3.99 ERA); Arkansas RHP Blaine Knight (11-0, 2.74)

SERIES Arkansas leads 40-33

COACHES Mark Kingston (36-24 in 1st year at South Carolina, 309-204-1 in 9th year overall); Dave Van Horn (637-361 in 16th year at Arkansas, 1,222-601 in 30th year overall)

RADIO Razorback Sports Network. Check local listings.

TV ESPN2

SHORT HOPS

Arkansas and South Carolina will meet for their second series of the year. The Razorbacks took the first series 2 games to 1, though the Gamecocks were the only SEC team to beat Arkansas at home with a 3-2 victory on April 12. … The Razorbacks opened 6-0 in SEC play at home before that loss, then won their next eight league games at Baum Stadium. … Arkansas LHP Kacey Murphy (8-4, 2.86) is scheduled to face South Carolina RHP Cody Morris (8-3, 3.68) in Game 2 at 2 p.m. on Sunday. … The first meeting between the teams came in Arkansas’ 1-0 victory on May 31, 1985, at the College World Series. The series is tied 6-6 in postseason games, 4-4 at the SEC Tournament and 2-2 at the College World Series.

UPCOMING SCHEDULE

TODAY South Carolina, 5:30 p.m. (ESPN2)

SUNDAY South Carolina, 2 p.m. (ESPN)

*MONDAY South Carolina, 6 p.m. (ESPN)

*If necessary

Tale of the tape

• A statistical comparison between the South Carolina Gamecocks and the Arkansas Razorbacks heading into today's first game of the best-of-3 NCAA Tournament Super Regional at Baum Stadium in Fayetteville:

OFFENSE

South Carolina;;Arkansas

36-24;Records;42-18

.278;Team BA;.300

.240;Opp. BA;.238

375;Runs scored;424

268;Runs allowed;253

72;HR;90

508;LOB;510

PITCHING

South Carolina;;Arkansas

4.21;Team ERA;3.47

5.71;Opp. ERA;6.92

463;Hits;462

247;Earned runs;202

258;Walks;190

518;Strikeouts;537

52;HR allowed;48

Then freshmen Heston Kjerstad and Casey Martin turned in performances that led to All-SEC recognition, and the Razorbacks were on their way.

"Well, we felt like if we could get a couple of older guys back and mix in some of the younger guys it would definitely give us an opportunity," Van Horn said. "We knew we needed to get better offensively a few years back.

"At the same time, you have to have enough pitching. You don't want to be lopsided. I feel like this is one of the more balanced teams since I've been here, and it all kind of played out throughout the season."

Said right fielder Eric Cole: "I think it takes a lot of pressure off [Van Horn] because we really don't have a question mark at any position right now. We're playing really good baseball."

Murphy said a run to the super regionals was expected.

"We have an older group on the pitching staff, so we know we're going to get a solid outing from every guy that steps out there. And having those two freshmen step up is ... beyond what we expected out of them. That's why we're in the postseason like we are."

Catcher Grant Koch said the events that led to Arkansas hosting a super regional as a top 8 seed for the first time since 2004 is the culmination of many factors.

"It comes from a lot of stuff, even from teams in the past that have set up this foundation and this culture that we have now," Koch said. "Obviously we have older guys like Shaddy and Luke who have gone to Omaha, and they've been with teams that have done it.

"Those are the teams that set the foundation for us this year. Having those older guys, and also the younger guys that are helping us out, really carrying us, it's a really good mix."

Said Martin: "At the end of the day, we came together as a family. More as family than as a team, which really helped us out from the team aspect."

The Gamecocks lost four of their first five SEC series, including two of three at Baum Stadium from April 12-14, and were 6-9 in league play when they lost 7-4 to Presbyterian on April 17.

That was the turning point, Hill said.

"That's when we put our foot down and were like, 'All right, we're better than this,' " Hill said.

That proved to be right.

South Carolina, winners of back-to-back College World Series in 2010-2011, won consecutive SEC series against LSU, Vanderbilt, Ole Miss, Missouri and Texas A&M to close out the regular season and earn a No. 2 seed in a NCAA regional.

"We all knew we could do it," third baseman Jonah Bride said. "We won all those SEC series in a row. We just won a big regional. I just think we're playing at a high level right now, and that's a good thing this late in the season.

"We know we can hang with anybody in the country, and we're just trying to play our best baseball because we're going to have to."

Van Horn said the Gamecocks have been impressive down the stretch.

"They were one of the hottest teams in the league the last month of the season and made a big run," he said. "He has an older group. I think his lineup consists of five seniors right now and a junior shortstop that was drafted, so they've got older kids that knew how to handle it and they kicked it into gear."

Asked what most impressed him about his team after the Gamecocks' 8-4 victory over North Carolina-Wilmington to win the Greenville (N.C.) Regional, first-year Coach Mark Kingston did not mince words.

"The fact they came back from the dead," Kingston said. "I mean, what's better than that? We came to a fork in the road ... and that's well documented. But we're here. For the next 40 years, these kids will remember this.

"They'll remember how low we were, and we really had to circle the wagons and we got here."

Here is an NCAA super regional and a return trip to Baum Stadium. Here is where the Gamecocks were eight weekends ago, facing the Razorbacks after opening the SEC by losing three of their first four series, including a sweep at Georgia.

The Gamecocks also had lost three of four games immediately before facing the Razorbacks. They won a game started by Knight to become one of only three opponents to do that this season. Then they were shut out in both games of a seven-inning doubleheader, 2-0 against Murphy and 3-0 against Isaiah Campbell. Matt Cronin saved both games.

"You'll see a team with more confidence. You'll see a team with a lot accomplished that has won a lot of big games along the way," Kingston said of the Gamecocks. "So we're a better team in every area if you're evaluating right now. That's why I think this is going to be a great series."

Knight said these Razorbacks have been building toward this final run.

"That's what we work for all year long," he said. "That's what I came back for. That's what Shaddy came back for.

"That's what a lot of us want to do this year, and we've put in a lot of work to do it. So it's been a lot of fun, and it's starting to pay off."

Sports on 06/09/2018

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