COLLEGE WORLD SERIES :

ARKANSAS VS. TEXAS: Complete Hogs set to swing for a title

By: Tom Murphy
Published: Sunday, June 17, 2018
Arkansas coach Dave Van Horn follows batting practice at TD Ameritrade Park in Omaha, Neb., Friday, June 15, 2018. Arkansas plays Texas on Sunday in the NCAA College World Series baseball tournament. (AP Photo/Nati Harnik)
Arkansas coach Dave Van Horn follows batting practice at TD Ameritrade Park in Omaha, Neb., Friday, June 15, 2018. Arkansas plays Texas on Sunday in the NCAA College World Series baseball tournament. (AP Photo/Nati Harnik)

OMAHA, Neb. -- Dave Van Horn has taken seven teams to the College World Series, and they've fit many different descriptions.

He had clubs at Nebraska in 2001 and 2002 that hit .334 and .315, respectively, but didn't have enough pitching depth.

Today’s game

Arkansas vs. Texas

WHAT College World Series

WHEN 1 p.m. Central

WHERE TD Ameritrade Park, Omaha, Neb.

RECORDS Arkansas 44-19, Texas 42-20

SERIES RECORD Texas leads 74-35

STARTING PITCHERS Arkansas RHP Blaine Knight (12-0, 2.84 ERA); Texas RHP Nolan Kingham (7-4, 4.67)

COACHES Dave Van Horn (639-362 in 16th season at Arkansas, 1,224-602 in 30th season overall); David Pierce (81-46 in second season at Texas, 278-154 in seventh season overall)

RADIO Razorback Sports Network. Check local listings.

TV ESPN

SHORT HOPS The winner advances to the 6 p.m. game Tuesday and the loser plays at 1 p.m. Tuesday in an elimination game. … Arkansas beat Texas 13-4 and 7-5 this season on March 13-14 at Baum Stadium. … Kacey Murphy won the first game behind a seven-run third inning, allowing two runs in six innings. … Freshman Caleb Bolden won the second game in relief, throwing three scoreless innings behind Hunter Milligan. … Arkansas 1B Jordan McFarland hasn’t started a game since May 19 at Georgia, as senior Jared Gates has seized the position. However, McFarland has a team-high .571 batting average among players with at least five at-bats against the Longhorns this year, as he went 4 for 7 with 5 RBI.

His teams at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville in 2004, 2009, 2012 and 2015 had defined strengths -- like the 2012 club's 2.83 ERA and the 2009 team's 80 home runs -- and liabilities -- like a .959 fielding percentage in 2004 and a 4.08 ERA in 2015.

Van Horn never has led a team to Omaha like these current Razorbacks (44-19), who open the quest for their first baseball national championship today at 1 p.m. against Texas (42-21).

"This team is more balanced," Van Horn said after Arkansas clinched its spot in Omaha with a 14-4 victory over South Carolina on Monday. "You just hope that your pitchers have a little more in them to finish this thing up and go another time or two. It's a good team. It's got a chance."

The Razorbacks, who joined Florida as the only teams ranked in the top 10 all season, understand the opportunity.

"I'm confident in everything we've got," junior pitcher Kacey Murphy said. "We've got all the right tools to go all the way. We don't expect anything less."

Said senior second baseman Carson Shaddy: "We're going to try to win this thing. We're not content with just making it to Omaha. We have a goal of being national title winners. That's just kind of how we feel right now."

Van Horn said the pressure is off now that they've made it to Omaha.

"The pressure is getting here, and we stepped it up on Monday night like I haven't seen us play in a while," Van Horn said. "That was pretty impressive. If we can find a way to get to that level again, we're going to be a handful."

Former Arkansas coach Norm DeBriyn, who remains very close to the program, said it was a wonder to watch Van Horn assemble this team.

"I've never seen another Arkansas team with the kind of balance they have," DeBriyn said. "I felt that in the fall, which I see a lot of intrasquad games and practices, and I've felt it all the way through today.

"I mean this club has tremendous balance. They've got power, they can hit up and down the lineup, they've got starting pitching, they've got pitching depth, they've got a closer, they can play defense."

Former Arkansas pitcher Scott Tabor, a member of the 1979 team that lost the championship game to California State-Fullerton, has seen the stars align for this team.

"Dave has been building towards this and everything has fallen into place this year," Tabor said. "Blaine Knight could have signed professionally, but he came back for another year. Kacey Murphy has developed into a fantastic No. 2 starter."

The Hogs led the SEC with a .302 batting average in league games and carry a .301 average into Omaha.

Offensively, they've hit a school-record 94 home runs, average 7.2 runs per game and have a robust .397 on-base percentage. Freshmen Casey Martin (.344) and Heston Kjerstad (.340) add a jolt at the top of the order and join Shaddy (.341) at .340 or better, followed by leadoff man Eric Cole (.329), clean-up hitter Luke Bonfield (.307), shortstop Jax Biggers (.287) and center fielder Dominic Fletcher (.282).

Junior Grant Koch, considered one of the best defensive catchers in the game, is hitting .251.

The pitching staff has a 3.55 ERA, which ranks third at the CWS behind Oregon State (3.26) and Florida (3.46). It's anchored by unbeaten right-hander Blaine Knight (12-0, 2.84), who will take the ball today against Texas, and the control artist lefty Murphy (8-5, 3.12). They're backed by a strong bullpen led by sophomore Matt Cronin (2.98 ERA, 12 saves), and right-handers Jake Reindl (3-1, 2.96) and Barrett Loseke (3-2, 3.15).

Their fielding has been up and down, generally solid in their biggest games, and is at .972 overall.

"They just have no weakness," South Carolina Coach Mark Kingston said after the Razorbacks ended his team's season Monday.

The key pieces include holdovers from the 2015 team in Bonfield and Shaddy, contributions from each recruiting class, platoon players like first basemen Jared Gates and Jordan McFarland, and role players like Evan Lee, Hunter Wilson and Jack Kenley.

Second-year pitching coach Wes Johnson and first-year hitting coach Nate Thompson have talked about joining the Arkansas staff because Van Horn knows how to put together winners.

"I mean, he's one of the best in the business for a reason," Thompson said. "It's part of the reason why I wanted to come here and work for him."

Said Johnson: "This guy is the best coach in the country. What he did and how he kept these guys relaxed and loose and playing ball -- the ups and downs we had on the road -- that's just a tribute to him."

Van Horn, never one to dodge a question, took on an inquiry about what it would mean to bring the first baseball national championship to Arkansas.

"It wouldn't be about me," he said. "It would be about all of the players that have come through here. It would be for coach DeBriyn, who coached here when they first joined the Southwest Conference. They had to play at the fairgrounds over here and the powers of the league would come up here and make fun of them and laugh at them with their facilities and he endured all of that.

"It would be big. Real big."

Democrat-Gazette staff writer Bob Holt contributed to this article.

Sports on 06/17/2018

Discussion

Have a comment on this story? Join the discussion or start a new one on the Forums.