Jim Harris: Central Arkansas Gets Taste of Rejuvenated Baseball Razorbacks

Sometimes it’s not your weekend in college baseball, as the formerly top-ranked Arkansas Razorbacks learned a couple of times during the first third of this season. But the breaks start evening out, and they did so in a big way at Columbia, S.C., last weekend.

For example, the squeeze play worked to perfection on Saturday in a big 4-2 win that sealed the series for the Razorbacks against the defending national champion runner up South Carolina Gamecocks. The next day, in an extra-inning fight, neither the sacrifice to move a runner into scoring position, or the safety squeeze to get that lead run across, worked in the 11th inning. However, the Gamecocks gave the Hogs another baserunner on a two-out walk to load the bases, leading to a two-run single by Matt Vinson that won the game 5-3.

A three-game sweep of previously No. 6-ranked South Carolina came at the perfect time. In fact, who outside of maybe the Hogs saw this coming, particularly after a lost series at home against Ole Miss?

The concern was whether the Razorbacks might limp home from a tough place to play at 1-5 with West Division foes Mississippi State, LSU, Alabama and Texas A&M still ahead.

Central Arkansas gets its one and only look at Dave Van Horn’s latest squad Wednesday night against Mississippi Valley State of the Southwestern Athletic Conference.

If the Delta Devils can’t put up any more fight than fellow SWAC member Alabama A&M managed in Fayetteville a couple of weeks back (being outscored 33-2 over two games), it won’t be close.

The fans that cram into Dickey-Stephens Park in North Little Rock for the 7:05 p.m. game won’t mind.

Local fans have been treated to some exciting games in the three previous annual visits here. Last May, Louisiana Tech brought out its best pitchers to shut down the Hogs, but the Bulldogs couldn’t slow Matt Reynolds, who had four hits and scored the winning run in a 6-5, 10-inning victory.

Van Horn typically rests his weekend hurlers for the midweek games, but the regular hitters are likely to get their swings in. Plus, Van Horn’s staff has brought in more young pitching talent that will be on display here.

Arkansas’ pitching depth and the Hogs’ performance in reaching the final four of the College World Series are what prompted the experts to tab the Hogs as the preseason No. 1 team. That bull’s eye proved too hard to wear when the Razorbacks ventured to Sunshine, Ariz., for four games, and Arkansas wasn’t up to the task of winning an extra-inning Sunday game with Ole Miss to take that SEC opening series at home.

A 15-3 rout of South Carolina on Friday followed by the clutch wins on Saturday and Sunday indicate that perhaps these Hogs are developing into a potent bunch after all.

After a mostly punchless season that still culminated in Omaha, Arkansas has five hitters topping .300 through the first month. Shortstop Brian Anderson leads the way at .344 and a team-leading six doubles and two triples, followed by outfielder Vinson at .338.

But what Anderson giveth, he sometimes takes away with his spotty play in the field, leading the team with 11 errors in 24 games. It’s a problem area Van Horn and Anderson have to address, and it’s one of the same problems that plagued the Hogs last year in conference play — the defense up the middle. Arkansas’ fielding average is just .961, below its opponents’ .970. Anderson has five more errors than the nearest teammate, Brett McAfee with six, and the Hogs have 38 on the season to opponents’ 27.

Redshirt freshman Tyler Spoon from Van Buren has been the most exciting addition, taking up where the departed Reynolds left off. Spoon is hitting .327 with 32 RBI and a team-leading three home runs — the NCAA has taken the pop out of the bats in the past two years, and though home runs are down, the Hogs still have 12 to opponent’s 4.

Dominic Ficociello started the year injured and has struggled to regain his form in just nine games played, hitting .250. He’s a potential .300-plus hitter.

The Dickey-Stephens won’t see the superb pitching trio of Barrett Astin, Ryan Stanek or Randall Fant, who lived up to expectations and then some last weekend. Going into the series, South Carolina head coach Chad Holbrook deemed them each “Friday night starters,” meaning team aces, and it proved true in Columbia.

Freshman lefty Colin Poche was scheduled to go in Tuesday’s game in Fayetteville against MVSU, with freshman Trey Killian from Mountain Home likely to get the start in North Little Rock. They’ve both shown moments where they could one day be Arkansas ace Friday night starter, just not this year.

UPDATE: Killian pitched two innings Tuesday in the Hogs’ 6-0 win over MVSU in Fayetteville. On Wednesday night, senior lefty Tyler Wright will start for the Razorbacks (18-7). Wright has not allowed a run in five-plus innings of work for the Hogs this season. A limited number of general admission tickets remain for Wednesday’s game. General admission tickets are $12 and include all berms, bleachers and standing room. Tickets can be purchased online at www.travs.com, in person at the Dickey-Stephens Park box office or over the phone at (501) 664-1555.

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