Diamond Hog Update: Omaha Bound!

This season came with huge expectations. To be SEC West champions. To have a competitive showing for the overall SEC title. To have a guaranteed lock to host a regional in Fayetteville. To be in the conversations to be a National Seed.

None of which happened, obviously.

And yet, none of that really matters, because the Hogs are on their way back to the College World Series after going a combined 5-1 en route to winning the Houston Regional and Waco Super Regional.

When the Hogs played themselves out of a hosting spot with their exceptionally poor showing in the SEC Tourney, there was much speculation as to where the Hogs would get sent for the post-season. Would it be College Station, for a meeting with the other future SEC member? Or would the NCAA send Arkansas to a regional hosted by a non-traditional baseball school, like Oregon or Purdue, to "even out" the field? Instead of either of those options, the Hogs were sent to the familiar confines of Houston to be the #2 seed at Rice's Reckling Park.

After escaping Sam Houston State 5-4 in the opener (with all 4 of those runs being unearned), the Hogs sent host-school Rice to the loser's bracket with a 1-0 gem of a pitchers' duel. Rice would never make it out of the loser's bracket, and the Hogs finished off Sam Houston State 5-1 in the finals to earn a trip to the Supers. Arkansas' pitching in the Houston Regional was nothing short of spectacular. In 3 games, the Hogs' pitching staff gave up only a single earned run.

The Houston Regional was paired with the Waco Regional, where host-school (and #4 National Seed) Baylor dropped the opening game to Oral Roberts. In the event that Baylor didn't make it out of its own regional, the Hogs would be in good shape to host a Super Regional in Fayetteville. It wasn't meant to be, though, as Baylor put together a 4-game win streak to win the Waco Regional and earn a visit from the Razorbacks.

The Arkansas offense has been -ahem- a little shaky all season, which has been mitigated by a strong pitching staff. During the series opener, though, the run-production sputtered, and the Baylor offense went full-on home run derby against the usually solid Razorback staff. With the 8-1 loss, the Hogs' season teetered on the brink.

Facing elimination, the Hogs jumped out to a 3-1 lead after 3 innings. A 3-run 5th inning by Baylor put the Bears up 4-3, and the Arkansas offense disappeared again. At one point, the Baylor pitching staff retired 14 straight Razorback batters between the 3rd and 8th innings. Even with the offense missing in action, the Razorback bullpen kept the Bears within reach during the late innings. Star closer Barrett Astin made a mess out the 8th inning... and managed to clean it up himself. A HBP, a 4-pitch walk, and a botched bunt coverage allowed the Bears to load the bases with no outs. Astin didn't flinch; he struck out the next batter, and got the next to ground into an inning-ending double play (of the 6-4-3 variety, with a ton of credit due to SS Tim Carver for his fielding).

The bottom of the 9th is where things got really interesting, though. Down to their final 3 outs, 3B Matt Reynolds drew a leadoff walk. After a pop-out by 1B Dominic Ficociello, OF Brian Anderson scored a base-hit to put men on 1st and 2nd with 1 out. Bo Bigham's grounder (which very likely would have been a game-ending DP) was booted by the Bears' SS to load the bases. This is the ultimate setup for late-inning heroics: a sac fly ties the game, a base hit likely wins it.

What happened next is one of the most surreal things I've seen in baseball in a long time, and is likely leaving a pair of Baylor pitchers wishing they could have a couple of pitches back. With the bases loaded, and a 2-2 count, the Baylor pitcher plunks Jimmy Bosco to tie the game. Baylor goes for a pitching change to try to get out of the inning... and the next pitcher's first pitch catches C John Clay Reeves on the hip for a walk-off HBP. Hogs win 5-4 on back-to-back HBPs, which is definitely the strangest way I've ever seen the Razorbacks win a baseball game.

With the series momentum firmly in their grasp, the Arkansas pitching dominance returned in the rubber match. Starter Randall Fant and relievers Nolan Sanburn, Brandon Moore, Trent Daniel, and Colby Suggs combined for 5 hits and 8 Ks in a 10-inning shutout of the Bears. Despite the usual "shaky" offense, Arkansas got all the runs they would need in the top of the 10th when Jake Wise, in his first plate appearance of the game, took the first pitch he saw and produced a 2-out RBI single.

This post-season has not been nice to host schools. Virgina, Rice, Purdue, Texas A&M, Miami, and North Carolina didn't even make it out of their own regionals. Out of those schools, only North Carolina actually made it to the championship game; Miami didn't even win a game. Some of the Super Regionals didn't go as planned either. Obviously, Arkansas beat a favored Baylor team. Kent State beat Oregon in the Eugene Super Regional to advance to the CWS. Most significanly, Stony Brook, who was the #4 seed in the Coral Gables Regional, pretty much dominated LSU in the Baton Rouge Super Regional to become the first #4 seed to get a CWS berth since 1999, er, 2008 (when Fresno State won it all).

The Seawolves have really been the story if this post season. In addition to tearing through the Coral Gables Regional and Baton Rouge Super Regional as a #4 seed, the Seawolves won more games than any other team in the NCAA this season, were in the top 10 in quite a few offensive statistics, and had 7 players drafted in MLB draft, so it's safe to say that they're no ordinary #4 seed.

The Hogs start off their CWS run against Kent St. on June 16th. There were times this season when Omaha seemed like nothing more than a pipe dream, but the Razorbacks have proved that they just won't quit.
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