How Arkansas Baseball Has Hung With the Nation's Elite and Saved Its Season

Walt Beazley

Despite splitting a pair of mid-week series with Nebraska and UNLV in the last month and nearly falling out of postseason contention, the Razorbacks have gotten back on track of late by taking a pair of series from two of the nation's top clubs.

Dave Van Horn's ballclub earned another home Southeastern Conference series win over the weekend, and again it was over one of the nation's top teams.

A team that was doubted by many entering the season after losing its entire starting pitching staff and several key bats has now reeled off series wins over No. 1 South Carolina and No. 11 Vanderbilt in a matter of weeks.

The 2014 season for this Razorback baseball team hasn't been the smoothest ride, but Arkansas has proven it can hang with the nation's big boys.

At the conclusion of last weekend's series win over the Commodores, Arkansas finished one of the toughest stretches of schedule in the nation, playing a ranked opponent in 14 of 17 games. Nine of which came against top-15 opposition.

For most teams around the country, a stretch of schedule so rigorous would sink a team at a pivotal time in the season. But Van Horn's team has managed to keep its head above water, and hits the homestretch of the schedule looking to make its 12th straight postseason appearance.

There are a number of explanations as to how Arkansas has been able to hold its own against and best some of the nation's top teams, but pitching has been the team's calling card.

Eight times over the Razorbacks gaudy 17-game stretch (and 26 times in 43 games this season) has the pitching staff held opponents to two runs or less. Trey Killian, Jalen Beeks and Chris Oliver all had stellar outings during the stretch, and Arkansas' bullpen has been lights out in relief.

Killian and Beeks have both thrown complete game four-hitters this season against SEC competition, and Oliver has wins over No. 8 LSU, No. 1 South Carolina and No. 11 Vanderbilt. Oliver has won each of his last three starts.

The Razorback bullpen has been phenomenal, also. Northwestern State's run in the sixth inning Wednesday ended a 22 2/3 inning stretch of scoreless work from the relievers.

Hard throwing freshman Zach Jackson, JUCO transfer Jacob Stone and closer Michael Gunn have been staples in the late innings of ballgames. Gunn earned his sixth save Sunday vs. Vanderbilt and lowered his earned run average to 0.40 for the season.

But as great as Arkansas' pitching has been, the Razorback offense has become more consistent over the last month, particularly after Tyler Spoon was bumped up to the leadoff spot and Blake Baxendale moved to the middle of the order as DH.

Baxendale's emergence as a power bat to go alongside Eric Fisher has been key in giving more run support to Arkansas' terrific pitching staff. Fisher has hit a team-high six home runs, and Baxendale has turned in 10 RBI in his 12 SEC contests, including his moonshot grand slam at LSU.

Brian Anderson, Tyler Spoon, Joe Serrano and Andrew Benintendi are the key cogs in the Arkansas lineup. But the offense has solidified and become dangerous since Baxendale and Fisher filled the void in the middle of the order.

What Arkansas has shown over the past month is that it can hang with the nation's best teams, especially at Baum Stadium. But the key to returning to the postseason this year will be finding ways to win away from Fayetteville (we've heard this story before, right?).

The opportunities are there for Arkansas down the stretch with weekend sets at No. 13 Ole Miss, and Missouri to close out the schedule.

The Razorbacks have proven they can play with and even beat the nation's best teams, but their postseason hopes may hinge on simply winning the games they're supposed to.

But if they take care of business, there's no reason to believe Arkansas can't make its 12th straight NCAA Tournament appearance and be considered one of the nation's elite once again.

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