Back in February I wrote a column for the special baseball edition of the Arkansas Traveler, a fine student-run newspaper in Fayetteville, and said Razorback baseball would be a mystery in 2015.
Typically, expectations are high for Dave Van Horn's club, but after losing seven pitchers and a number of producers on offense from a year ago, no one really knew what the on-field product would be. Newcomers and previously inexperienced players would have to play a big role.
Early on it was evident the Razorbacks lacked experience and were missing pieces in key places, particularly on the mound. Losing Chris Oliver and Jalen Beeks to the pros and beginning the season with Trey Killian unable to head the pitching staff, Van Horn and pitching coach Dave Jorn were in a predicament.
I once made the joke that Jorn and Van Horn were without a doubt taking whisky shots in the dugout watching the pitching staff hit and walk batter after batter. There's no way around it - Arkansas wasn't a good baseball team at that point, and it started with the pitching. But let's be honest, the offense wasn't helping by stranding 10+ runners on base on the regular.
And in Van Horn and Jorn's best coaching job yet at Arkansas, the two managed to get the pitching mostly figured out, pinpointing who they could and couldn't trust from the early struggles. Pitchers Kyle Pate, Parker Sanburn and others saw early time on the mound, but didn't perform well and were essentially taken out of the equation. Both have potential to help Arkansas out of the bullpen, just not this season.
Then in April, around the same time the pitching came around, Andrew Benintendi and the offense got it going, sending the Razorbacks on a tear. The draft-eligible sophomore has hit at an alarmingly high rate in SEC play, and become one of only a handful of hitters in the nation teams must gameplan for. I've said it for a while – his confidence spills over to the rest of the lineup.
Following a 14-14 February and March, Arkansas got sizzling hot, and became a tough team to beat, and not just a one man show in Benintendi. The Razorbacks finished April with a 13-4 record, including a momentous series win over No. 1 Texas A&M in College Station in emphatic and dramatic fashion.
There's no doubt this baseball team is Benintendi's. He's the leader by example, and the catalyst behind Arkansas' run into the discussion from "will the regional streak continue?" to "will Arkansas host a regional?" He's a National Player of the Year candidate at this point – we can just give him SEC Player of the Year already.
The centerfielder is the only player in the SEC with a batting average over .400, which is absurd. He's reached base in 23 consecutive games, hit safely in 21 of them and has just one strikeout in his last 45 at-bats.
A two-hit game with a stolen base or two is essentially the equivalent of Bobby Portis racking up a double-double in league play last season. It's become so commonplace we don't bat an eye at it anymore. He leads the nation in home runs with 17, too, and has raised his average .92 points since April 2.
But he's not led this turnaround alone.
Like I mentioned before, the offense has really come through, unlike in the early months of the season. Would you believe me if I told you Arkansas is now 5th in the SEC in batting average (.293), 5th in slugging percentage (.445), 4th in on-base percentage (.384), has the fourth fewest strikeouts in the league and is last in sacrifice bunts (17)? Well, it's true.
And overshadowed by Benintendi's spectacular season is the season Tyler Spoon is having. In almost any other year, he'd be the man in the lineup. Spoon's slugging .519 and hitting for a really good .339 average. When is the last time a player with that kind of average has been somewhat an afterthought in a lineup?
The senior leads the team with 16 doubles, has hit five home runs and driven in 43 – just six behind the SEC Player of the Year to-be. He's been an unsung hero in the lineup, somehow, and is quietly having a great final season.
To go along with Spoon and Benintendi is a balanced lineup with five hitters who have knocked in 20+ runs – two of which have 25 RBI. One of the biggest surprises has been Chad Spanberger, who's driven in 21 runs in 27 starts. Senior Joe Serrano has also produced more and stretched his reached base streak to 19 games.
And what's really pushed Arkansas back into regional hosting talks – other than the offense doing its thing – is the pitching staff. Remember, the pitching was so bad in the first month and a half of the season people began writing off the Hogs from the postseason because they had no reason to think otherwise.
Leading the way in the starting rotation is freshman Keaton McKinney, who's been stellar and tallied a 5-1 mark in 13 starts with an ERA just north of 3.00. Not far behind is Dominic Taccolini – 6-2 with a 4.24 ERA. The two have combined for half of the starts on the mound for Arkansas and exceeded many's expectations – including my own.
Zach Jackson, who I imagined would be a staple in the weekend rotation, has excelled in a bullpen role, and leads the club in strikeouts. He's also holding opponents to a .201 average and carries a 4-0 record. He's prone to a rough inning or two every so often, but for the most part has been an arm Van Horn can trust in any situation.
So as Arkansas heads into Georgia this weekend – starting tonight – and the SEC Tournament in a week or so fighting for a shot to host a regional, and you begin to wonder how in the world Van Horn and Jorn turned this thing around, look no further than them piecing together a balanced lineup to surround one of the top players in the nation, and tirelessly working to find a crew of trusty arms.