As the Hog pile continued to grow with every elated Razorback, my mind went back to last season when Arkansas punched its ticket to the College World Series against South Carolina in Baum Stadium. Fast forward one year when a very similarly played best of three Super Regional series played out in which the Hogs win game one comfortably behind their ace, struggle on the mound to lose game two, and jump out to an early lead in game three and never look back. Arkansas (46-18) scored 14 runs against Ole Miss (41-27) Monday, the same number of runs it put up against the Gamecocks in game three last year. And in both cases the offensive onslaught provided ease with which fans could sit back and admire another magical season put together by Dave Van Horn and company.
Let me just stop right here and give the little resisted case for why Van Horn should not only be SEC Coach of the Year but National Coach of the Year. Coming off of a CWS final season, Arkansas lost 6 position players, 2 weekend starters including their ace, and all but two major bullpen contributors. One might think it would be at least two years before this team would be able to reach the level of play it took to come within an out of being National Champions. But DVH brought in a nationally ranked recruiting class, called up a couple transfers, and - oh by the way - replaced his pitching coach who went on to the MLB. Then he just went out and won 20 SEC games and made it back to Omaha. He deserves all of the plaques and statues. I’m sure he would settle for a slight pat on the back.
Okay, back to game three. It was about the 5th inning when I realized this was going to be the first time in school history the baseball team would make the CWS in consecutive seasons (for a decade it was only every three years). Cody Scroggins was in his third full inning of relief of Patrick Wicklander who struggled early in his start, prompting Van Horn to give the quick hook for a senior who may be a little more up to the challenge of holding off the potent Rebel offense. Wicklander only gave up a run on two hits, but after hitting a batter, walking the next, and throwing a wild pitch, it was no time to mess around. Scroggins came in and shut down the Rebels over 4.1 shutout innings, striking out 8 with 2 hits and no walks. A very impressive, gutsy performance.
Offensively, there was much to be excited about on a sunny Fayetteville afternoon. The Hogs put up several crooked number innings with 4 runs in the second, 3 in the third, 5 in the sixth, and one apiece in the fourth and fifth innings. More two out hitting helped Arkansas extend a good second inning into a great second inning. After Casey Opitz and Jacob Nesbit hit an RBI single and RBI double, respectively, Trevor Ezell stepped in with two outs and smoked a double to score two more. This gave Arkansas a three run lead and a bit of comfort for Scroggins to pitch with.
Scroggins got the offense back in the dugout in near record speed and the Razorbacks kept the train rolling in the third. Heston Kjerstad delivered his second double of the game, driving in two runs, before being chased home again by yet another Opitz RBI single. Franklin scored on a passed ball in the fourth and Kjerstad hit a ball into orbit in the fifth with the bases empty. 9-1 Hogs.
Then, just when you thought Ole Miss was ready to mount their dramatic comeback (crickets), Scroggins struck out the side and Arkansas loaded the bases with no outs ahead of Dominic Fletcher’s 2-run double. After a sacrifice fly from Kjerstad (his fourth RBI of the game), Opitz slammed a home run of his own and joined Kjerstad with a 3-hit, 4-RBI day.
Jacob Kostyshock and Matt Cronin took care of the final three innings and the game ended on a sharp ground ball to third baseman Jacob Nesbit’s right. As he has done all of his first season, he laid out to glove the ball, gathered himself, and fired the ball across the diamond to record the final out and send Arkansas into a celebratory frenzy all the way to Omaha.
Seeing Fletcher jump high into the air and onto the pile of teammates brought back images of Hunter Wilson last year. Whether it has been images like this, the progression of the Super Regional series, comparisons to last seasons’ offensive production, or literally every television broadcast mentioning the dropped fly ball against Oregon State, this team has had a hard time untethering itself from the 2018 CWS team. Yet here they are, leaving everything from last season behind them, headed back to Omaha for the 6th time under the model of consistency in college baseball and the only person I can ever imagine coaching this program.
Dave Van Horn's message to the team as the OmaHogs are returning to the holy land of college baseball for a 10th time in school history pic.twitter.com/GIZhJJToAg— Pig Trail Nation (@PigTrailNation) June 11, 2019
When you get to the final 8 teams in the country you can’t accurately say you have an easy row to hoe. The closest to that I am comfortable getting is saying ‘I am glad the Hogs are not in the same bracket as Vanderbilt and Mississippi State.’ With that said, Arkansas has its hands full in the first game of the CWS against a very hot and motivated Florida State team playing behind a lot of emotion for their skipper Mike Martin who is retiring after 40 seasons of managing the Seminoles. The other two teams on their side of the bracket are a Michigan team who just knocked off the No. 1 overall seed UCLA, and Texas Tech who Arkansas defeated 7-4 in the CWS last season.