After Arkansas's 2013 baseball campaign fizzled, and then the heavily scrutinized Todd Butler was awarded the Wichita State head coaching gig, it became a little hard to project what the 2014 squad would do.
We're about two-thirds through the regular season, and it remains a chore to try to solve that riddle. The Hogs battered Top 10 LSU on Sunday, 10-4, to salvage the last of the weekend series after two agonizingly close losses at Alex Box Stadium. It gave this puzzling team an equally odd distinction: For the third time in five SEC series, the team that scored the most over the trio of games wasn't the victor in the series. The Hogs bombed the Tigers and earlier did the same to the Florida Gators, but lost two of three to each, while pulling off the reverse feat in beating Alabama twice after losing badly in the Friday night game.
That sort of symbolizes this team, which is hitting only .255 under first-year assistant Tony Vitello but has had a few explosive moments as well. Meanwhile, Dave Jorn had to substantially restructure the pitching staff after numerous stalwarts went on to the pro ranks, but all that turnover hasn't impacted the hurlers' effectiveness: They're still slinging strikes (only 3.1 walks per nine innings) and keeping damage at a minimum (.205 opponent batting average).
The reason the team sits at a modest 7-8 midway through the SEC slate is, as is custom, attributable to the nightmarish strength of the league at large. The Hogs have already taken two of three from South Carolina, the nation's top-ranked team, at home, while respectably battling ranked foes like LSU, Florida and Mississippi State away from Baum Stadium. If anything has been genuinely disappointing so far, it's the team's middling nonconference showing, as the Hogs dropped two to South Alabama early, got tagged with three more losses in another fruitless trip out West, and then split a couple of midweek series against UNLV and Nebraska.
Fortunately, parity is the buzzword in the league this season. The best and worst records in the league's overall slate are only four games apart, and no team is below .500 overall. Arkansas, in fact, is the only team to claim a conference series against surprising West leader Bama, and since the latter half of the docket presents three home series that are all imminently winnable, this may ironically be another one of those seasons where hedged expectations benefit Dave Van Horn's team.
For that to materialize, though, the Hogs have to cut down on fielding miscues — 44 errors so far are the third-highest mark in the conference — and rediscover the base thievery that in recent years served to mitigate the holes in their lineup. With only 29 stolen bases in 36 attempts through 37 games, they aren't fully exploiting the speed that touted freshman outfielder Andrew Benitendi offers, and it's apparent Van Horn is far from comfortable letting other untested players loose. If this were a team that boasted exceptional middle-of-the-order power or an abundance of seasoned clutch hitters, that reserved approach on the basepaths might be more understandable, but only three regular players got significant at-bats in the Hogs' unlikely march to Omaha in 2012, and one of those is light-hitting catcher Jake Wise.
The man who accounted for half of the Sunday afternoon outburst against LSU, Blake Baxendale, may unfairly bear the burden of driving the offense further as the last critical stretch unfolds. Redshirted last year after an elbow injury, the younger brother of former Hog righty D.J. Baxendale isn't deterred from taking big cuts by those deadened bats or the crafty arms that populate the SEC. His mammoth grand slam in the first inning against the Tigers was a preview of the light-tower power he showed throughout his red-letter high school career, but it was his fifth-inning RBI double that may have been the greater indicium of his maturation as a hitter. When the stocky Baxendale smashed one down the left-field line in a game that was tightening up, then came around on Eric Fisher's two-run homer that effectively sealed the win, he looked just like the anchor Van Horn envisioned he would be when signing him out of Bentonville two years before.
Because of the likes of Baxendale and Benitendi, there's a very real chance that this once-erratic array of hitters could become a major asset next spring, particularly if either Joe Serrano or Brian Anderson finds his draft stock unfavorable and elects to return for a senior season. But the rough-and-tumble nature of the Southeastern Conference, and the Hogs' competent if uneven showing so far, mandates that we not yet write off 2014 as nothing more than a retooling year.