Dave Van Horn was authoring the reclamation story of an era throughout the first half of the 2017 baseball season. LSU rudely rejected an initial manuscript over the weekend, but let's not let one painful weekend blemish what's happened so far for the Diamond Hogs.
After the Tigers stormed back from an 8-1 deficit Saturday night to send a record crowd home surly and stinging from a 10-8 loss, they ended up claiming the rubber match of the three-game set at Baum Stadium on Sunday against a listless Razorback offense. The weekend began promisingly when Blaine Knight fired six shutout innings in a 9-3 win Friday, and Trevor Stephan was nearly as good for the Saturday tilt, but the bullpen — that damning weakness that had only shown minor fissures rather than outright cracks — fell apart late.
Arkansas still finished up the series in a dead heat atop the SEC West with fellow surprise Auburn, at 8-4 in league play, and that 25-8 overall mark is merely one win behind last year's output at season's end. Van Horn's 2016 team will forever rate as a weird aberration in the coach's distinguished tenure: Despite some returning experience in the infield and on the mound, injuries and sporadic offensive production doomed the squad. Those Hogs sat at a still-respectable 26-17 mark with three league series left to play, but they got swept in all of them to finish 26-29, and a rather hideous 7-23 in SEC games. LSU had a memorable rally spurred by a possum on the loose during that fated campaign, and that devious rodent was likely smiling Saturday as Hog reliever Cannon Chadwick lost all semblance of command in the ninth inning and Jax Biggers fired a game-ending throw to first well beyond the target and into the dugout to put the Tigers in front.
Van Horn's teams had — again, excepting last spring's collapse — trended toward resilient. After all, they have reached four College World Series in his 15 years at the helm, and the last three of those (2009, 2012, 2015) went that far despite not winning the division title. Consistency, short of dominance, has been the hallmark of his tenure: The Hogs have never won 20 conference games in a season, and yet until last season, they had also never had any issues blowing past the 30-win mark and into the NCAA Tournament.
This squad looks more the part of an Omaha-bound bunch, what with a muscled lineup featuring far and away the most overall power in the league (45 team home runs leading the pack by a healthy margin) but still showing enough discipline and small-ball ability to not look like one of those mid-2000s groups that former hitting coach Todd Butler guided to unprecedented power and strikeout marks. There's balance in the lineup, with no sure outs in the bunch, and the bench has some pop, too.
In the field, Biggers' gaffe on Saturday notwithstanding, this is one of the finest fielding squads around, not just regionally but on a national scale. As has become typical, they're anchored up the middle with Biggers and veteran Carson Shaddy seeming very comfortable with his transition to second base. Most impressively, though, the outfielders have agility and instincts, and they can run down balls in Baum's wide alleys with relative ease. Grant Koch and veteran Alex Gosser are a productive offensive catching tandem, but they handle the staff beautifully, too.
And about that staff: Knight (5-1) and Stephan (4-2) are a dynamic and overpowering 1-2 punch at the top of the order, but at that point things get decidedly weaker, and that's where this team may find its postseason fate hinged. Josh Alberius hasn't been bad, but as a third starter he's not pitching deep into games, and former starter Dominic Taccolini is far too erratic to reclaim the spot.
That's where Jake Reindl comes in, and why the Sunday loss to LSU may have been of great benefit down the line. With Alberius knocked out early, Reindl came on and was nothing short of brilliant. And after 10 relief appearances, where he's posted a 22-4 strikeout-walk ratio and surrendered only five earned runs in 21 2/3 innings, maybe he's the long-term answer on the Sabbath. He's got exceptional movement but he also harnesses it well, sacrificing speed for control, and he could easily be the long-term solution if he builds off that momentum.
The Hogs have numerous challenges ahead on the schedule, so solidifying that third starter post, and figuring out where the bullpen's magic can source from, is critical for Van Horn and new pitching coach Wes Johnson.