Arkansas bookended its long stay in Hoover, Ala., with two agonizing, close losses. But the Hogs drew plenty of national attention for what they did in three successive wins between those defeats, and by extension, the SEC runner-up is not only hosting a regional again this weekend, but getting some well-merited adulation for sustaining this improbable rebound campaign.
The Hogs for the fourth time made it to the Sunday finale of the conference tourney, and for the fourth time left without a ring. LSU starter Eric Walker, an aggravatingly quick-working righty who evokes Greg Maddux with his pinpoint placement of otherwise undaunting heat, did it to the Razorbacks yet again, shutting down a scalding offense for more than seven innings and then letting closer Hunter Newman turn the ninth inning into a dicey little affair that nearly turned into a tie game when Luke Bonfield smacked a hard grounder to the left side after Chad Spanberger was intentionally walked to load the bases. Fortunately for the ever-charmed and thoroughly entitled Tigers, shortstop Kramer Robertson was playing deep and shaded Bonfield to pull, so he easily scooped the grounder and had just enough time to snuff out the lead runner at third to end it.
The Hogs outhit LSU 7-6 in a game where offense was at a premium, and critically, they twice failed to plate runs with men in scoring position. A big error by Jared Gates on a conventional grounder was the catalyst to the Tigers' decisive three-run fourth inning, and LSU never had to pay for its mistakes. Eric Cole drove in both Hog runs with a long solo homer off Walker early to get Arkansas on the board first, and then he plated the second run with a two-out ninth-inning single through the box, so that's more good news: Once mired in a terrible slump to start his sophomore year, Cole has really turned it on in recent weeks and has his average at a respectable .279 going into the regional, when it was .255 to start the conference tourney.
His bat wasn't the hottest, but in many ways Cole's late flourish means more than the meteoric rise of Spanberger, whose five-homer display in Hoover included three hit in a no-hitter and two more socked in a 16-0 whitewashing of the SEC's alleged best overall team, Florida. Spanberger no doubt became the MVP and the talk of the tournament for what Pantera would've properly characterized as a "vulgar display of power" — his clobbering of baseballs was so prodigious that it yielded comically profane utterances from myself and others who were tuned in. But make no mistake, Cole's quiet resurgence at the top of the order boosts Spanberger's stock, too, and it does not hurt that Dominic Fletcher and Jax Biggers are picking up the back end of the offense, either.
Where this team will thrive in a regional that is unusually clogged with teams within a half-day drive of Fayetteville (No. 4 Oral Roberts will face the host Razorbacks first after Missouri State and Oklahoma State square off) is with its pitchers, though. Dominic Taccolini, mercurial as ever, closed out the LSU game with three of his best innings of work all season and he looks fresh again, capable of being long relief or a spot starter if the team slips into the loser's bracket. Maybe the most encouraging performance of the whole week, though, was lefty Kacey Murphy's lengthy and dominating turn against the Gators. Granted, Florida found itself dead almost out of the gate, giving up eight runs in the first two innings, so Murphy pitched without pressure the entire afternoon. But he was brilliant nonetheless, evoking memories of his near no-hitter against Memphis at Dickey-Stephens Park a few weeks ago.
Kevin Kopps also gave three-plus good innings in the loss to LSU, and even Josh Alberius righted some of his earlier wrongs with quality relief. For all the talk of the Hogs' offensive blowout in Hoover — their three wins carried the combined margin of 37-2 — the real star of the weekend was a beleaguered staff that frankly looked spent as it toiled down the stretch. But Blaine Knight and Trevor Stephan both did their dependable best to keep the Hogs in this essentially meaningless tournament longer than they might have figured after collapsing in the opener against Mississippi State. There was a historic first, the combined no-hitter of Auburn, and then two more commanding starting efforts behind that. The bullpen still had its nagging issues, but on the whole, playing five games in four days against top-caliber hitters and yielding only 10 runs across them all is damned impressive.
Arkansas thus carries a 42-17 overall mark into June, which represents a benchmark for Dave Van Horn, who has never lost fewer than 21 games in a single season and set a personal plateau of 46 wins when his 2012 team got to the precipice of the championship round in Omaha. This is the type of team that, with a clean run through a tough gauntlet in Fayetteville, will be well engineered to get back to Middle America's sanctuary if all these cylinders continue to fire. Best of all, Arkansas gets to start its path there from its most comfortable locus, and with five-digit crowds anticipated at Baum Stadium to urge them onward.