Dave Van Horn has had some fine baseball squads in his tenure as Arkansas's head coach. He took over for the well-regarded Norm DeBriyn in 2003, had his overachieving bunch in Omaha the next spring, and then took the Diamond Hogs back to college baseball's Valhalla three more times over a seven-season span from 2009 to 2015. But what happened in 2016 might well have proved his genuine value to the athletic program at large.
That squad, fleeced of its most experienced pitching from the tremendously accomplished team the year before, ended up under .500 overall and had an unthinkably bad stretch to end the season. With the program's first-ever Golden Spikes winner, Andrew Benintendi, leaving for MLB riches after 2015, the offense had no catalyst and the staff was bereft of depth. After beating second-ranked Texas A&M on the last day of April to open a pivotal conference series, the Hogs promptly lost their final 12 games and not only fell out of contention for another NCAA tourney berth, but posted the school's worst showing in SEC play (7-23) by a long margin. At times in late May, with the whole campaign sort of drifting away, the fielders got sloppy and lazy and the hitters looked very much like they were checking out for summer vacation.
It was startling to watch. And Van Horn, it seems, was appropriately angered by it all.
The only losing, non-tourney team of his entire 16-year tenure now seems like such a distant memory. In 101 games since, Arkansas has posted 72 wins, the kind of clip that isn't seen often in the rough-and-tumble SEC. The 2017 team battled its way to the conference tournament finals after a stellar second-place finish in the West Division, and the 2018 team, proudly featuring a bunch of seasoned guys who weathered that awful torrent from two years ago, is trying to eclipse that success.
Halfway through an SEC slate that is even nastier than usual — Arkansas's first five conference foes included four Top 15 teams and a South Carolina program that is just a tick or two below the talent level that the Gamecocks have customarily had — the Hogs are a robust, division-leading 10-5. Most impressively, four of those five SEC losses were of the agonizing one-run variety, so this is a team that, with a few less miscues afield and a bit more ability to deliver clutch hits, could easily be 14-1 in league play.
This is against the likes of, mind you, Kentucky, Florida, Ole Miss, Auburn and South Carolina.
Collegiate baseball is a lot harder to project now than most sports because its unusual but effective draft eligibility rules have allowed teams like Arkansas to bolster themselves even after bad years like the one that happened in 2016. Among the Hogs' top hitters this season, you have the likes of Carson Shaddy (nine homers and a robust .368 average, both team-leading stats) and Luke Bonfield, who suffered through that miserable campaign and undoubtedly remember what it felt like to watch the season slip away hopelessly in the final month. Shaddy was also the leading hitter on that squad, and the Fayetteville native has been a steady cog again for a lineup that now has considerably more depth than it did even last fall.
The Hogs' undisputed ace on the hill, Blaine Knight, was a wiry freshman on the 2016 team who made 18 appearances, but only seven starts. Despite all the woes, Knight was one of the steadiest arms in the rotation by the end of the year and ended up being the only Razorback pitcher with more than 20 innings pitched to post a sub-3.00 earned-run average. He has built off that trying season to amass a sterling 14-4 record over the last season and a half, with a 6-0 mark this year and eyes on being a high draftee come June. Behind Knight, Kacey Murphy has been a stellar second starter, and Isaiah Campbell recovered from two bad outings to throw shutout ball against the Gamecocks in the back end of a Saturday doubleheader. Those two were holdovers from the hard-luck '16 bunch, too, and have learned from that negative experience and parlayed it into weekend toughness this year.
The 10 losses on the Hogs' ledger are sort of head-scratchers, of course, because this is a Top 5 team in both talent and performance, but as with most Van Horn teams, the endgame is not some hallowed win total. In fact, last year when the Hogs sustained a painful defeat to Missouri State at Baum Stadium during the regional round, it was evident that this was a motivated crew that would have the chops to compete for a crown in 2018 even without big-swinging first baseman Chad Spanberger or the bedeviling stuff of starter Trevor Stephan, both of whom set out for pro careers after big finishes in their last year on the Hill. Arkansas has accordingly been a more balanced bunch all the way around so far, with a rock-solid .308 team batting mark, 58 team home runs despite nobody yet reaching double figures in that category, and a team ERA of 3.09, which sparkles even more when you throw out an anomaly of a 17-2 loss to Florida.
This is a great team with designs on being genuinely special, cliches and hyperbole be damned. And it has its steady coach and a veteran core to thank, because without the failures of 2016, the successes of 2018 might not be within reach.