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Diamond Hogs search for consistency



Baseball, for all its puffed-up charm as a piece of Americana, is really a pretty fiendish oddity. At the collegiate level, it's especially true.

One year, offensive production is deemed "too high" so an edict from on high for altered equipment is issued. The next year, teams that were pinging line drives and moon-shot homers are dropping down bad bunts and scrambling for runs. You can't do a lot of projecting with the sport these days, and Arkansas is your archetype.

The Razorbacks made it all the way to the national semifinals last year, despite having a relatively punchless lineup and some spotty fielding. That deep pitching staff they rode to success in Omaha last summer was substantially intact for 2013, so naturally the Hogs got a fat target painted on them early with some preseason No. 1 rankings. And it appeared, after a few weeks of botched grounders and wasted outs, that they were going to revert to last year's form and muddle through the nation's most vicious baseball conference.

Still hard to figure how the Razorbacks will fare long-term, but after two conference weekends we know that they sit 17-7 overall, 4-2 in league play, and emboldened by a three-game sweep of South Carolina in Columbia. That, mind you, is the same Gamecock team that stubbed out Arkansas's fine run last year with two bitterly close victories at the College World Series. And it came on the heels of a wild series loss to Ole Miss, where the Hogs were utterly flat in an opening-game loss, inspired in a Saturday rebound, and ultimately felled by miscues afield in the rubber match.

The Hogs are as mercurial as the sport right now, but the one thing they are doing obscenely well is firing strikes and therefore staying within striking distance in any game. That was what made them the chic pick of many publications this winter, and it has held up despite some missed opportunities in Arizona during a weird four-game whitewashing and a bad loss to Ole Miss in the series finale.

History has suggested that Dave Van Horn teams don't manage moments of lofty expectation very well. When the Hogs scaled their way to an SEC title and a CWS bid in Van Horn's second year, they were memorably cast as the unsung little engine that could and did, and that put them in the crosshairs for 2005. That team still made the NCAA tournament, but floundered to a losing conference record and got ushered out of the national field pretty quickly. The Hogs succeeded mightily in 2007 on the strength of their hitting, but all the talk of a potentially deep tourney run washed away in the regional round in Fayetteville when Oklahoma State rudely killed the vibe.

Those were different days, though. Modifications to bats have made for less engrossing but tighter contests, and the Razorbacks have generally excelled in spite of what damage it has wrought to the team's batting average the past couple of years. Early in 2013, they will still run into outs here and there, and swing a little too freely for the tastes of most purists, but they remain very much in the context of national championship conversation due to that spectacular staff (team ERA is an unheard-of 1.74 after 24 games) Senior Randall Fant has evolved more than anyone, being robbed of a win in the South Carolina finale thanks to shoddy fielding, but clearly building on the terrific work he did in short starts last summer.

And the offense, surprisingly, has been more well rounded than anticipated. The team clip of .286 is modest but encouraging given that five regulars are above .300, and that doesn't include Dominic Ficociello, the consensus best returning hitter who was limited by injury at the start of the year. As he has been nudged back into form, so as not to cause more problems with his nagging oblique, redshirt freshman Tyler Spoon has basically thieved away anchor of status by knocking in 32 runs and smacking a team-leading three homers. Matt Vinson and Joe Serrano have come up with pivotal late-game hits, and Brian Anderson's performance thus far has validated Pearls' admiration of him last year as a versatile bedrock in an unsteady lineup.

The schedule, obviously, doesn't get easier. And as we've seen each year, if the Hogs don't let one bad weekend torpedo the next, they're similarly capable of floundering in an unexpected fashion right on the heels of a magical weekend. Consistency escaped them last year even as they surged to the cusp of low-level immortality; in 2013, with the weight of these projections very much in place, the challenge now is to keep the whole thing on the rails for as long as feasible.

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