When Arkansas gutted out a 3-2 win over Missouri State at Baum Stadium to cap off a sun-soaked, cuticle-clawing Super Regional best-of-three, it sent the Hogs to the College World Series for the fourth time under Dave Van Horn's watch. The 2004, 2009 and 2012 teams all etched themselves in the memory banks for various reasons —the late-inning heroics of the '09 squad were sublime, and in '12, the Hogs found every conceivable way to win tight, low-scoring battles. This bunch has its own sense of history and penchant for drama as well.
Missouri State was far from a slouch (Irwin Fletcher himself wouldn't even characterize the Bears as a "tremendous slouch"), and it showed on Saturday at Baum Stadium. The biggest of the three record crowds that amassed smelled blood after the Hogs pounded the Bears 18-4 on Friday, but fiery MSU southpaw Matt Hall simply wasn't having it. He threw a one-hitter that was arguably one of the most complete pitching efforts seen in the sport all year, brilliantly mixing his diving curveball with a pinpointed fastball. The changing velocities and precise locations were too much for a Razorback lineup that probably grew impatient after being able to thoroughly dismantle the Bears' All-American Jon Harris for nine hits and eight runs the day before.
Hall preyed on that eagerness, working quickly on a sweaty day and striking out eight. A seventh-inning bid to rally got snuffed out rather quickly, and Hall regained composure in the final two frames without incident. To be honest, it didn't bode well for Sunday's finale, but the character of a baseball team is better gauged by what it can extract from a close loss rather than a blowout victory.
That was where Jackson Lowery indisputably did the unsung but perhaps most critical work of the entire weekend. When Keaton McKinney labored through the first few batters Saturday with sketchy command and fell in an early hole, senior righty Lowery demonstrated the same degree of upperclassman composure that he showed against St. John's in the final game of the Stillwater Regional. His 6 2/3 innings of relief were marked by an ability to battle back from unfavorable counts and a proper emphasis on getting his excellent fielders involved in keeping Missouri State at bay. The approach worked like a charm even though he didn't get the kind of offensive support that would've closed down the whole show without the need for the Sunday game.
It was clear that Lowery's performance did energize the Hogs on Sunday. They quickly manufactured three first-inning runs off Jordan Knutson, MoState's quality third starter, and let the saved pitching depth do the remaining work. James Teague provided a nervous but quality four-inning start, Lance Phillips bridged the gap, and Zach Jackson was in full-on flamethrowing mode for the final three-plus stanzas. The Bears' weekend-long offensive inefficiencies ended up coming back to haunt them, because by the time Jackson started overwhelming them with late-inning heat and movement, those lost early opportunities with men in scoring position were coming home to roost.
Arkansas enters the eight-team fray in Omaha on Saturday feeling just as strongly about its chances of triumph there as any other squad, though its overall record of 40-23 is among the more modest in the field. The Hogs still boast Golden Spikes contender and SEC Player of the Year Andrew Benintendi, whose ongoing 2015 fantasy reached a personal zenith Monday evening when the Boston Red Sox picked him seventh overall in the MLB Draft. But Benintendi's scorching midseason surge did make pitchers more cautious once postseason play began (he's still tied for the national lead in homers with 19, but only two of those have come in the last 13 games), so it falls on Tyler Spoon and an array of steady if unassuming bats to help carry the offense.
The pitching doesn't jump off the page: Lowery's seven wins, mostly in relief, lead the entire staff, while most of the other entrants boast one or two double-digit winners with gaudy strikeout and ERA numbers. The Hogs' de facto No. 1 starter is Trey Killian, who struggled so mightily early on that his overall line is a pedestrian 3-4, 4.74 ERA, with 92 hits surrendered in just under 80 innings. But those digits are skewed because of his belated return from elbow soreness to start the year; he's been far more efficient in late April and May, if still prone to an occasional rocky inning. The key is whether freshman McKinney is starting to show too much wear from a long season in which expectations were heaped on him because of Killian's struggles and then Dominic Taccolini's season-ending shoulder and armpit (yes, armpit) pain. He'll get ample recovery time, fortunately, and Lowery's flourishing as an additional back-end option has mitigated many problems.
They'll start the entire 10-day proceedings in the heartland with a 2 p.m. Saturday, June 13, ESPN game against Virginia, which dumped Southern Cal in the regional round, then bested Maryland, which had ousted No. 1 overall seed UCLA in the Supers. The Cavaliers have become a familiar postseason nemesis for this program, but by no means one that intimidates Van Horn's bunch. With half of the Omaha octet coming from the SEC, Arkansas feels it belongs here and that it has a viable shot at coming home with the team's first-ever championship, and considering that the Hogs are 29-11 over their last 40 games, there's credibility for that faith.