This crow diet I've been on the past few weeks has been utterly satisfying.
Sports columnists become notoriously and uncharacteristically reticent when a drum they've been beating bursts in their faces. Pearls About Swine will not succumb to this tendency: I have been wrong about these baseball Razorbacks, and I draw much delight from my shortsightedness.
Arkansas sits on the precipice of greatness now, having spent the better part of June 2012 defying conventional wisdom and sneering at naysayers who would not even deign to consider them a worthy entrant into the Super Regional round, much less the College World Series. The Hogs are 46-20 after snuffing out South Carolina's ballyhooed 22-game NCAA tourney win streak in a razor's-edge, 2-1 victory Monday night, and riding the raging momentum of having the country's most unflappable collection of pitchers.
If the Hogs' nifty escape from the bear trap at Baylor in the Supers had an ordained, cosmic feel to it, the two games so far at TD AmeriTrade Park in Omaha have shown that the Razorbacks are not simply reliant on good fortune. They dominated one of the tourney's newcomer darlings, Kent State, which then turned around and booted top seed Florida from the tourney in an elimination undercard before the Hogs and Gamecocks battled. And although South Carolina put the clamps on the Arkansas bats with lefty reliever Tyler Webb, the Hogs had done just enough at the plate early to play from ahead the entire night.
Not long ago, Pearls pointed to this team's season-long struggles in one-run games (eight losses, seven in conference play) as a certain impediment to postseason success. If you can't win under fire, you probably can't win your way to the pinnacle, at least in theory. So what has Arkansas done? Only win five one-run contests so far in the NCAA tourney. It seems that weeks upon weeks of cardiac-inducing games in the SEC have paid off, because now when Ryne Stanek, Brandon Moore or Barrett Astin trots out to the mound and someone reaches base, the tension ratchets upward everywhere but on the mound and in the field. The Hogs have committed 79 team errors in 2012, but time and time again in this tournament, these heady pitchers have been backed by uncannily good glove work all around the diamond.
The statistics do not mislead: Since Stanek got bounced from the second game at Baylor, the Hogs have yielded two earned runs in 32 innings of work, and every pitcher has stared down every potent bat on the other team's roster without a hint of flinching. Nolan Sanburn, the Hogs' highest-drafted pitcher, has only accounted for three outs in that entire stretch, and he walked three batters in that stint.
And what to say of these hitters? Well, they're still not shooting line drives all over the park, but the long-lamented failures to manufacture runs have subsided. Arkansas put the leadoff man on base in all of the first four innings against South Carolina, and plated its two runs as a result of that. Against Kent State, the Hogs patiently permitted the Flashes' southpaw starter, David Starn, to deal with his own command issues early. It was a rare exhibition of self-restraint, too, because one thing these Razorbacks have not done consistently is work pitch counts. They've been much more committed to that approach in Nebraska, and it has paid just enough dividends to keep their record spotless.
Best of all, it's plainly evident that this team relishes the constant reminders of its own limitations. As the ESPN tandem of Mike Patrick and Orel Hershiser took turns verbally pleasuring South Carolina, reminding us every 30 seconds that the Cocks' win streak dated back to the founding of this country, the team kept plugging away, certainly not cognizant of what was being said in the broadcast booth. But you have to assume that these kids are taking appropriate cues from their coach: Dave Van Horn is a man of measured demeanor, but he has undoubtedly stoked this fire by playing all the right motivational cards. This is a team that believes in itself and gives nary a damn about what any third-rate yahoo (myself included) might write or say.
It has made for compelling television and social media bursts these past few weeks. The stories about the gasping offensive engine that is the Hogs' lineup have all taken a hard backseat to the real truth, which is that this group's zeal for competition has not once waned through 66 games. Now they just want to play three more, starting Thursday night at 8 p.m. with the possibility of eliminating either Kent or South Carolina en route to the championship round.