There are consequences to playing baseball for days on end, well into the wee hours, in stormy weather and chaotic circumstances. Arkansas learned that in the hardest of ways.
The Hogs' unexpectedly brilliant 2017 baseball season came to an agonizing end Monday night, 3-2, the third and last one-run game with the Fayetteville Regional's second seed, Missouri State. Around 18 hours before, amid rain delays and pitching changes en masse, the Hogs had forced the win-or-stay-home finale by riding out an 11-10 storm against the Bears, who managed to win the entire damn regional on the strength of three one-run victories, the first of the walkoff variety against Oklahoma State in the Friday afternoon opener.
The Bears, in short, are incalculably resilient, and worthy of their berth in the Super Regional. Arkansas's offensive engine started to shimmy a bit in the final weeks and especially so in this four-team field, which was surprising because Oral Roberts, along with the aforesaid Bears and Cowboys, didn't exactly come into this postseason with a reputation for having big-game, shutdown arms. This was ostensibly an offense-heavy slate, but even in the seventh and final game of the extended weekend, the Bears and Hogs struggled to reach five combined runs.
What is unfortunate for Arkansas is that the standings will show this was, by percentage, the best of Dave Van Horn's illustrious tenure. And one more win would've matched his 2012 apex of 46 victories, and launched the Hogs into the Supers with momentum. But despite a yeoman pitching effort by Kacey Murphy, starting on consecutive days but sporting vitality and command belying his purported fatigue, and a terrific bullpen effort, the Hogs' only offense Monday came on a Jared Gates line drive homer and a wild pitch two innings later that allowed Gates to scamper home. Regrettably, the runner behind him was stranded 90 feet from a tie ballgame.
As expected, Baum was electric despite the long day and night and morning that the fans had already experienced. The Hogs had seized some serious momentum when Evan Lee fanned the last Bear at 3:10 a.m. on Monday, even if the whole roster was likely exhausted to the point of mild hallucinations. Conditions had calmed and Murphy's effort was one that facilitated budding momentum when the team came to the plate.
The problem, as it was at various times from about mid-April onward, is that the Razorbacks weren't quite getting the same production from their experienced nucleus of Grant Koch, Carson Shaddy and Luke Bonfield. Yes, Chad Spanberger had a boffo SEC tournament and then managed to produce again in the Regional, but on Monday night, getting out of a couple of early deficits hinged on the likes of Gates and Jake Arledge producing big moments, and to be fair, those guys are not quite wired for those. Bonfield struck out in a couple of critical moments through the weekend; Koch had a terrible slump to end his otherwise fine sophomore campaign, and a big passed ball in the 5-4 loss on Saturday that thrust the Hogs into desperation mode.
Those self-inflicted wounds, ultimately, were the ones that cost the team dearly throughout the latter half of the year. The Saturday loss to LSU at Baum was an amalgam of Cannon Chadwick losing control on the mound and gaffes in the field. Similarly, an error by Gates on a routine play in the SEC championship game facilitated the Tigers' three-run burst that carried them to the win. There were a few occasions where the Razorbacks simply faltered in most phases and lost accordingly, but the retrospective on 2017 will reveal this difficult truth: of the Hogs' 19 total losses, 12 of those came by a three-run margin or less.
That would normally be suggestive of bad fielding or bullpen work, but that oversimplifies the issue. Arkansas had a competent bunch of gloves in the field, and some really skilled twirlers on the bump. The margins for mistakes, however, dwindle as the year goes on, the stakes gain gravity, and the pressure ratchets up substantially. When the Hogs needed big outs against Mississippi State and LSU in the conference tourney, they could not get them, and when they had to keep Mizzou State's heaviest hitters from wrecking shop at Baum over the weekend, the failures just barely outweighed the successes.
The draft will again deprive the Hogs of some of their potential top returning talent, but yet again, Van Horn has a nucleus around which to construct another contender. As Andrew Benintendi broke out from a promising but understated freshman season to become a Golden Spikes winner as a sophomore, there is a distinct possibility that someone like Lee, Gates, or Eric Cole will flourish in 2018. The staff will be excellent again with Trevor Stephan likely taking over as the unquestioned Friday night ace. And with another year of Wes Johnson's guidance, the young arms will continue to prosper.
As with the basketball program, which rounded a corner in 2016-17 after a disappointing previous year, only to suffer a stinging curtailment of the postseason, this is one sport where stability and leadership means sustained success is very much attainable.