The challenge of a weekly publication as it pertains to the sporting world is that with the Arkansas Razorbacks baseball team locked in for a fight with Oregon State for the national championship over a three-day span, this column is going to be one of three things by the time it publishes: prescient, misguided or some combination of both.
This is being transmitted to the editor on Tuesday, June 26, a few hours before the Hogs finally take the field at TD Ameritrade Park in Omaha for the first of a possible three-game national title series against the well-stocked Beavers, who had three position players taken in the first round and could've easily had four players going in that coveted earliest round if ace pitcher Luke Heimlich didn't have a well-documented and serious character flag that caused all teams in the MLB to pass on him entirely for the second straight June. By the time you read it, the Hogs will have either fulfilled my risky prophecy below, or they'll have stubbed their toes and I'll look even a little bit more foolish than I typically do.
So here goes: at the risk of being that homer that you all love to hate, and at the risk of going against the bettors' beliefs, I'm proclaiming this the first national title-winning Razorback team — outside of track and field, natch — since Scotty Thurman sank a high-arcing three in Charlotte in 1994. This is a baseball team very much on a mission, and it's almost incomprehensible that the oddsmakers and ESPN pundits seem so enamored with Oregon State in this context:
• Arkansas's opener against Texas was delayed for nearly three hours, and all the Hogs did was march right out and pop the Longhorns between the eyes for six runs when the tarp was finally lifted. Then the Hogs' second game against Texas Tech was pushed back a full day, and that didn't matter much, either, because Arkansas generally dominated that game (a 7-4 final) save for a sketchy ninth-inning. In other words, when the Best-of-Three series with the Beavers was delayed by storms in Omaha, all the commentary from ESPN talking heads suggested that this played into Oregon State's favor as it gave Heimlich another day of rest. Well, the weather has affected every team in Omaha from the get-go, and Heimlich was going to be working on ample rest anyway, so what gives with this concocted advantage? It is this columnist's brazen opinion that the folks in Bristol, Conn., love even a controversial redemption story, which Heimlich's triumph would be, and they believe Arkansas doesn't have the SEC championship cache that really drives ratings.
• The Hogs are the only unbeaten (3-0) team since arriving in the Midwest, despite all this furor over Oregon State, which looked really shaky for about 14 innings in this CWS before unleashing the bats against Washington after a four-plus hour rain delay in that game. They've come by that record honestly, too: The offense tallied a healthy 23 runs over those three games, including four more homers and the starting pitching of Blaine Knight, Kacey Murphy and, yes, Isaiah Campbell was collectively nothing short of fantastic. The bullpen, in fact, has been its usual outstanding self but has actually been responsible for surrendering more runs (seven) than the starters (four) as the Hogs have comfortably won all three games by at least three runs. And for those that would offer that Knight, Murphy and Campbell couldn't record an out in the sixth inning of any start, the fact that the three of them also fired 21 strikeouts and only three walks meant that command and life on the hard stuff was at its apex at the right time of the season. The relievers are helping bring it home, but Knight and Murphy are a formidable 1-2 for Oregon State's vaunted hitters to face, likely better than most Friday-Saturday matchups that the Pac-12 offers.
• Arkansas fans are turning TD Ameritrade into Baum Midwest and that's not surprising — this is a team that attracts 30,000 on a pretty SEC weekend in April or May, so why wouldn't Hog fans, jazzed about seeing a program first, be so enthused? Not to disparage Oregon State's zealous fan base, but let's face it, the trip is shorter for Hog fans and OSU, while unquestionably a national powerhouse, draws barely more than one-third of the Hogs' peak attendance when at home for a big matchup. Some of that's an obvious function of the Beavers' smaller stadium and climate-based challenges, sure, but Arkansans are beating a path to Omaha to outweigh the Beaver contingent. Why is that important? Oh, perhaps because the Hogs went 35-5 at home this year, including 14-1 in SEC play and then 5-1 in the regional and Super Regional matchups. This is a team that thrives on kinetic environs, and accordingly, the Hogs will find the confines to their liking this week.
• Lastly, while Oregon State does have a terrific attack, it boggles the mind why Arkansas's squad — fourth in the country in home runs with 98, balanced against a .302 team batting average and a commendable enough team strikeout-walk ratio (it's basically right at 3:2) — gets overlooked. What this lineup lacks in high draftees it makes up for with a newfound sense of dramatic timing, anchored by sophomore outfielder Dom Fletcher and freshman third baseman Casey Martin, both of whom have shown off a clutch stick in Omaha. Fletcher became the fifth Hog with 10 or more homers this year with a big moon shot against the Gators, and Luke Bonfield could make it six if he drives one this week off the Beaver staff. Arkansas catcher Grant Koch has scuffled a bit and Eric Cole has disappeared at moments, but other than that, this lineup is well charged for the final stretch and completely unintimidated by the Beaver arms, largely because the Hogs have beaten Florida's Brady Singer three times in three starts the past two seasons, and taken considerable shots at other exalted prospects all year long.
This is, let's be blunt, the time for Arkansas to run a championship program out there and for that team to simply embrace the opportunity. This isn't to suggest the Hogs will be perfect, because the margin for error against a team like Oregon State is slim. We'll recap the finals on the Arkansas Blog as the games unfold during the week and next week, the print and online edition will feature a wrapup to a baseball season that, regardless of its ultimate outcome, has been a welcome treat for long-suffering fans. We're predicting that it won't be a runner-up finish here at Pearls, and we'll own it if we misfire. Arkansas 7, Oregon State 5 (Game 1); Arkansas 10, Oregon State 4 (Game 2).