Dave Van Horn's mastery has never been truly questioned, but the lost season of 2016 did cause a lot of consternation for diehard Arkansas Razorback baseball fans. How does a seemingly talented squad collapse so hard?
It wasn't just that the team flamed out with a 13-game losing skid to end the year, or that the 7-23 SEC record was the worst a Van Horn-coached team had posted by a full six games. There was a sense during those May sweeps that some players were mailing it in — we won't use the dreaded "q"-word — once the postseason dreams had died.
For this reason, what the coaching staff has done in 2017 constitutes a minor miracle and it likely represents the best work of Van Horn's accomplished tenure. After whitewashing Texas A&M 8-0 on Saturday in College Station, the Hogs coast into the SEC Tournament with a 39-15 overall mark that rates as second-best among league teams, and the 18-11 conference record slots them in fourth for the tourney in Hoover, Ala., which regrettably and historically is not the program's favorite place. But you would be foolish to overlook the Hogs in this field for a lot of reasons.
After the Razorbacks' 2016 campaign featured six series in which they were swept, that didn't happen once this spring. Ole Miss came closest to the feat, trying to steal three at Baum when the Hogs were slightly reeling, but a comeback in the finale salvaged one and likely steadied the team over the balance of the slate. One potential series win was lost to weather when the Hogs forged a two-game split with Tennessee but they claimed two of three against the Aggies and a fairly strong Vanderbilt squad.
This is a team built on muscle and aggression, which is a bit of a risk as you venture closer to June and teams are putting their best arms on the bump, but there's no doubting that the power nucleus of Chad Spanberger, Grant Koch and Dominic Fletcher can carry the team if contact is being made consistently. On the pitching side of things, despite some lulls in May, Blaine Knight's six-inning turn in the series clincher against the Aggies proved he is still the prohibitive ace of a staff that has overcome the losses of Keaton McKinney and Isaiah Campbell to grind out all those wins by simply outworking their foes. The Hog hurlers are just four whiffs shy of leading the league in that category, which is suggestive of the fearlessness that new pitching coach Wes Johnson has instilled in the likes of Knight, Trevor Stephan and spot starter Kacey Murphy. Behind them is a defense that has some soft spots (Carson Shaddy's move to second base has been an adventure) but still committed the third-fewest errors in the league, with a respectable 43 boots over 55 games.
And that's sort of how this team has gotten to this point: You don't look at the lineup or the rotation and find yourself awestruck, but the whole group is fairly reliable and cohesive, which is a welcome sight following last season's disappointment. Knight leads the team with seven wins, but that barely registers him among the Top 10 in the SEC. Shortstop Jax Biggers is the only hitter among the Top 20 in batting average, but six others in the lineup are hitting between .287 and .303, and even Eric Cole has surged late in the year after a fairly terrible first month. The Hogs are not adept at stealing bases (24 in 39 attempts, ranking next to last among SEC teams), which might suggest they're laden with bulky base-cloggers, but they've also hit into the fewest double plays.
In short, it's the kind of team that does not beat itself, which bodes well for what hopefully will be a lengthy run into June. Van Horn probably did not figure this team had a legitimate shot at being his fifth in 15 years at the helm to reach Omaha, but the reality is that this is one of his deepest and most disciplined teams. It has been uttered by commentators much of the year: There are no holes in the batting order, and the pitching staff is rich with live arms, particularly now that Dominic Taccolini has possibly rediscovered his command. There's no singular, Andrew Benintendi- or Dallas Keuchel-level talent in place, but that almost makes this team more dangerous to an outsider that might find itself in Fayetteville for a potential regional there. If Arkansas hosts and gets immediate momentum, then this could be a longer and more entertaining ride than anyone anticipated three months ago.
Obviously, though, Van Horn has had to watch some of his perceived best teams falter before. The 2007 squad fizzled after winning the West, and his 2013 team stalled in the regional as well after getting a bad draw despite sporting the same 18-11 SEC record that this crew has authored. One of the attributes that has made him supremely successful during his time in Fayetteville has been his ability to coax the best efforts from his players after Memorial Day. His 46 wins in 2012, when the team effectively finished third in the country after a charmed run to the College World Series, was the most he has had in a single season as head Hog; that mark could be in jeopardy given how resilient and deep the 2017 version appears to be.