We Arkansas Razorback fans have such a jaded and fatalistic view of the world that this column was both painfully rote and foretold. Within literal inches of being able to author a magical moment that would cement Razorback baseball and Dave Van Horn in championship lore, Arkansas was thrust into a 24-hour horror movie that more or less played out in a fashion we've seen before, be it in the 1969 Game of the Century or the 1998 clash with Tennessee in football, or the 1995 NCAA men's basketball championship game and then a particularly enraging 2017 NCAA second-round game against eventual champion North Carolina.
Arkansas scraped together a win Tuesday after the expected Monday opener against Oregon State, the indisputable class of the Pac-12, was rained out. The Hogs did very little to win that game, which should have been an harbinger of sorts: In a series in which the vaunted Razorback offense squeezed out only seven combined runs and suffered its first shutout in 100 games ranging back to a season ago, a 98-home run powerhouse simply waved futilely, up and down the lineup, at a lot of off-speed stuff that danced inside and outside the strike zone. It wasn't necessarily a function of outright impatience, because the Hogs did work some deep counts against some pitchers who have precise control, and yes the umpiring was a moving target all week, but the Razorbacks were simply inept at the plate: zero homers in three games for a team that blistered a school-record 98 bombs, a mere three extra-base hits (a double in each game, all of which ended up being meaningless), and 38 strikeouts over three games by a lineup that wasn't exactly a bunch of reckless hackers.
In fact, as Oregon State freshman Kevin Abel, fresh off throwing a pile of pitches to fend off Mississippi State several days prior and then throwing 23 more to earn the miracle win on Wednesday night, took the hill again Thursday, it looked like a matchup Arkansas could exploit. Abel had an effective inning of work against the Hogs to earn the relief win as the Razorbacks imploded in the top of the ninth, but it felt like Pat Casey would only be able to rely on this kid for three or four innings while Dave Van Horn would seemingly be able to ride his third starter, a fresh Isaiah Campbell, far longer. The first inning altered that altogether.
Campbell, to be clear, was pretty well locked in, throwing a lot of effortless mid-90s heat and coaxing numerous ground balls. Trouble is, in the first inning, a couple of those grounders snuck by for hits, and the Beavers got a 2-0 lead. As someone who has watched Campbell operate at his best and worst all season, I recognized this was not the best scenario: The Hogs quietly went in the top of the first when they needed to test Abel's moxie, and Campbell let the Beavers put it in play, but on two notable occasions Oregon State's patient and disciplined hitters found a way to move the ball past the first line of defense for key hits.
The game wasn't decided simply because Oregon State won the first round of the bout, though. Rather, in the third inning, the Hogs mounted their charge. Grant Koch, truthfully the only guy in the lineup who seemed to have a plan when he went to the plate, stroked a leadoff double off the left-field fence to get a moribund, heavily depleted Hog crowd back to its feet for a moment. One out later, the Hogs had loaded the bases thanks to a walk and an infield hit.
Abel wasn't fazed. He worked his way through Heston Kjerstad, who frankly looked like a true frosh for the first time in 2018, and then retired Luke Bonfield on a looping flyout to right. Arkansas fans felt the sting: This was the fourth time in the three-game set that, despite being so frustratingly unproductive on the hole, the Razorbacks had left the bases full. This time, with the Hogs trailing in the decisive game, it felt like a much more withering blow to their confidence at the time, and the next two hours validated that. Abel started getting the Hogs to press as the lead ticked upward to 3-0, 4-0, and a bunch of really strong hitters ended up fishing for low 80s changeups that dived into and out of the zone. He was racking up an unprecedented pitch count, but Abel was also not being tested at all, and when OSU added those solitary runs in the middle innings, they might as well have been grand slams rather than routine RBI hits or sacrifice flies, because the Hog offense was so out of rhythm, deflated and impatient that the outcome started looking inevitable very quickly.
And it's unfortunate, because Wes Johnson and Dave Van Horn made a lot of the right moves with the staff. Oregon State's aggregate output of 11 runs over three games was flat-out pedestrian, and save for catcher Adley Rutschman, the sudden and bewildering darling of ESPN's typically skewed commentators, the Beaver lineup wasn't nearly as potent as others might have feared. The hypotheticals were asymmetrical:If you had projected Oregon State to score 11 runs over three games, you would've easily favored the Hogs to claim the crown, right? But the inverse — Arkansas plating a whopping seven runs over the same span and hitting zero out of the yard—would've suggested to you that the Beavers won this series in a routine two-step.
Sadly, it would have been preferable for Hog fans to have lived through the latter: get beat twice, and just get outpitched badly, you can at least stomach the disappointment. But couched between the Hogs' opportunistic win and the Beavers' similarly station-to-station victory in the finale was a moment that has crystallized in Razorback fans' memories for all the wrong reason, the popout that never was, and the dogpile that accordingly never ensued. It was a horrifying moment to see Carson Shaddy make an exuberant but ill-minded bid to catch Cadyn Grenier's prospective foul-out, while right fielder Eric Cole seemed to hustle but tail off on a ball he could've certainly grabbed. Two guys who gave all they had to get this team to the top step before the mountain just collectively misplayed a situation, and something that can only be described as quintessentially Arkansan happened moments later.
It stings. It will for a while. With time, this will be a team that Arkansas fans can reflect upon with so much more fondness for all it accomplished during a furious run to the CWS Finals. But without any varsity football for a few weeks and with that program and both basketball teams expected to struggle, there's a lasting, deep bruise from all of this.