One week sure can change a lot. The left-for-dead Arkansas Razorbacks (41-19), who were noticeably limping down the stretch, went on the road and won the Stillwater Regional with a stellar performance in the winner take all final. Strong pitching, web gem worthy defense and timely hitting led to the 7-3 win over Oklahoma State. The regional championship catapulted the Razorbacks into the Super Regional at Chapel Hill where they will take on the national #10 seed North Carolina Tar Heels at the 4,100-seat Boshamer Stadium.
North Carolina (42-20) comes into the Super Regional as one of the hottest teams in the country. Since a sweep at Virginia, the Heels have won 19 or their last 22, including a 4-0 sweep through the ACC Tournament and then a 3-1 run to the regional championship. Second year coach Scott Forbes righted the ship after the Tar Heels dropped 5 consecutive series in the mid year to earn the #10 seed in the NCAA tournament. UNC accumulated wins over Hofstra, Georgia and VCU twice to win their regional. Their lone loss was a 4-3 decision with VCU.
On the year, they own 21 Quad 1 wins which ranks second to Tennessee’s 25. They went 17-14 against NCAA tournament teams. Comparatively, Arkansas went 13-12 against the NCAA tournament worthy teams on their schedule. According to D1baseball.com, the Tar Heels are number 3 in the RPI and the Hogs are #35.
Interestingly, the ACC rode the #1 conference RPI all season but the SEC still has five teams playing while the ACC has four. Tennessee and Texas A&M are at home while Arkansas, Ole Miss and Auburn are on the road. Throw in Oklahoma and Texas who are still alive and soon to be members of the SEC and that makes for a scary good conference.
UNC is Pretty Much Bizarro World Arkansas
The Diamond Heels are traditionally one of the best programs of the 2000s with a very, very similar history as the Razorbacks. They’ve played in nine super regionals since the format was adopted in 1999 and won seven of those to advance to Omaha with 11 overall trips. Arkansas has been to the Super Regionals nine times and advanced six times to the College World Series with 10 overall trips. The Hogs have played in 32 NCAA tournaments while UNC has appeared 34 times. Interestingly, the two schools have only met once and it was at the 1989 College World Series with the Razorbacks winning 7-3 at the old Rosenblatt Stadium. And for one more similar fun fact, the Tar Heels have 10 players on MLB rosters while Arkansas has nine. That could even up if newly signed Dallas Keuchel lands on the Diamondbacks’ 40 man roster following his release by the White Sox.
Given the programs’ similar histories in the last couple decades, it wouldn’t be a stretch to call UNC the Razorbacks of the ACC.
But all that history is really for naught as baseball is played in the here and now. As evidenced by the Razorbacks’ late season swoon and then catching fire in the Stillwater regional, baseball can turn on a dime. An even better case in point was freshman pitcher Hagen Smith going from awful on Saturday’s start against OSU to unhittable to close out the championship game.
Arkansas Baseball Coaching
Both teams are battle tested. Both teams play a mix of younger and older guys who are gelling at the right time. Dave Van Horn gets the edge in head coaching experience as he is in his 20th year in charge of Arkansas baseball, plus five seasons and two trips to Omaha with Nebraska. UNC’s Scott Forbes was a longtime assistant to Tar Heel legend Mike Fox and is in his second season as a head coach with an overall record of 70-47 including this season. DVH’s career record at Arkansas alone is 791-421 and has won 1,376 total games as head coach.
And coaching does matter in big games. A lot. After a cold spell trying to find the right lineup combination and pitching rotation, Van Horn got it clicking in the Stillwater regional. Cayden Wallace in the three hole worked really well this past weekend and seemed to put the rest of the lineup in a solid sequence. Sticking with freshman Peyton Stovall also proved key as he was excellent in the regional. Same with light-hitting Zack Gregory as he made a couple of huge defensive plays in left field that I am not sure another outfielder on the roster besides Braydon Webb could have made. (Gregory’s slip and fall on the line drive Sunday night that led to the Cowboys late rally off Connor Noland was just a tough break.) The Arkansas baseball staff’s decision to have Zack Morris make his first career start, then produce a parade of effective pitchers with Kole Ramage, Zebulon Vermillion and Smith, was as good as gold. Of course, a lot of the credit goes to players as well because when the lights shined the brightest, they handled business.
Razorback Pitching vs North Carolina
Whichever team can perpetuate the momentum off the regional win stands a good chance to get off on the right foot with the early start on Saturday. The Tar Heels and Hogs will be on ESPN with a first pitch of 10 AM CST. I would expect Connor Noland (6-5 in 17 appearances, 4.13 ERA) to get the ball after his quality start against Grand Canyon and the Heels will likely counter with RHP Max Carlson (4-2 in 17 starts, 3.61 ERA) if they follow their normal pitching rotation. UNC will counter with LHP Brandon Schaeffer (7-3 in 20 appearances/17 starts, 3.73 ERA) while Arkansas has a few options. Could rebound with Hagen Smith (6-2, 4.89) after his strong outing in relief coming off a horrific start two days before or Swiss Army knife Will McEntire (1-2, 3.25) who can start or throw in long relief. Game 3 would be whoever is available because neither team has a dependable third starter although DVH may have found one in Morris. Odds are Jaxon Wiggins (6-3, 6.12) reverts to being a bullpen option after a string of poor starts. UNC has used a lefty, Will Sandy (1-0, 2.59 ERA), as an occasional third starter but he didn’t make it out of the second against Georgia in regional play.
UNC uses a bevy of middle relievers and are not afraid to go to the pen quickly. Given Carlson only has 6 decisions in 17 starts as their number one starter should tell you all you need to know. Their closer is RHP David Palermo (2-1, 2.62) who leads the team with 5 saves.
The battle of the bullpens could be key and for the Hogs to advance to the College World Series, setup man Evan Taylor (5-0, 3.38) and closer Brady Tygart (3-4, 3.93, 8 saves) are going to have to find their groove again. Neither has been overly effective lately unlike their dominance the first two thirds of the season. Taylor’s pitches have seemed to flatten out allowing opposing hitters to get the good part of the bat on the ball. Perhaps a bullpen session to find the right arm slot will get him back on track as he seems to have lost his deception.
Tygart doesn’t seem to be in the same attack mode as he was earlier in the season. He’s gone from blowing away hitters with an aggressive mix of darting fastballs and two wicked breaking pitches to going too deep into counts and either walking/hitting batters or hanging the curveball. Hopefully he hasn’t hit the freshman wall and can find the stuff that made him an All-SEC freshman performer. The stuff is there…he just needs to feel and the confidence to reemerge.
I firmly believe Arkansas will not make it to Omaha without those two doing their thing.
Offensively, the two teams matchup similarly in style and production. We’re talking eerily similar:
The stat that jumps off the page for me is the amount of runners left on base for UNC. Hog fans think the Razorbacks don’t get enough hits with men on base but the Heels have stranded nearly 100 more. Oftentimes, teams with high left on base percentage have a less productive bottom portion of the lineup. The boppers do their thing then as the hitting prowess tapers off down the lineup, the production dwindles. UNC’s Mikey Madej (.329, 25 RBI), the regional MVP, is extremely productive in the six spot but their lineup starts to trail off after him. This is where Robert Moore (.228, 8 HR, 42 RBI) could give the Hogs such a boost if he finds a productive streak. Jalen Battles (.293, 10 HR, 43 RBI) has been awesome all season and with Stovall (.275, 20 RBI) finding his swing in Stillwater, the Razorback lineup feels a little deeper. A deeper lineup makes it very difficult to pitch around anyone.
UNC freshman center fielder Vance Honeycutt is a bonafide star in the making and he’s coming in on a tear. For the season, Honeycutt is hitting .292 with 24 HRs, 56 RBIs and has stolen 29-34 bases. Keeping him in check with the power and the wheels will be paramount to the Razorbacks’ success. Hopefully, the Hogs can handle this freshman better than OSU’s polarizing freshman Roc Riggio.
DH Alberto Osuna is only hitting .265 but has some pop with 20 HRs. Same for 3B Mac Horvath who has 18 HRs while hitting just .273. Shortstop Danny Serretti (.365, 10 HR, 54 RBI) is a fantastic player with the bat but struggles afield with a fielding percentage of .938 (to compare, Battles fields at a .966 clip). Keeping the ball in the yard will be important or at least limiting the power display to solo shots will be crucial for the Razorback pitching staff.
Arkansas vs North Carolina: Defense
Arkansas is hands down the better defensive team. The Razorbacks boast a .981 fielding percentage (41 errors) which is 9th in the nation and it was on display in the final win against OSU. When Arkansas has struggled, the defense has played uncharacteristically poor. UNC has kicked it around 60 times for a .974 fielding percentage (75th nationally). The Razorback defense was very solid, sometimes spectacular, in Stillwater. UNC played very good defense in their regional as well, committing only three errors with two coming in the loss to VCU.
Tar Heels’ Ballpark
Boshamer Stadium is a quaint, bowl type ballpark that can handle about 5,000 totally full, standing-room only. The Tar Heels only draw around 2,000’ish on average but I would anticipate a better turnout given what is on the line. They did sell out their final against VCU. Razorback fans will travel too and should be noticeable in a smaller venue. UNC is an impressive 33-6 in games they host since the current format went into place in 1999. But how many times have they played the opener at 11 AM EST on a Saturday? That may keep some of the fans away. Better things to do, I hope.
An underlying factor could be the dimensions of Bryson Field. The ballpark plays pretty regular with 335’ in LF, 370’ in LCF, 400’ in CF and 340’ in RF. But the right centerfield gap is a short 355’ which could allow left handed hitters to sneak a few routine fly balls out of the park in the power alley? Brady Slavens, Michael Turner Peyton Stovall and Robert Moore come to mind. Pull hitters (guys who primarily put the ball in play to the same side of the field they hit from) have to really get on one as their corners are very deep which may lead to more doubles or even triples. For an idea on Baum Walker Stadium at George Cole Field is 320, 375, 400, 365, 320 around from left to right.
Arkansas vs North Carolina: Beyond the Numbers
When teams are evenly matched, the one that is more productive with two outs this weekend should be on their way to Omaha while the other gets ready for summer ball. The clutch factor is huge and both needed it often to advance to the Super Regional round.
Who will be the surprise hero? Because there is always someone who comes out of nowhere with a huge play, huge pitch, huge defensive play.
Which coach will have the right gut instinct to pinch hit, hit and run, make a pitching change that all works out in his team’s favor?
On paper, this series feels like it goes to game three on Monday. DVH has built his program and manages game to game to win a best two of three series and is quite successful at it. Managing the weekend for that format is totally different than a double elimination style bracket like regional play. There is no extra game, loser’s bracket pitching shell game to try and wrangle. Line out your pitching and go get after it. All hands on deck.
Last season, the Hogs didn’t drop a best of three series until the two heartbreaking one-run losses to a red-hot NC State team. That was after dominating the Wolfpack 16-1 in game one. His troops got off to a solid start this season winning six in a row until a road trip to Florida. No sweeps and nip and tuck games throughout, even during the late season struggle, are a testament to the toughness of this team. That’s a veteran presence and leadership by the staff and the players.
Who’s Due vs Tar Heels?
The Razorbacks are facing another storied program that also hasn’t won a national championship despite an incredible amount of modern day success. The Tar Heels were in the 2018 CWS when Arkansas nearly grabbed their first. Either of these teams could make some real noise in Omaha with the right matchups as this past weekend, they both looked as good as anyone still playing.
UNC has the edge in a lot of categories and home field advantage but I can’t imagine their offense being as potent and as hot as Oklahoma State’s was this past weekend. Possible, but unlikely as the Cowboys were record-setting unreal. Arkansas will have to weather the storm when the rallies happen, because they will, and keep within striking distance of the Tar Heels.
The proverbial pressure is on UNC. They are seeded. They are at home. Arkansas seems to be playing with a chip on their shoulder as well given recent gripes by an overly critical subset of the fanbase and media scrutiny via their loss of a national seed opportunity. Plus, the Razorbacks owe the state of North Carolina something after the Wolfpack busted up their dream 2021 season.
The Razorbacks are playing with house money and can let it ride this weekend. I wouldn’t book hotel rooms in Omaha just yet, but the Hogs looked like the team everyone from the media to the fans to probably the coaches expected. UNC comes in playing their best baseball as well, so an epic series should be in the works.
Get to a closeout situation Sunday or Monday with a trip to Omaha on the line and one has to like the Hogs’ chances.
That’s where the DVH factor comes into play, and I sure wouldn’t bet against that.
More on Arkansas baseball here:
Mike Irwin breaks down the state of Arkansas baseball here: