For the first time since the 2015 season, the Arkansas baseball team may find themselves on the road for the first round of NCAA regional play. After faltering at Alabama, this past weekend and a substandard RPI, the possibility that Baum Stadium will be empty in June is very real. That would buck the recent trend of the Razorbacks having a national seed locked up before the conference tournament.
Despite a similar conference record to past years (18-12) and a third place finish overall, the much talked about weak non-conference schedule is costing the Razorbacks respectability points with the computer. The Hogs currently sit at #33 in the final regular season RPI rankings according to NCAA.com. That is much lower than the recent seasons.
But hosting a regional isn’t totally out of reach given the SEC Tournament field is littered with darlings of the RPI computer. The Razorbacks have a first round bye by the virtue of finishing #3 overall in the league standings and will play Alabama, who beat Georgia in the first round, at some point in the late afternoon on a miserable, rainy Wednesday (the estimate as of midday Wednesday was 4:15 pm CT). Sure, Alabama is playing for their baseball lives in what had been a rather blah season until the Razorbacks came to town last weekend. It’s win or “season over” for the Crimson Tide.
But the Razorbacks are plenty motivated, too, after getting embarrassed by a score of 18-5 on Sunday in Tuscaloosa. It was the most runs an Arkansas team had given up since 2005.
“Arkansas is a great team,” Alabama baseball coach Brad Bohannon said after the 5-3 Georgia win on Tuesday. “They didn’t play their best at our place. They’re one of the best teams in the league.”
“You get into the SEC Tournament and the deeper you go, the better the teams are. Everybody you play is going to be really good. Some of the teams have different strengths and weaknesses, but at this point, we just have to go play.”
TIME FOR SEC TOURNAMENT
Yes, losing to Alabama three times in the span of a week would be embarrassing. But how much impact the SEC tournament will have for Arkansas or anyone else in the tournament is debatable. The Hogs may be the only ones jockeying for seeding positions as everyone should already be slotted before the tournament starts on Tuesday. Ole Miss may need a good showing as they are firmly on the bubble but D1Baseball.com had them as a #3 seed at Stanford as of Monday. They have Arkansas as a #2 seed at Stillwater with an Oklahoma State team that has also been faltering as the host.
Around the league, Tennessee and Texas A&M are firm national seed material. Alabama, Kentucky and South Carolina have to win the tournament to get into the NCAAs. Missouri is done and the defending national champs, Mississippi State, are finished since they didn’t qualify for the SEC Tournament. So for all those Hog fans up in arms over the Alabama series and any other loss…at least we aren’t the Bulldogs in 2022.
But every coach internally debates with their staff as to how to approach conference tournament play. What’s the risk-reward for this individual team to try to win this thing? There are pros and cons that are legit considerations where coaches have to gauge the temperature of their team, what it means to the NCAA resume and what will be best to get the team right for the NCAA tournament.
Because, in the end, that is what really matters. Ask a non-Razorback fan and they likely can’t name who won last year’s SEC tournament. Most casual Razorback baseball fans probably can’t even name whom the Hogs beat for the title (Tennessee).
ARKANSAS BASEBALL CURRENT STATE OF AFFAIRS
Last season was a solid example as the Razorbacks rolled through the regular season and the SEC tournament only to end up looking worn down in regional play. The Hogs barely escaped a scrappy Nebraska at Baum Stadium, then fell short of Omaha with two heartbreaking one run losses to a red-hot North Carolina State team. That was also at Baum.
One has to wonder if Arkansas baseball coach Dave Van Horn would have traded the school’s first ever SEC tournament championship for bowing out earlier, resting up and running through regionals to see what happened in Omaha.
After the past weekend’s performance at Tuscaloosa, this team looked rather listless. Perhaps mentally and physically worn down. Mississippi State looked the same last season as they dropped a late series to perennial SEC doormat Missouri, swept a bad Alabama team then was bounced from the SEC tournament going 0-2. Those SEC tournament losses were 13-1 and 12-2.
Then boom…the Bulldogs caught fire and subsequently won the national championship for the first time in the school’s history.
Conversely, this year’s Arkansas baseball team has some issues that an SEC tournament may allow to get right. Pitching has faltered in recent weeks, especially starting pitching. The lineup continues to get juggled while trying to find the right combination to produce big innings. The defense was uncharacteristically porous against Alabama. These are all obvious issues anyone watching the game can see.
RAZORBACKS IN SEC TOURNAMENT
But is a run through the SEC tournament necessary to get things worked out, or would quick 0-2, 1-2 and get back to Fayetteville to heal up, the mind and body, be better? Only Van Horn and his staff know the answer to that and that is why they are in the position they are in and the rest of us do something else for a living. Actual coaches have to go with their gut sometimes as only they know what goes on inside the locker room. As much as the keyboard coaches think they know what’s best for a team, there is so much more going on behind the scenes. What random fans put up on social media is usually just a pulled out of thin air guess as to what’s best. Sometimes on target, sometimes way off base.
Do the pitchers need to get in the bullpen and work out what ails them – which from my vantage point is not being intimate enough with the strike zone?
Would the hitters benefit from getting back in the lab and finding their swings?
Does everyone on the team require some downtime away from a high intensity ballgame to get refreshed?
Or do they need to work all this out on the field of play against quality SEC competition?
Not that DVH would lose a game intentionally. But he may limit pitch counts for some guys. Possibly let catcher Michael Turner DH and rest his legs as he was far more shaky at Alabama than he had been previously this season. Maybe try some different guys to find a dependable right hand bat or reinsert a benched lefty hitters like Jace Bohrofen or Kendall Diggs to face what is surely to be a plethora of lefties in the postseason. Switch hitting Dylan Leach has gotten that shot recently with no production. The other right hand bats on the roster are freshman who haven’t played – touted recruits like Drake Varnado, Max Soliz, Jr., but that’s because they aren’t ready. Those things may not lead to SEC tournament wins but may pay off down the more important road.
RECENT HOG HISTORY
Looking backwards, the 2018 Razorbacks rolled all the way within one out from the national championship after going 2-1 in the SEC tournament. The 2019 Diamond Hogs went 1-2 then qualified for the CWS. The 2017 team went 4-1 losing to LSU in the Championship game then fell short of Omaha losing to Missouri State in the Fayetteville Super Regional.
The point of saying all that baseball is very unpredictable and much like March Madness in basketball, the post season is all about matchups and getting hot at the right time…and, of course, a little bit of luck. Take the past two weeks for Vanderbilt who looked like they were righting the ship by taking 2 of 3 from the Razorbacks in Fayetteville. Then they get swept by LSU in Nashville to finish the regular season. Arkansas swept LSU earlier this season.
Everyone wants to go ahead and hand Tennessee the trophy but history isn’t in their favor. Under the current format, the #1 overall seed hasn’t won the national championship since 1999 (Miami Hurricanes). Vandy went 26-3 in the SEC in 2013, which is better than the Vols’ 2022 run, and failed to even advance to Omaha. Tennessee has definitely stood out as the best team in college baseball thus far but the postseason can get a little wonky. Just ask the 2021 Hogs.
If the Hogs don’t host, that isn’t the end of the world. The comparable 2015 Razorbacks, starring Golden Spikes winner Andrew Benentendi, were 35-22 (17-12 in the SEC) and were sent to Stillwater where they went 3-0 to advance to the Supers. By a stroke of luck, the matchup against national seed Missouri State was held in Fayetteville due to the minor league team they share a stadium with having home games. The Hogs won 2 of 3 and advanced to Omaha.
I wouldn’t count on that scenario in 2022 but if the Razorbacks can win their regional, maybe the opposing regional host gets upset and a Super Regional lands in Fayetteville. But the Hogs have made it to Omaha without a home game in the postseason as evidenced by 1979, 1985, 1987, 1989 and 2009. Alternatively, Baum-Walker Stadium has hosted regional or super regional play in 2006, 2007 and 2017 without the Razorbacks advancing.
WHERE ARKANSAS BASEBALL GOES FROM HERE
Regardless of the upcoming SEC tournament performance, don’t let go of the rope, Hog fans. Mississippi State proved you can lay a huge egg in Hoover and still go on a serious run in the NCAA tournament. But that takes a special team with solid leadership from the coaches and the players as well as finding that spark to kick things into overdrive.
This year’s Razorbacks have a lot to play for. A fifth 40+ win season in a row (excluding the shortened 2020 season due to the pandemic) is in play. Playing on the national stage is great for current players as well as recruiting. An immeasurable amount of branding and marketing come from deep runs in the NCAA tournament. Then there is the internal motivation to rebound from a disappointing finish to the regular season and for some individual players, their lower than expected play either recently or all season.
And it’s not like this is a team full of bum ballplayers. Despite no players named to the first or second All SEC team (Hagan Smith and Brady Tygart were deservedly on the All SEC freshman team), there is a collection of talent good enough to be playing for a divisional crown on the last day of the regular season. That kind of success in the SEC bodes well for tournament baseball. They are tested despite the weak non-conference schedule. Maybe they are saving up recognizable performances for the postseason?
Finishing third in the SEC is nothing to sneeze at and playing someone fresh and new with something on the line besides another SEC team should energize this squad. The talent is there to make a run. The question is if they can find that high level of play to add up some wins.
Improved play by the Hogs may not lead to Omaha. Success can be found in other ways and that is where this team needs to simplify their focus to get back on track. Looking too far down the road and judging a season on Omaha or bust leads to undue pressure and playing tight.
As coachspeak repeatedly quips, the post season is a fresh start. Everyone is 0-0. True, but there are a finite number of teams in the NCAA tournament that can be a serious threat, most cannot. Those that can’t simply do not have enough weapons. And there will be some high end teams that falter. That’s what makes postseason tournaments so much fun.
The Arkansas Razorbacks are one of those teams in the “can” bucket but don’t judge that based on their SEC Tournament results. It’s time to trust the coaches to handle the process and manage the team regardless of what their trip to Hoover ends up being. The pitching rotation, lineup card and in-game management are all designed to get the Hogs’ best foot forward when the NCAA tournament starts.
DVH knows best. And there is no close second.
Feature photo courtesy of Baumology (via Rhett Hutchins)
Brent Birch was a four year letterman under legendary Coach Norm DeBriyn and including the Razorback’s 1990 Southwest Conference Championship team. Birch was also on the first Razorback team to play in the SEC in 1992. He won the Bill Dickey Award in 1993 that was traditionally awarded to the top senior at the University of Arkansas. Birch still ranks in the Razorback’s career top 10 for games started (42) and innings pitched (272.2). He currently is the Executive Director of the Little Rock Technology Park.
More analysis of Arkansas baseball and softball from Mike Irwin here: