The finale of Peyton Stovall’s freshman season at Arkansas isn’t yet written. But, man, is this last chapter of Volume I turning out to be something else so far. In the Razorbacks’ College World Series opener vs Stanford on Saturday, Stovall knocked in four RBIs and went into Matrix mode with his fielding from first base, getting two outs on separate superbly athletic plays. In the first, he stretched out horizontally while somehow keeping his foot on base (although the ESPN broadcasters disagreed).
In the next web gem, it looked like Stovall might have decided to audition for Eric Musselman’s Arkansas basketball squad as he skied perhaps three feet in the air to snag an incoming missile from Robert Moore:
What makes this even more impressive is that first base isn’t projected to be Stovall’s long-term position. Next season, he may replace Moore at second next season or Jalen Battles at shortstop.
No one questioned Stovall’s abilities. His high school successes caught scouts’ eyes early, and Arkansas certainly considers itself lucky to have secured his services for two more years. Stovall’s first year on the Hill blended flashes of brilliance with sporadic struggles. What looks like a modest slash (.286 BA/.375 OBP/.411 SLG) might surprise at first glance.
But Stovall’s 2022 season mirrors that of his whole team. The lulls of a long season led to some rough spots, especially near the end of the regular campaign.
He’s been a different, far more potent player in June. Indeed, coming into the World Series, he was among the nation’s top five hottest hitters in the postseason. That, as much as anything else, put the Hogs in Omaha after two tight contests in Chapel Hill.
Adapting to the Corner
The most surprising development, perhaps, for Stovall isn’t the one he’s authored at the plate.
Dave Van Horn saw a different opportunity for Stovall in the field in 2022, though. Brady Slavens’ return meant the Hogs entered the year with seemingly the deadliest infield in college baseball (Slavens, Bob Moore and Jalen Battles up the middle and Caden Wallace manning third).
Hog fans who’ve observed this season know that Moore and Slavens both battled through the year to still produce despite scuffling. Battles and Wallace did their jobs offensively, but combined to log 18 errors.
Slavens, though, spent some time in the outfield, and Stovall spelled him. Then Slavens made a couple of key errors against Vanderbilt and Alabama and Van Horn went back to Stovall at first.
The move paid off. Stovall highlighted the win over UNC with a first-inning 3-6-3 double play that buoyed starter Will McEntire and deflated Heel fans. He’d deftly handle a foul pop up with two outs in the sixth to briefly preserve McEntire’s 2-0 lead, too.
Those defensive exploits obviously don’t sum up Stovall’s progression. But being an unexpected linchpin at a new position (.995 FA, only two errors in nearly 400 total chances, and those CWS SportsCenter Top 10-worthy highlights) shows that Stovall is no ordinary baseball talent.
“Player Development” Personified
When Stovall decided to play college ball, he noted Arkansas’s player development reputation sold him. A few months thereafter, he became an example of what he meant.
Stovall didn’t show out in SEC play. In 21 starts, he batted only .218 with eight RBIs.
But that honestly did not measure his contributions. He took over for Slavens at first most weekends, still managed a clutch hit every now and then, and didn’t look overmatched.
In fact, just one series—an 0-for-13 weekend against Mississippi State—really dragged his numbers down. Stovall didn’t mope or appear frustrated, another sign of his uncanny composure.
He didn’t flinch when things got tough at the plate. At Alabama in the season-ending series, Stovall launched a big two-run homer to key a 7-3 victory.
The Hogs wiped the slate clean after an ugly finish and 0-2 showing in Hoover. And nobody typified that more than Stovall.
In his first six NCAA tournament games, he was 12-for-24 with the longest, loudest hit thus far. His ninth-inning single Sunday against the Heels proved more pivotal, and Slavens plated Stovall with the walk-off run. In a matter of two weeks, Stovall pushed his average upward by 35 points. He delivered big hit after big hit, and struck out only five times in the tourney.
Stats Never Tell the Full Story
You could try to summarize Stovall’s freshman year with numbers alone, and it would be deceiving.
The ordinary power metrics (five homers, seven doubles, 21 RBIs) don’t really do him justice. And in a game where honors are largely bestowed on stat-column fillers, Stovall won’t likely win SEC Freshman of the Year as some projected.
He also won’t likely complain. He’s the standout freshman hitter on one of eight historically sound programs that will compete for a national title this week.
He’s also been a major part of that, meshing well with veterans and calmly having great at-bats at the hardest time of the year to do so. If the Hogs wind up making it to the finals, their young first baseman (who might be back to shortstop come fall) will have to play a big role.
A photograph that might have been viewed by teetotalers as a bit embarrassing made the rounds of Arkansas baseball Twitter on Saturday. It showed how many Jell-O shots fans of the various teams at the College World Series had downed at Rocco’s, a pizza joint next to Charles Schwab Field in Omaha, Nebraska. The picture showed that Arkansas baseball fans, well… you know what. Just look at it:
That’s, uh, well, that’s a lot of booze.
In fact, it’s almost as impressive as the day the Diamond Hogs had at the plate in the first round against Stanford.
Arkansas racked up 21 hits in blasting Stanford in the opening round of the CWS, 17-2. The Razorbacks’ win meant that in the first three games in Omaha, the seeded teams were beaten by the unseeded after Oklahoma beat No. 5 Texas A&M and Notre Dame beat No. 9 Texas on Friday.
It was an historic output that included:
– Largest win by an SEC team at the CWS
– First team since 1988 (Arizona State) to win by at least 15 runs
– Most hits in a game at The Chuck
– Arkansas’ most runs and hits in a CWS game
The day was as fun as the Jell-O would have been. And the victory was just as lopsided. Every single Arkansas starter had at least two hits. Seven of them had RBIs. Seven of them had runs. Arkansas’ run output was the second highest it had had all season. The only team to give up more runs against the Diamond Hogs? Lowly Central Arkansas, which Arkansas beat, 21-9, back on April 5.
The next time UCA and the Razorbacks met, Arkansas needed extra innings to pull off a 2-1 win.
Why mention that? Because as great as Saturday was – and, buddy, was it ever if you are an Arkansas fan – the CWS is far from over. The notion that was also seen on Twitter – that the Razorbacks should have saved some of those runs for other games – is, of course, stupid. Baseball doesn’t work that way.
Regardless, Arkansas baseball coach Dave Van Horn has to be feeling good even independent the ridiculous run total.
The fifth-year senior worked 7 2/3 innings of six-hit ball. What’s more important is that he threw just 79 pitches. It means he won’t be totally exhausted if Van Horn needs to lean on his ace later in the series. And let’s be honest, he will. Van Horn has always been one to throw his best pitchers whenever he needs them (see: Kopps, Kevin last year and McKinney, Keaton back in 2015).
Arkansas’ win Saturday was the best of both worlds. The lineup, which had been hit-and-miss for much of the year, was, obviously, on and the pitching staff, which had been the team’s strength all season, did everything it needed to stay fresh through the long tournament. Kole Ramage and Zebulon Vermillion, both of whom are also fifth-year seniors, worked the final 1 1/3 for the Razorbacks and threw just seven and 11 pitches, respectively.
In other words, Noland isn’t available on Monday barring an emergency, but literally every other pitcher on the Arkansas roster will be. Then, depending on how that day works out, Noland is back in the fold for the following game.
Everything is coming up Milhouse.
Arkansas vs Ole Miss
Arkansas will have no fear on Monday, either, when they take on Ole Miss at 6 pm as the “home” team. In the regular season, the Razorbacks beat Ole Miss in a two out of three times, each of which were low-scoring affairs at Baum-Walker Stadium. The Razorbacks finished ahead of both Ole Miss, and the Auburn squad they defeated 5-1 on Saturday night, in the SEC West standings during the regular season. Throw in the experience of Van Horn in Omaha, and Arkansas will probably be favored to win.
It be by too much, though.
Consider “Ole Miss enters Monday’s matchup as arguably the hottest team in the country, ” as HawgBeat’s Andrew Hutchinson writes. “Since going one-and-done in the SEC Tournament and sneaking to the field as one of the last four teams in, the Rebels have won all six of their NCAA Tournament games.”
Consider, too, what happened to the Hogs last year. The loss in the three-game set to North Carolina State in the Super Regionals last year remains in the players’ heads. Not in a bad way, but in a motivational one. That plus the drama surrounding the Michael Turner/Derek Ruscin saga means Arkansas is 100 percent a team that wants something to prove.
That’s a bit overrated, though. External motivation is only a thing among us commoners. You’re kidding yourself if you don’t think the Razorbacks – or any college athlete – isn’t giving their all each and every time out, anyway. Ultimately, intrinsic motivation is of little consequence. Talent and coaching wins ball games.
And that’s something Arkansas has in spades. Or Jell-O shots.
Arkansas Baseball Excerpts
From the postgame press conference:
Connor Noland on Razorback fans: “I think we’ve got the best fans in the nation. I mean, we show out well in Omaha and I think their presence here today was felt. They were loud. I could hear them, for sure. So, I think the other team could hear them too.”
Dave Van Horn: “I thought we played just a fantastic game. I mean, it started on the mound with pitching, just outstanding. A lot of strikes, defense behind him was outstanding, as well. Turned a couple double plays, made all the plays that, pretty much, you expect our team to make and maybe a couple you didn’t expect. We did a great job and then offensively swung the bat extremely well up and down the lineup, got production one through nine. I think everybody might have had a hit today or couple and just played a really good ball game.”
Connor Noland: “I knew they were going to swing the bat. They’re an aggressive team. They like to put the ball in play. So, we had the wind blowing in, I get a lot of ground balls, normally. So, I just stuck to the plan. They were very aggressive and didn’t get a lot of two-strike counts. They just put the ball in play and I let the defense work behind me.”
Dave Van Horn on Noland: “He set the tone. He sets the tone for the whole weekend. When you get to these tournaments, you got to win at least three the first round, and two the second round, and obviously, maybe five total here.”
“So, for him to pitch like he’s pitched in game one and give us a chance to rest our guys and feel good about using our bullpen a couple of times, really, from maybe the sixth or seventh inning of his first outing on, three times in a row it’s been big and he wants the ball. He’s not going to go out there and blow you away but he knows how to pitch and we like it when other teams are hitting it and we’re fielding it.”
After being written off by critics and some of their own fans, the Hogs have proven once again that anything can happen in baseball. The Arkansas Razorbacks (43-19, 18-12) are back in Omaha and will take on the 2-seed Stanford Cardinal (47-16, 21-9) for their College World Series opener in a rematch from February.
Waiting in the wings are two familiar foes with the 15-seed Auburn Tigers (42-20, 16-13) and Ole Miss Rebels (37-22, 14-16) as the SEC West flexes its muscles in the NCAA Tournament by providing half of the field for the College World Series.
The Razorbacks looked like the wheels were falling off to end the year, but head coach Dave Van Horn has secured them and the Hogs are on a roll and proving the critics and doubters wrong. Some have even put the Razorbacks as their predicted National Champions.
Arkansas vs Stanford Round 1
The Hogs and Cardinal face off Saturday June, 18 at 1:00 p.m. central time on ESPN. When the two teams played in the Karbach Round Rock Classic earlier this year, Stanford won the game 5-0 and allowed only three hits. The Razorbacks struck out 15 times in the game with senior designated hitter Brady Slavens and freshman first baseman Peyton Stovall combining for seven of them.
Junior starting pitcher Quinn Mathews tossed six innings of two-hit baseball for Stanford baseball and freshman phenom Braden Montgomery closed the game after loading the bases with no outs. Sophomore Tommy O’Rourke tossed two scoreless frames and struck out four. In a game that featured only two extra-base hits, junior designated hitter Brett Barrera hit his second of 11 home runs this season and drove in three runs. Sophomore second baseman Tommy Troy collected three hits and a walk in the game.
Following that big win over the Hogs, Stanford went on to lose their first two series in conference play before winning 20 of 24 PAC-12 games to end the year. The Cardinal then went 4-0 to win the PAC-12 Tournament to enter the NCAA Tournament on a 15-game winning streak.
The Cardinal have also shown their grit in the NCAA Tournament, having to dig out of a hole in both rounds so far. After a loss on Saturday in the Regionals, they won three games in two days to advance. They had to score three in the bottom of the ninth inning in the decisive game seven of the regional.
They lost their first game vs Super Regional foe UConn before winning the next two, but needed to surmount an early 3-run lead in game three vs UConn as well.
So, as of late, the Stanford baseball isn’t hitting as well as it did earlier in the season. Recent opponents have done a good job of keeping the top of the order Cardinal hitters to hitting below .300 when they were almost all hitting well above it.
On Thursday, Stanford’s Alex Williams made sure the world still knew his team was feeling plenty confident when he said he felt Stanford’s offense was still better than Arkansas’:
In the above clip, you’ll see that Williams meant no disrespect. He’s plenty effusive of the Razorbacks in the context of that one kindling of the line. Still, at the end of the clip, it’s funny to see Stanford baseball coach David ueruer try to walk back the statement by editing his player’s words. “What Alex meant is that he hopes our offense is better than Arkansas’ offense,” Esquer said with a wink and smile. No way does Esquer want to provide bulletin board material to a blistering hot Hogs team.
A contingent of Arkansas baseball fans, however, were not about to back off. On Twitter, they bore down with the fury of a thousand frowny-face emojis and forest-related memes:
Arkansas’ Path to the College World Series
For Arkansas, they had to go through one of the most intense and dramatic Regionals in recent memory. They had to play three back-and-forth games with the hosting Oklahoma State Cowboys and figure out how to overcome their scorching hot lineup.
The Razorbacks advanced to the Super Regionals in Chapel Hill after going 3-1 in Stillwater. It was a vast contrast to the Regional as the Razorbacks won in two games and only needed three extra-base hits and eight total runs to win in dramatic fashion in game two. After blowing the lead in the seventh and allowing the go-ahead run to score in the ninth, the Razorbacks scored two runs in the bottom of the ninth and won it on a walkoff single by Slavens.
Playoff Stats (6 gms)
.282 avg 15 hr 40 RBI .971 ops
8-27(.296) 1 hr 4 RBI
4-9 1 hr 2 RBI
.259 avg 15 hr 55 RBI .876 ops
8-27(.296) 2 hr 8 RBI
4-10 3 RBI
.299 avg 15 hr 57 RBI .947 ops
8-24(.333) 4 hr 9 RBI
2-7 1 RBI
.311 avg 9 hr 48 RBI .879 ops
11-27(.407) 2 hr 11 RBI
.322 avg 8 hr 33 RBI .912 ops
8-23(.348) 1 hr 4 RBI
.223 avg 8 hr 42 RBI .786 ops
3-21(.143) 2 hr 4 RBI
.293 avg 10 hr 44 RBI .849 ops
8-25(.320) 1 hr 7 RBI
2-7 1 RBI
.286 avg 5 hr 21 RBI .786 ops
12-24(.500) 1 hr 3 RBI
4-8 1 hr 1 RBI
.225 avg 5 hr 16 RBI .834 ops
The offense has been led by senior catcher Michael Turner, sophomore third baseman Cayden Wallace and Peyton Stovall. Turner and Stovall were both struggling before the NCAA Tournament started but now they lead the team in hits since it started.
Turner was 7-43 over the last 10 games before the Regional and Stovall was 2-19 in the six games before arriving in Stillwater. Now Turner is 11-27 with two home runs and 11 RBIs and Stovall leads the team in batting, hitting 12-24 with a home run and three RBIs.
Wallace was scorching going into Chapel Hill. He had nine home runs and 17 RBIs in 10 games before the game Monday in Stillwater. He has cooled off since, batting 2-10 with no home runs and one run driven in over the last three games.
Senior shortstop Jalen Battles and senior right fielder Chris Lanzilli have both been hitting well lately. Over the past 15 games, Battles is hitting .364 with three home runs and 16 RBIs, including the grand slam that opened the game up Saturday against Oklahoma State. Lanzilli is on an 11-game hit streak where he is batting .386 with two home runs and 10 RBIs.
Slavens and senior center fielder Braydon Webb both collected four hits in Chapel Hill, but were both struggling to find hits before the weekend started. Slavens was 8-40(.200) in the 11 games leading up to the Super Regional and Webb was 5-26(.192) in the SEC Tournament and Stillwater Regional. However, Slavens made his hits count when he got one, swatting two dingers and driving home five runs in Stillwater.
Junior second baseman Robert Moore and junior left fielder Zack Gregory have both been struggling to find hits, but both continue to get on base. In the eight games since the SEC Tournament started, Moore is 4-29(.138), but has drawn four walks and taken three hit-by-pitches. It appeared he may find his mojo after a two home run performance Saturday of the Regional, but he is 1-15 since. Gregory has only five hits in the past 21 games he has appeared in, hitting .104, but he has 10 walks and nine hit-by-pitches in the same time span.
The Arkansas hitters have come through when needed in the tournament, with clutch hits whenever needed, similar to how the 2021 squad was able to be so dominant through late game heroics. That is also what has been missing this season.
The lineup is finally clicking and showing that determination from last year. The only two hitters that are struggling in the lineup are also the two best hitters at getting free passes and two of the better fielding players, so everyone in the lineup is contributing in some way.
Stanford Baseball Hitting
Playoff Stats (8 gms)
.327 avg 20 hr 56 RBI 1.120 ops
11-35(.314) 3 hr 8 RBI
5-13 3 hr 6 RBI
.333 avg 22 hr 78 RBI 1.054 ops
7-27(.259) 2 hr 8 RBI
2-11 1 RBI
.355 avg 11 hr 52 RBI .981 ops
11-38(.289) 1 hr 3 RBI
6-14 1 hr 2 RBI
.297 avg 18 hr 57 RBI .970 ops
9-33(.273) 2 hr 8 RBI
2-10 2 hr 6 RBI
.325 avg 13 hr 51 RBI 1.005 ops
12-29(.414) 2 hr 10 RBI
5-12 1 hr 7 RBI
.297 avg 18 hr 50 RBI .941 ops
10-34(.294) 6 hr 12 RBI
4-13 3 hr 4 RBI
.347 avg 7 hr 23 RBI .960 ops
20-35(.571) 4 hr 9 RBI
8-15 2 hr 2 RBI
.318 avg 0 hr 15 RBI .781 ops
19-33(.576) 2 RBI
.306 avg 1 hr 39 RBI .762 ops
10-27(.370) 6 RBI
5-11 2 RBI
The Stanford lineup has been on fire as of late, with most of the starters collecting hits in nearly every game down the stretch. As a team, they hit .311 with 117 home runs. Arkansas hits .274 with 100 home runs. Every player in the Stanford starting lineup bats .297 or better. Braydon Webb’s team-best .971 ops is right above Braden Montgomery’s .970, which is fifth on the Cardinal.
The lineup is loaded with big hitters, with a very good top seven who all have an ops above .940 and six have double-digit home runs and 50 or more RBIs. However, the bottom of the order is doing a lot of work as of late.
Tommy Troy and sophomore left fielder Eddie Park hit in the bottom third of the order, and have both hit above .500 in the NCAA Tournament. Park went 10-11 in the last three games of the Regional. He was 4-33 in the last nine games before the Pac-12 Tournament, but is hitting .545 since it started. Troy is hitting .528 with five home runs and 11 RBIs over the past 13 games.
Junior shortstop Adam Crampton has also been producing from the bottom of the order. Going 5-11 in the Super Regionals boosted his average to .405 in the 12 games since the Pac-12 Tournament started. In that same time span, junior catcher Kody Huff is batting .386 with five home runs and 16 RBIs.
Sophomore third baseman is having a great year, with a .297 average, 18 home runs and 50 RBIs, but most of his production has come in the last 20 games. He had his 17-game hit streak snapped in their last game, but on that streak, he hit .371 with 12 home runs and 27 runs batted in. He also had a home run and three RBIs two games before his streak, so he has 13 bombs and 30 RBIs in the last 20 games after he had 5 home runs and drove in 20 runs in his first 40 games of the year.
Freshman right fielder and pitcher Braden Montgomery also had a hit streak snapped in their last game. His 11-game streak stopped after he hit .306 with three home runs and 11 runs driven in. The recent hitting is on pace with his outstanding season, where he has 18 round trips and 57 RBIs, hitting clean-up for the No. 2 overall team in the country.
The top three of the order is very dangerous for the Cardinal lineup. While they have not been as hot as the bottom of the order as of late, it is one of the most dangerous three-headed monsters in college baseball with 53 home runs and 186 RBIs between them.
Radio: On Razorback Sports Network from Learfield/IMG, including locally in Fayetteville on 92.1 FM or through the Razorback app, with Phil Elson (play-by-play) and Razorback great Bubba Carpenter (analyst) on the call.
The winner of Saturday afternoon’s game between Arkansas and Stanford will advance to play the winner of Saturday night’s game between Ole Miss and Auburn on Monday, with first pitch set for 6 p.m. on ESPN. The loser of Saturday’s games, meanwhile, will play in an elimination game at 1 p.m. Monday on ESPN.
The Arkansas baseball program’s all-time record in the College World Series is 15-20, including two runner-up finishes in 1979 and 2018.
Roc Riggio 2.0 Alert?
Stanford junior center fielder Brock Jones has been hitting leadoff despite leading the team with a 1.120 ops and 20 home runs. He has been good and not great so far in the tournament. Outside of his three home run performance in game one of the Super Regionals, he is batting .267 with three RBIs. But he was hot coming into the tournament and may bring that fire back. In the last nine games before the Regionals, he hit .432 with six home runs and 15 RBIs. 15 of his home runs have come in the last 27 games.
Junior second baseman Brent Barrera is the opposite side of the story. He came into the Super Regionals on a cold streak. He was just 6-32 in the previous seven games. He then produced six hits against UConn. Barrera leads the team in average at .355 and hits in the middle of the order despite having fewer home runs than the players around him. He is still a player to watch.
Sophomore first baseman Carter Graham may be the best hitter in a lineup full of great hitters. He bats .333 and leads the team with 22 home runs and 78 RBIs. However, lately he has been doing damage in just one game here and there. In 11 games since the Pac-12 Tournament started, he is 12-43 with three home runs and 12 RBIs, but seven hits, two home runs and seven RBIs came in two games and he was 5-33 with a home run and three RBIs in the other nine.
The Stanford lineup is explosive and can do damage from anywhere at any time. Most of the lineup has been red-hot as of late and will make this a very competitive game on the offensive side. It’s the powerhouse of Stanford and the gritty offense of Arkansas.
Arkansas vs Stanford Pitching
The Razorbacks are likely to go with senior right-hander Connor Noland. He was the ace all season and, for most of it, he enjoyed a sub-three ERA. However, he had a rocky end to the regular season that saw his ERA balloon up over four.
Now it seems like he may have gotten back into a rhythm at just the right time. He started game one of the Stillwater Regional with seven innings, allowing one-run on six hits and four strikeouts. He started game one of the Super Regionals as well and went 6.2 shutout innings on six strikeouts.
Stanford will counter with their own senior right-hander Alex Williams. He will enter Saturday with an 8-3 record and a 2.88 ERA and 90 strikeouts over 97 innings. He has not been good since the regular season ended. He has made one appearance in the Pac-12 Tournament, Regionals and Super Regionals and allowed 15 runs over 10.2 innings.
However, before that he was in a dominant state, allowing three runs in 59.2 innings over eight appearances. It will be worth watching to see which Alex Williams shows up Saturday.
The Cardinal have eight pitchers in total with over 30 innings pitched. With Williams being the only pitcher to have all of their appearances come in starts, anyone could appear from the Stanford bullpen.
Sophomore lefty Ryan Bruno has been their best pitcher who exclusively comes from the bullpen. He has a 2.61 ERA over 38 innings with 68 strikeouts. Junior lefty Quinn Mathews, who started against Arkansas in February, has a similar 2.62 ERA over 96.1 innings with 110 strikeouts in 26 games including nine starts. Sophomore right hander Brandt Pancer has also been a good tool for them, pitching a 3.26 ERA over 38.2 innings out of the pen.
The Razorbacks have a few names they have turned to during the playoff situations. Freshman Hagen Smith was the starter when these teams clashed earlier, but he has been doing great work out of the bullpen recently. He picked up a save in the decisive game of the Stillwater Regional where he shut the door with bases loaded and got the save in game one against North Carolina.
Arkansas has also turned to junior left hander Zack Morris in important stretches. He got his only start of the year in game seven of the Stillwater Regional and tossed 3.1 shutout innings. Arkansas has also relied on freshman closer Brady Tygart and sophomore Will McEntire. McEntire got the start in game two at Chapel Hill where he went 5.2 shutout innings. Tygart struggled with Oklahoma State, like everyone else did, allowing six runs over 2.1 innings in two games. He bounced back with a scoreless inning of relief Sunday against UNC.
Arkansas vs Stanford College World Series Prediction
This is a real heavyweight clash in college baseball. Both teams have dangerous lineups and weapons on the mound. Stanford was rolling the competition coming into the NCAA Tournament while it appeared the Razorbacks might have been falling apart at the seams.
Now the Cardinal are not hitting and the Razorbacks are proving critics wrong. Both teams have had to come from behind to win games this postseason. They appear to be evenly matched. Stanford might have the edge, since they won the first meeting and are ranked as the 2-seed, but if they knew what would happen before the first pitch, then there would be no reason to play the game. Both teams have had ups and downs since then and both seem to be better than when they played before.
This may be a similar back-and-forth battle to the Oklahoma State-Arkansas trilogy, but probably with less offense since the stadium in Omaha is a bit bigger and will likely hold the ball in the yard better. Expect it to be an intense battle before it all said and done. This game could go either way, depending on which pitcher brings their A-plus stuff. Both have been dominant at times and both have had their issues as of late.
There should be more offense from the Razorbacks as well. The offense was still thawing off the winter rust when these teams played before. Stanford will probably have better at-bats and more power in their swings as well. They have been hitting plenty of homers lately. It is likely most of the runs will score later in the game after the bullpens have been activated. Especially with how resilient the two teams have been.
There are a lot of similarities to the 2018 Oregon State team and Stanford and there are also similarities to the current Hogs and the ones from that year as well. I think these team could end up meeting again in the finals of his College World Series. In that 2018 College World Series Finals, Arkansas took game one. They will do it again, probably by scoring a late run to complete a small comeback or break a long-standing tie.
Score Prediction: Arkansas wins 7-6
Also, when it comes to mascots, Arkansas clearly wins. The reason the Cardinal students have big brains, we see, is so they can figure “what the hell their mascot is,” says college baseball show host Stephen Schoch in this funny breakdown:
Full disclosure – I’m biased toward Arkansas baseball play-by-play man Phil Elson. We’ve been friends for close to two decades, and in the fall, you’ll find me on his radio call-in show ‘Halftime’ weekly talking high school football promoting SBLive Sports. But our friendship notwithstanding, Phil is a heckuva broadcaster – MLB-level for sure.
So, it wasn’t surprising to me after I watched the Hogs’ deciding game of the Stillwater Regional and was driving to pick up my son listening to the postgame that Phil dropped a good nugget.
He and color analyst Bubba Carpenter, a former Hog and MLB player, related a story of the pregame where a member of the Oklahoma State grounds crew parked a utility vehicle used to pull out the batting cage. It just so happened it was in front of the Hogs dugout entrance, which made it difficult for the Arkansas players to enter and exit the dugout during batting practice.
The ever-ornery Carpenter tried pushing the vehicle, but the groundskeeper kept moving it back and insisted to Carpenter it had to be parked there.
Well, apparently and not surprisingly, this didn’t sit well with Arkansas baseball coach Dave Van Horn. He was more than irritated. I’m thinking he was already at his wits end with some of the on-field antics displayed by freshman Roc Riggio and others, and this passive-aggressive maneuver was the coup d’état.
There might have been a time that Van Horn would have made a big stink about such bush league nonsense. Instead, the broadcasters said the incident just fueled the fire to beat the Pokes and move on to the Super Regional against North Carolina.
Feeding off the momentum of an emotional slugfest in Stillwater, Arkansas swept the Tar Heels in Chapel, Hill to capture another College World Series berth. It seemed like an improbable run to some, who had written off the veteran skipper and his club that went ice cold to end the regular season.
It’s puzzling that anyone would count Van Horn out. On a campus filled with quality coaches, who are also good people, Van Horn is the best (Eric Musselman has gotten off to a great start, but doesn’t yet have nearly the same body of work). Van Horn is a great coach and recruiter, sure, but he also knows baseball is a funny game. Being around as long as he has, the 61-year-old knows how to punch the right buttons. The OSU series and Riggio and the stubborn groundskeeper gave him plenty of fodder as did a local radio host who said some shameful things about Hogs senior transfer catcher Michael Turner. Since those comments, Turner has caught fire and so has Arkansas.
Don’t give Van Horn ammunition. He will quietly rally his team. It’s a lesson Arkansas baseball competitors would do well to not forget.
Tennessee Baseball Folded Like a Garishly Orange Tent
And if Hog fans don’t appreciate Van Horn’s ways, maybe watching how Tennessee folded like a tent under former Hogs assistant Tony Vitello may change their minds. Since his hiring in 2017, Vitello has turned the Vols into contenders. They were the overall No. 1 seed in the tournament and the favorite to win the title in Omaha.
While Tennessee has been synonymous with winning under Vitello taking the past two SEC East Division titles as well as the SEC crown and tournament title this season, Vitello’s program has also developed a reputation for outlandish behavior. Hogs fans remember last year’s SEC Tournament where Vitello confronted Van Horn and his old boss gave him the business while other Vols players mouthed off.
There has been a string of incidents where either Vitello, his assistants or players, have been tossed from games and Vitello has defended that behavior. There is a swagger that is a part of the program that old-school, baseball purists would bristle at with bat flips and eye black that is worn more like Ultimate Warrior face paint.
“We embrace it. Whether you like us or not, we don’t really care,” Vols center fielder Drew Gilbert told ESPN. “You don’t like us … well, all right, we’re still going to roll the way we roll.”
In the end, all of those antics may have caught up with Vitello and Co., and while they are sitting at home Arkansas and its level-headed leader is playing in Omaha. It is a mystery why Vitello, who learned under Van Horn, would allow such a loosey-goosey atmosphere when the buttoned-up approach has done so well in Fayetteville.
Maybe he thought he needed to get hip to attract big-time recruits, which he has. He’s also 18 years younger than Van Horn and may try to use that relative youth to appeal to recruits, but it appears the cocky attitude caught up with his Tennessee baseball program and their fans who so often like to portray Van Horn as out of touch. Notre Dame, and its terrible blue uniforms, marched into Knoxville and played good, fundamental baseball and pulled the upset.
Now, the Van Horn who in 2003 took over the Arkansas baseball program from his old skipper, Norm DeBriyn, is not the same guy as we see today. Van Horn admitted at a gathering in North Little Rock in 2019 that Van Horn became more mellow after raising children. He does seem more mellow and giving his No. 2 to senior Jalen Battles is proof of that. Dave Van Horn certainly appears to be more of a players’ coach than he used to be.
However, he still stands firm when it comes to principals of the diamond – standing up to umpires and defending his players and holding his players to standards that are held by baseball purists. The tomfoolery that exists in Stillwater and Knoxville isn’t prevalent in the Hogs program. Van Horn can get riled, and he could get tossed, but that happens in baseball. What Van Horn or his team isn’t is cocky. They play good, hard-nosed baseball which trickles down from the longtime coach. Van Horn has had no problem finding talented players who are willing to be reeled in and not prance around the bases or gesture to the opposing dugout or get tossed from games. You might see some bat flips or some fist pumps, and that is something that the younger generation of players enjoy that Van Horn can deal with to an extent.
Van Horn’s silence in Stillwater speaks volumes. He knows that adage that there isn’t anything you can say that is more powerful than beating your opponent. Arkansas made a statement by knocking off two quality teams when it counted most and now has a chance to win a national championship. Tony Vitello may want to take notes.
Does Tony Vitello Live in the Head of Hog Fans?
Some Arkansas baseball fans are accused of being obsessed with Tony Vitello. Some of that is because he is seen as a potential replacement for Dave Van Van Horn one day when Van Horn retires, but he would need to chill out quite a bit and tone down his style some before most fans are happy with that choice.
Pig Trail Nation’s Mike Irwin chimed in with own take on the supposed obssesion on a recent “Ask Mike”: “Most Hog fans remember the grief they took from Tennessee fans after the Vols went to Omaha and Arkansas didn’t last year. Those guys pretty much labeled Arkansas as the winner of two meaningless titles, regular season SEC champs. SEC tournament champs, like it didn’t matter.”
“So this year, those guys are the victim of their own insults because that’s what happened to their team. This season was more than that, though, with these guys from Tennessee. Arkansas fans have no use for the way Tennessee players and coaches behaved this season, but it was more than just them. It happened a lot of places. Like let’s look at some of the responses on social media. George Toler says, “Embarrassed to be a Vols fan.” Again, we needed to call out these fans that continue with unsportsmanlike conduct. That’s one of their own guys.
Bruce Forester from Texas says, “Well, Tennessee, I hope you’re proud of yourself. You shot yourself in the foot and the whole sports world is laughing at you. You had the talent, but lack the character. Take responsibility for your actions and learn from it.”
Essentially, if there is a fixation, it’s happened in more places than in Arkansas. And anybody looking at Tennessee fan message board (God protect your soul) would see signs of a two-way street here.
Dave Van Horn on Tennessee Baseball
On a recent The Paul Finebaum Show interview, Van Horn was asked about Tennessee’s flameout. Baseball’s different from most sports,” he said. “We play a lot of games. And you play to win every game. Sometimes, during the season, you can’t play people or pitch people that you know that if you could pitch or play them you’d have a lot better chance to win. And you end up losing games to people and understand it.”
He continued: “When you get down to the regionals, Super Regionals, anything can happen in a weekend. I think that’s what happened to Tennessee. I mean, they’re very well coached. They have great players. I think they had an unbelievable amount of pressure on ’em, and Notre Dame went in there with an edge and they swung the bats freely and they hit really well and it just happens. So we’ve been on the other end of that and you don’t want to say it’s just baseball, like you mentioned. But in this sport, it happens.”
As much as everyone loves to hate on Tennessee and are celebrating their season ending before Omaha, more talk should be focused on Notre Dame and the stellar job they did winning that series. Despite being such a name brand, The Fighting Irish don’t have much of a baseball tradition. Their last CWS appearance was in 2002 with Paul Manieri, who later won a national championship at LSU, at the helm. Their only other one before that was in 1957. But Notre Dame took a very experienced team into Knoxville and persevered with all the ups and downs of that three game set.
In regards to Tennessee missing out on Omaha despite a completely dominant regular season…it happens. It happened to the Razorbacks last season. It happened to UCLA in 2019. Vandy in 2013 and so on. There is definitely a curse on the national #1 seed as none have won the national championship since Miami did it in 1999. That was the first year of the current format.
The difference between Tennessee baseball team and all those other squads was the blatant chutzpah the Vols exhibited all season. The team, from the coaching staff to the players, was polarizing from the get go and that even carries over into last season when understudy Tony Vitello decided to scream at Dave Van Horn from behind a mask no less). Vitello is a fiery competitor but one has to believe he let his team get away from him and what’s important. You can play the game of baseball and have a lot of fun within the bounds of respecting the game, your opponent and so on. The Vols crossed that line in 2022 and Vitello allowed it. I mean flipping off your opponent as you run the bases… seriously?
I am all for baseball not being this staunch, tradition-ridden sport that can make it unwatchable at times. And I am a lifelong, ardent “baseball guy”. I’m not sure there is a set in stone right way to play the game as that can take on a lot of different amalgamations but there is definitely a clear-cut wrong way. Tennessee pushed it too far in 2022 and the game of college baseball is better off that their sideshow wasn’t put on display for the world to see in Omaha. Which is a shame because they had a very, very good baseball team. All the pieces to win it all…until they didn’t.
I just hope I don’t go see my buddies’ 11 and 12 year old kids play this summer emulating what the Vols displayed this season.
Whether it was karma or the “baseball gods” frowning on Tennessee in the super regionals…who’s to say? But the pressure of the moment when you have that big, huge target on your back is immense. Last season the Hogs weren’t able to handle it and I am confident Dave Van Horn learned something from how last season ended that will serve him and the Razorbacks well in the future. Likely playing a role in this year’s run to Omaha.
If Tony Vitello wants to stick around in this sport and be respected, he may consider going into learning mode as well.
The College World Series (CWS) is upon the sporting world again and the Arkansas Razorbacks are once again on the invitation list. Coach Dave Van Horn is making his seventh trip to Omaha with the Razorbacks and his ninth overall (Nebraska 2001, 2002). This will be the 11th time overall that the Razorbacks have played in the CWS. The Razorback have played for the title twice with narrow losses in the 1979 and 2018 finals.
Remarkably, Kole Ramage and Zebulon Vermillion will be making their third trip to Omaha. They are the first Razorbacks to have that distinction. The Super Seniors were allowed an extra year because of Covid-19 and are adding 2022 onto their previous trips in 2018 and 2019.
The Razorback baseball program is on an incredible run as frequent trips to Omaha are not the norm and aren’t guaranteed for the future. Remarkable model of consistency despite last year’s narrow miss. TCU had a similar run not long ago under now A&M coach Jim Schlossnagle with five trips in seven years including four seasons in a row. The last was in 2017. They haven’t been back since.
So appreciate the moment, Hog fans. Getting to Omaha isn’t easy as the Razorbacks found out last season and Tennessee this season. College baseball has more parity than ever due to the transfer portal and so many older players in college due to Covid-19 bonus year and a shortened MLB draft. Coupled with more schools investing in baseball, inside and outside the SEC, college baseball is an outstanding product right now.
The Hogs in Omaha brings a remarkable vibe to middle America. I’ve been fortunate enough to go a few times. I narrowly missed out on going as a player in 1989 which ended up being my redshirt freshman year at Arkansas. I went again as a fan to the last series in the old Rosenblatt Stadium when South Carolina defeated the Gerritt Cole/Trevor Bauer led UCLA Bruins in 2010. Then of course in 2018 and 2019 and now I’m headed back this Friday to cheer for the Razorbacks.
Despite the gut punch in finals of 2018, that was something special with scads of Hog fans descending upon Omaha. The 2019 trip was brief as the team ran into a brutally tough lefty from Florida State losing 1-0 then lost a 3-2 game to a very good Texas Tech squad. New team, new experience, new year. But the same Omaha-experienced coach in Dave Van Horn.
Reseeding the College World Series
Despite still #1 in the RPI Tennessee not making it to Omaha, the field is LOADED with zero cinderellas in the bunch. Ole Miss underachieved during the regular season but this group was ranked #1 early in the season before hitting a rough patch. All that is behind them now as the Rebels and the Texas A&M Aggies are the only two teams in the field that haven’t lost an NCAA tournament game in 2022. Stanford is the highest seed remaining as they came into the tournament as the 2 seed. A&M is still alive as the 5 seed. Other seeds still playing are #9 Texas and #14 Auburn.
RPI isn’t the end all be all, especially this time of year but fittingly Arkansas matches up with Stanford in what shakes out to be the “best” versus the “worst” teams in the College World Series bracket. At least on paper anyway based on the RPI’s body of work algorithms.
Vegas, meanwhile, can weigh how a team is trending lately. That’s why Arkansas is developing into a favorite here. Consider that the Razorbacks have the second-best odds according to BetOnline.ag (Twitter: @betonline_ag):
The disparity in the RPI rankings distorts how tight this College World Series should be. All eight teams are playing very well and the door is wide open for someone to kick down and win the national championship.
For perspective, Arkansas is 5-5 versus the CWS field with 2-1 series wins over Auburn and Ole Miss coupled with a 1-2 series loss to A&M (two one run losses in College Station) and an early season loss to Stanford at the Round Rock Classic. Texas is 2-3 versus the field. Stanford 1-0, A&M 6-4, Auburn 4-6, OU 3-2 and Ole Miss 4-5. Notre Dame has not played a team in this year’s CWS.
Expect a very, very competitive tournament with any of the eight teams truly capable of winning the whole thing.
Home Field Advantage… NOT
While everyone jockeyed to be a national seed with hopes of hosting in the NCAA tournament, the 2022 postseason actually benefited the traveling teams. Notre Dame, Auburn, Oklahoma, Texas, Ole Miss and Arkansas all advanced with the celebratory dog piles on other team’s fields.
The trip to Chapel Hill for the Razorbacks turned out to be no big deal and hardly a hostile environment. The Hogs kept the crowd at bay as they really only had the top of the 9th RBI single by lightly used Patrick Alvarez to get excited about in 18 innings of baseball. That flame was quickly extinguished in the bottom of the 9th after the Razorbacks rallied with Brady Slavens walking it off with the game winner past a drawn in infield.
Texas won at East Carolina which is known to get rather wild. I watched two of the Oregon State Auburn games and the crowd at Corvallis was rather subdued. Maybe because they were bundled up in winter weather gear that looked like something we would be wearing in February at Baum Walker. Ole Miss dominated Southern Miss with two shutouts. Hard to get the crowd going when you don’t score a single run. Same goes for OU’s convincing win at Virginia Tech.
Omaha loves the SEC. College Baseball’s best conference brings the fans and the atmosphere to kick the College World Series up a notch. This year is particularly intriguing because half the CWS field is from the SEC West including three on the same side of the bracket. Ole Miss and Auburn actually square off in game 4 on Saturday night.
Then throw in future SEC schools in Texas and Oklahoma making Stanford and Notre Dame feel like they got invited to the wrong party.
Auburn has quietly become a frequent contender under Butch Thompson. Auburn was in Omaha with the Hogs in 2019, finished under .500 in 2021 and rebounded this season with a combination of a few contributors from the 2019 CWS team coupled with some key players out of the transfer portal. This was a group mistakenly picked to finish last in the SEC West.
Ole Miss, despite countless highly ranked recruiting classes and high rankings, is only making its second CWS appearance in the 20 plus year Mike Bianco era. The last being in 2014. This team was reported as one of the last teams allowed in the tournament and has seized the opportunity. Their two game, shutout sweep of Southern Miss in Hattiesburg was impressive. Ole Miss has always had the offense this season. The emergence of freshman lefty Hunter Elliott as an excellent number two pitcher has been season changing.
Texas A&M is on an incredible run of winning ball games in the later innings. Their clutch factor is remarkably high. Is that due to run out in Omaha? Time will tell but first year coach Jim Schlossnagle was an Omaha regular when he took TCU to the CWS five times between 2010 and 2017. The Aggies play a lot of transfers that took awhile to gel but once they did, A&M has been on a serious roll. But they drew a tough first round game with Oklahoma who is on fire of late.
Of course at this point in the season…they are all tough. That’s where a battle tested SEC West team may just rise to the top in 2022. Wouldn’t the SEC haters just love that?
Arkansas vs Stanford
The highest remaining seed had to scratch and claw to make it to Omaha but they did it with a convincing game three super regional win over UCONN. The Hogs faced Stanford in the Round Rock Classic back in February with The Cardinal cruising to a 5-0 victory. Both teams had solid seasons from there with Stanford winning the PAC12 regular season and the Hogs holding onto first place in the rugged SEC West until the last weekend of the season.
Arkansas is a much different team than the one in early February that only managed three hits against lefty Quinn Matthews (9-1, 9 saves, 2.62 ERA). Matthews is now their closer and has dominated opposing hitters all season. The Razorbacks will likely face Stanford ace Alex Williams (8-3, 2.88 ERA) who is on some first team All American lists and was the PAC12 Pitcher of the Year. But he has struggled in the NCAA tournament and the Hogs have already knocked around another first team All American in Oklahoma State’s Justin Campbell. Twice.
Stanford brings a lot of experience into the game and was in Omaha last year. Outfielder Brock Jones (.320, 20HR, 56RBI) is an elite athlete and should be an early round draft pick in the upcoming MLB draft. Their lineup is littered with guys that can run, catch and throw at a high, high level. Stanford recruits at a very high level, has an outstanding tradition so expect a battle.
Arkansas will surely counter with Connor Noland and he didn’t face The Cardinal in Round Rock. Hagen Smith got that start and didn’t fare well. They may get to see Smith again but in his new role as an end of game stopper. His ability to attack with the fastball has been paramount to the Hogs road to Omaha.
Interestingly, the only regularly used pitcher The Cardinal saw that game was Smith so there are a lot of unseen bullets to throw out of the pen if Noland falters early. Noland features numerous offspeed pitches that are complimented by a darting and diving fastball. His ability to mix and match offspeed in any count for competitive pitches will be crucial to slowing down a potent Stanford lineup. If he struggles finding his offspeed and is forced to throw a lot of fastballs, the bullpen could be in action early.
As with any double elimination bracket, winning the first game is critical to having much of a chance of making the best two of three championship series. Getting in the loser’s bracket early can be a quick ticket out of town. The teams here are just too good. The 2019 Razorbacks know all about that after two one run losses to Florida State and Texas Tech.
There is no secret to how the Hogs keep winning. How they’ve been playing will allow them to be very competitive. The Razorbacks look and feel like a totally different team than Stanford saw in February and even what fans saw in May. Confidence is high and now the pressure of just making it to Omaha is gone.
Play loose and let it fly like they did in Stillwater and Chapel Hill and I like the Hogs’ chances. This may be the most wide open the CWS has been in years as I truly believe any of these teams can win it and any of them can go 0-2 if they don’t play at a very high level. This group of teams is just too good.
Somebody will show up flat, worn down mentally from the grind to get to Omaha as it’s an unbelievably tough row to hoe. Now that they’ve made it, the foot will come off the gas. That’s inevitable and happens every season.
The OmaHogs might go 0-2 but it won’t be because of that. This team still has a definite chip on its shoulder and has the revenge factor in the matchup with Stanford. DVH will have this group ready to rock and roll. Whether they can be better than any of these opponents on a given day, we will just have to let the games play out between the lines.
Personally, I would appreciate some additions to the win column so my stay in Omaha is a little longer than it was in 2019.
Despite entering the CWS as the highest-ranked team remaining, Stanford has not played its best baseball lately. The Cardinal eked past Texas State in a home regional, then had to rally against UConn in Supers after the Huskies won the opener. Something has been just a tick off with Stanford during the postseason.
Arkansas, on the other hand, boasts a great roster with experience and an elite head coach in Dave Van Horn. Last year’s loss in Super Regionals as well as a team-wise slump in the regular season have the Razorbacks highly motivated and playing with an edge. Connor Noland dominated North Carolina in his start last weekend, and he should put on a similar performance here.
Prediction: Arkansas wins
CWS FINALS: ARKANSAS VS. NO. 9 TEXAS
“Another juicy matchup between two of college baseball’s best programs and old Southwest Conference rivals whose fans do not like each other. Arkansas and Texas will both bring massive followings to Omaha, making for a fantastic showcase for the sport on the biggest stage.”
“This one is going the distance. Arkansas arguably has the edge in Game 1 with Noland surging down the stretch to go with its rested bullpen that has two days off. Game 2 could flip a bit depending on whom Texas starts, but regardless the Razorbacks have a fair-sized drop-off from Noland. The decisive Game 3 would be full of drama. Van Horn and the Hogs have knocked on the door so many times, and it feels like they will finally break through now that they have figured things out in the postseason.”
Prediction: Arkansas wins CWS Finals in 3
More on Arkansas baseball here:
In the above video, Irwin breaks down why he thinks a North Carolina baseball fan should have been banned for flipping off Connor Noland in the Super Regional round:
“You see it in student sections at football and basketball games and at Baum-Walker, it might happen some out in the hog pen. This man appeared to be a non-student and he was on the front row of the seats behind Arkansas’s dugout. Not more than 25 feet from Nolan.”
“The other thing about it was a complete lack of triggering action by Connor. I mean, he just did his job and he came out when DVH said, ‘Hey, it’s time to go to the dugout.’ The reaction to what I posted, however, has sort of been predictable. I think older fans tend to agree with what I was saying. But the younger fans, a lot of them were like, ‘Hey, we won. Lighten up. He was mad. Too bad for him. Haha. It was funny.’….
“… When we get older, certain things become more important, like how we behave in public and how other people behave. I think public behavior is a problem right now. We all need to start becoming more civil to each other. Maybe it’s not just a huge issue in college baseball. But what that fan did, to me, was over the top.”
“If schools start holding people accountable for stuff like that, it’s going to stop. And I’m not just talking about yelling and getting mad and blowing off steam when you think an opponent or the umps or the refs have disrespected your team. That’s not it. I’m talking about just being flat-out obscene when there’s no real reason for it. So grow up and act like an adult.”
Acting like a real adult was our motivation behind our latest post on Arkansas baseball:
That’s good news for Arkansas. This season, the Razorbacks came within a game (and a tiebreaker) of winning a fourth straight SEC West crown. They’ve already taken series from two of the other three league rivals and familiarity with Stanford, who they incidentally play in the first round Saturday, can only help, especially as the no team in the Dance has a coach as experienced in the College World Series as Dave Van Horn. DVH will be making his ninth trip to Omaha, Nebraska, for the eight-team tournament.
Arkansas baseball has been one of the best teams in college baseball since the late 1970s when former coach Norm DeBriyn led the Razorbacks to the national championship game in 1979. Three more trips to Omaha under DeBriyn followed. Van Horn picked up pace even further when he was hired before the 2003 season. The Diamond Hogs have only failed to make the NCAA Tournament only once under his watch. No other team playing this weekend at Charles Schwab Field can claim to have that level of dominance and consistency.
Yet the Hogs have never won a national championship. The thing is, only three of the eight teams in this College World Series have, even though it’s loaded with blue-bloods. Stanford, Texas and Oklahoma have titles, though only the Cardinal and Longhorns have more appearances in the CWS than Arkansas To only a modest fan of the sport, about the only team that, quote-unquote, doesn’t belong is Notre Dame. Every other squad has established itself as a powerhouse over the course of the last 20 years. But even the Fighting Irish had a run in the late 90s and early 2000s in which they were regulars in the NCAA Tournament.
The point: Arkansas has as good a chance as ever.
What Matters in the College World Series
The aforementioned is all history. The truth is that history almost never matters. Not ancient history, anyway. And when it comes to college sports, just about everything before four seasons ago qualifies as ancient history because that’s the standard staying time for players on a roster (at least it was before the extra COVID-19 year).
But three calendar years make a difference. Back in 2019 Noland, the tall right-hander, was balancing his baseball career with football, where he was a quarterback. He’s since quit the latter and established himself as a bona fide No. 1 SEC starter, racking up a 3.75 earned-run average with 105 strikeouts in 100 1/3 innings. Taylor leads the team with 30 appearances out of the bullpen while Ramage is second with 29.
Consider, too, the air around the team. Believers in momentum have to think the Diamond Hogs have it. Every game since they were eliminated in the SEC Tournament has been tinged with a sort of fairy dust. Maybe it was the team getting away from the expectations of playing in front of a home crowd and excelling in an “us-vs-the-world’ type of mentality that was only bolstered by the Michael Turner-Derek Ruscin controversy. Maybe it was Oklahoma State’s Roc Riggio losing some of his fairy dust while preen-dancing to third base, and somehow that magic getting absorbed by his Razorback competitors.
Whatever the reason, the Razorbacks have looked more like the team that spent three-quarters of the year ranked inside the top 10 than the team that stumbled to a 4-6 record to finish the regular season and went two-and-out in Hoover.
They recall the feelings of last year, too, losing to upstart North Carolina State at the Fayetteville Super Regional after being ranked as the top team in the country practically all season long. That redemption has already come, albeit against the other major state school in N.C. Other teams have had their share of heartbreak, certainly, but little has matched the drama surrounding Arkansas baseball over the last 365-ish days.
Since 2007, wearing the No. 5 jersey as an Arkansas football player has come with an added pressure to perform. The comparisons to arguably the best Arkansas football player ever, Darren McFadden, are always going to be there, especially when a running back is donning that famous jersey number.
It may be difficult for fans to fairly judge a player’s potential on his own merits because they see the jersey number and immediately compare them to the player that made their jersey number famous.
After Rakeem Boyd, Raheim “Rocket” Sanders is only the second running back to wear No. 5 since McFadden in 2007. If his freshman season is any indication, he’ll demand that fans give him a chance to make a name for himself despite his jersey number.
Raheim Sanders Makes Splash for Arkansas Football
Sanders finished the 2021 season with 114 carries for 578 yards and five touchdowns, which helped him land on the 2021 SEC All-Freshman team. It was the first time since 2015, when Rawleigh Williams III was selected, that a freshman running back from Arkansas made the SEC All-Freshman team.
His freshman numbers are even more impressive when you consider that Arkansas basically used a committee of running backs throughout the season, with no clear RB1. On top of that, starting quarterback KJ Jefferson was also a threat running the ball, finishing with 664 rushing yards on the season.
Trelon Smith, A.J. Green, Dominique Johnson and Rocket Sanders all shared the workload through the first part of the season. Johnson, who finished the season with 97 carries for 575 yards and seven touchdowns, was eventually named the starter following a win against Arkansas-Pine Bluff.
Sanders was listed as Johnson’s back-up, in name only, as the two would split the majority of the carries the rest of the season.
Through the first six games of last season, the Sanders-Johnson duo averaged 13.5 carries per game which was about 30% of the team’s total rushing attempts.
Over the final seven games of the season, the duo averaged 18.5 carries per game and an increase of about 42% of the team’s total rushing attempts.
Entering spring practice, Sanders and Johnson were both going to have the chance to show they were worthy of being “the guy” at running back this season. Both had made strong claims, as the “running back by committee” approach worked for the Arkansas offense for the first part of last season.
Once the offense shifted to splitting carries between Sanders and Johnson exclusively, it continued to hit on all cylinders.
Over the second half of the season, the Arkansas rushing attack was still able to maintain the season average of 200+ yards-per-game while only using two running backs alongside Jefferson.
The Outback Bowl against Penn State was a master class in wearing down your opponent with the running game. Sanders and Johnson combined for 156 yards of the 353 total yards rushing and two touchdowns in the win. Sanders shined as Johnson’s primary backup and even finished the year with more yards than Johnson.
Razorback Running Backs This Offseason
Following the success of the one-two punch of Sanders and Johnson last season, the question was whether one of the two would take a leap this offseason to earn the title of RB1 outright.
Spring practices were expected to be our first glimpse at which of these two had taken a bigger leap in the offseason so far.
Unfortunately, Johnson needed offseason surgery which kept him out of all spring activities.
Sanders, who was originally recruited as a wide receiver but moved to running back after last spring, went through his first full spring as a running back taking the majority of the first team snaps.
Despite battling an injury of his own this spring, Sanders impressed with his improvement from last season.
“He’s turned into a running back,” Pittman said. “He told me at some point he was just wondering about his assignment as he’s running the ball. Now, you can see that he understands what his rule is. He seemed to be quicker in making decisions to me.”
That last part of Pittman’s quote is important.
At 6’2” and a very stout 225 pounds with elite speed and agility to leave defenders in the dust, Sanders is the most physically gifted running back on the roster right now:
The combination of raw size and athleticism is very similar to his former teammate and first round draft pick, Treylon Burks. Unfortunately, that elite combination of size and athleticism alone isn’t enough to get by in the SEC. Almost every team is full of players who have that same size and athleticism.
Where Rocket Sanders Must Improve
For every impressive run Sanders had, like his first career touchdown against Texas, there was a mistake that held him back, like the fumble against Ole Miss.
Those mistakes aren’t uncommon from freshman running backs, but when other running backs don’t make those mistakes, they become amplified. It makes it harder for a coach to play you over a safer option.
Dominique Johnson isn’t necessarily the biggest or fastest running back, but he’s a very hard runner who takes care of the football. That helped him earn the trust of the coaching staff, which also earned him the starting job last season.
“You know the bottom line is whoever you run out there with the first group, those guys are supposed to be your best players at the time they’re running out there,” said Pittman, after naming Johnson the starter for the Mississippi State game last season. “I certainly think Dominque has earned that right.”
Johnson is going to get a chance to prove he’s worthy of being the starting running back once he returns from injury, but Sanders is going to make it difficult. Sanders needed to show growth in his decision-making and ball control after last season. While at the same time, he needs to be the same hard runner who can make people miss at every level of the defense.
According to quarterback KJ Jefferson, Sanders has done exactly that this spring.
“He (Sanders) knows what’s going on now, he knows in protection,” said Jefferson. “He’s talking to the O-line, communicating and making sure they know what they’re doing so he can react off it. All in all, on the field, he’s focused.”
Make no mistake about it, Johnson is no slouch as a running back. Even if he isn’t named starter, he should see his fair share of carries.
That being said, Sanders is the more dynamic of the two.
Above, you can see Sanders create separation, then comes back to the ball and makes the tough catch like a skilled receiver. If Sanders continues to showcase the same improvement we saw this spring, it will be hard to deny him the majority of the carries this season.
Tracking Rocket’s Trajectory for Razorbacks
Sanders has already met, if not slightly exceeded, best-case expectations for his freshman year. Especially considering he was originally recruited to play wide receiver, but didn’t move full-time to running back until last fall camp.
At the time, few predicted he would make the SEC All-Freshman team. Beau Wilcox, a fellow writer here at Best of Arkansas Sports, wrote that Sanders could become an X-factor in 2021, with a role similar to that of 2005 from then freshman Felix Jones.
However, after last season, I think a role like Felix Jones’ in 2005 is the floor for Sanders and his potential.
Sanders and Felix Jones both have elite speed that can make defenders miss anywhere on the field.
One major difference between the two is that Sanders is 6’2” and weighs 225 pounds. Jones was 5’10” and weighed 215 pounds when he played.
For more perspective, Darren McFadden is the same height as Sanders but weighed 15 pounds lighter when he played.
It almost seems like Sanders is a Jones/McFadden hybrid, even though it was his counterpart, A.J. Green, who received those comparisons when he first committed to Arkansas.
He has speed like Jones, while also having enough size to “bring the wood” like McFadden.
Now, I’m going to stop short of saying that Sanders is on the same level as those two legendary Arkansas running backs. He has a lot left to accomplish before we could even think of having that type of conversation, but he does have similar physical gifts that McFadden and Jones each possessed.
If Sanders can put everything together, we could be looking at the next great running back in Arkansas football history.
“If” is the key word.
Sam Pittman has made it known that he wants the running game to be part of Arkansas football’s identity under him.
“We’re going to have a big emphasis on being able to run the football, as in, you have to take a read away for the quarterback where he can throw it, but as in we’re going to run the football, the defense knows we’re going to run the football,” said Pittman in fall camp before last season. “We’re not going to try to throw the slant behind it or anything, we’re just going to turn around, hand it off and see what we can get accomplished.”
McFadden and Jones were exceptionally talented, but they also had an incredible offensive line to open up holes for them. Sanders is no different and is going to need help from his lineman if he wants to have a breakout season.
Factor in that the main receiving threat from last season, Treylon Burks, is in the NFL now, and it’s clear that the success of the running game is going to play a huge part in the success of the team.
Sanders will have plenty of opportunity to showcase his abilities this fall. What happens with those opportunities is to be determined.
It may be difficult for fans to fairly judge a player’s potential because they see the jersey number and immediately compare them to the player that made their jersey number famous.
Sanders will be wearing that famous No. 5 jersey and will continue to get comparisons to McFadden because of it. The better he plays, the more the comparisons will come rolling his way. That worked out great for Rakeem Boyd, up until his senior year when injuries caused his career to close with a whimper instead of a bang.
Chances are that Sanders won’t quite reach the same stratosphere that McFadden did while donning the No. 5 jersey, considering McFadden racked up more yards than any other SEC running back in his first three college seasons. But that shouldn’t matter. Rocket Sanders should be allowed a chance to make a name for himself, without the expectations that come with that famous jersey number.
Only time will tell if Rocket’s trajectory is in the same orbit as other Arkansas greats – like McFadden, Jones, Peyton Hillis and Cedric Cobbs – or if it’s a little more down to Earth.
One thing that is certain is that the football season can’t get here soon enough. 82 days and counting.
By itself, the Razorbacks’ 4-3 win victory over North Carolina early Sunday evening was plenty sweet for Arkansas baseball fans.
It’s the 11th time in school history – and the third time in the last four eligible seasons – that the Razorbacks are headed to the College World Series. The Hogs sure did it in dramatic fashion after heading into the bottom of the ninth inning down 3-2. That’s when the Hogs’ bats heated up in a hurry, getting the bases loaded in time for Brady Slavens to step up to the plate and play the role of hero.
A pair of lengthy lightning delays had turned the second game of the NCAA Super Regional into an all-day affair but the wait proved worth it when Slavens muscled a walkoff-single through a gap in the Tar Heels infield to cap a two-run, ninth inning rally. “We’ve known all year about the potential of this team,” Slavens said. “I think we like playing with the pressure and having our backs against the wall. We’re clicking at the right time.”
“This was a first class Super Regional,” Arkansas baseball coach Dave Van Horn said afterward. “The UNC coaches, players and fans were as good as any I’ve been around.”
North Carolina’s baseball coach, in turn, paid Van Horn’s team a huge compliment: “What a battle. I want to congratulate Arkansas,” Scott Forbes said. “They’re a heck of a team and play the right way. They don’t showboat and keep their mouth shut.”
This is a reference to the trash talking and rampant showmanship that have overtaken certain parts of college baseball, especially those parts in and around Knoxville, Tennessee. Tony Vitello’s cocky, in-your-face bunch looked like the best team in the nation for much of the year, until the wheels came off this weekend at home vs Notre Dame in the Super Regional.
The World Piles On to Tennessee Baseball
By the time the dust cleared on Game 3 Sunday afternoon, only the Fighting Irish remained standing with a 7-3 victory that has apparently united the rest of the nation in an online jamboree of schadenfreude that few programs outside of Kentucky basketball have ever ever experienced.
Razorback fans are going hand in hand with the fans of Ole Miss, Auburn, Vanderbilt and Mississippi State and jumping with glee all over Tennessee’s grave. Sure, it would have been nice to beat Tennessee deep in the College World Series, but it’s much better to not even see them make the CWS in the first place.
CBS sports radio host Danny Kannell Tweeted: “Congrats Tennessee baseball on a great season. So many memorable moments…flipping opponents off rounding the bases, coach getting tossed for chest bumping umpire, crying over balls and strikes, and of course soooo many pimped out bat flips…what a legacy. #DaddyGang” Oh, and let’s not forget about the Vols right-fielder Jordan Beck’s one-finger salute in the regional final win over Georgia Tech.
By the end, Tennessee baseball fans were embracing the identity of the team by wearing “Classless vs Catholics” T-shirts in the Super Regional vs Notre Dame. They were trying to show the kind of good humor that their favorite cocky team has never been able to muster.
If you really want to drink deeply from the fire hose that is anti-Vols sentiment these days, then just take a stroll down the comments here:
On the whole, many Razorback fans were very impressed with the way the Tar Heels carried themselves and played. Although North Carolina lost, they did so with class holding their heads high. A few Arkansas fans on social media suggested that when Van Horn retires, it should be Scott Forbes – and not Tony Vitello – who replaces him.
Arkansas Baseball vs UNC Recap
North Carolina – playing as the visiting team – scratched out a run in the top of the ninth to claim their first lead of the afternoon when Patrick Alvarez singled to center. Alvarez’ heroics, however, were immediately put into question when Jalen Battles led off the bottom of the ninth with an infield single to the left side of the infield.
Freshman Peyton Stovall laced his third hit of the afternoon into the right-center field gap to but Hogs on the corners with no outs. After a walk to pinch hitter Kendall Diggs, Braydon Webb’s fielder’s choice chased Battles home for the equalizer and set up Slavens to be the hero.
Stovall led the way with three hits as the Razorbacks racked up 12 in the win. Slavens, Battles and Michael Turner all had two hits with Slavens driving in two. Battles got the Hogs started in the fourth with an RBI-double and Webb added his 16th homer in the fifth, a solo shot. Zack Morris picked up the win in relief, recording the final out of the ninth. Will McEntire was stellar in 5.2 scoreless innings. The big right-hander scattered three hits, walked two and fanned four. (Razorback Communications)
“This super regional win was special because of how it went down last year. It never gets old,” Van Horn said afterward.
“I remember Jalen Battles coming up to me during my final at-bat,” Slavens added. “He said this is why we came back.”
More from Arkansas Baseball
Dave Van Horn on lightning delays: “It didn’t matter. Yeah, we were there, we were going to be there till midnight if that’s what it took. And those games last week, it was miserably hot, marathon game. We played a five-hour game, a nine-inning five-hour game. It’s hard to do, almost, so yeah, it definitely, it prepared us a little bit.”
Brady Slavens expanding on the arc of the season: “We’ve known all year how good we can be, the potential of the team. It’s not going to click all year for us, and we knew that. But I think this team likes feeling like their back’s up against the wall. I think that for some reason that really gets us more confident and makes us hit more. And I guess we like playing with the pressure. And so it’s just been a crazy year and we’re clicking at the right time and I’m just so happy that we can go to Omaha.”
Slavens on going to the College World Series around 2013: “Being from Kansas City, it’s a short drive. And I remember, I had a picture on my phone of me and my dad, and I plan on taking that again from the outfield, just as a cool little journey.”
Dave Van Horn: “I know in fall practice, I thought we had a good team. If we stayed healthy, we didn’t have like a real deep position player team. We weren’t sure exactly the roles of the pitchers, but we felt like we had enough arms to get it done. And who knew the league was going to be so tough? I mean, especially in our division, I think there’s already two or three other teams from our division that are going to the World Series, and we had to play those guys.”
“It was just a tough year, and we beat each other around and it prepared us for the end of the season. But I don’t know, extra. I think our teams work hard all the time. So I don’t know if I saw that, I think we would talk to them about what we’re trying to do, and that’s finish. We were talking about finishing, because last year we didn’t quite finish.”