Arkansas was so machinelike in winning three games at home in the Regional, and then casually dispatching Ole Miss on the first day of the Super Regional, that the Hogs’ collapse on a sunny Sunday afternoon against the Rebels was a bit unsettling.
And the rubber match of the Supers was an oddity: a Monday game at 3 p.m., the last of the eight bids to Omaha to be decided, with most Razorback observers believing that starter Patrick Wicklander could, and would need to, put in four or five quality innings for the Hogs to have a chance.
Wicklander was erratic early and yielded a first-inning run, then got into trouble again in the second. Dave Van Horn, his notorious quick hook on display already on Sunday when freshman Connor Noland fizzled, pulled the second-inning swap again on Monday. This time, with the game feeling like it was teetering on being lost early, Van Horn handed the ball to fire-throwing righty Cody Scroggins.
It was a decision that will forever be hailed as instinctive genius. Scroggins pitched the game of his life at the biggest moment, logging 4 2/3 innings of scoreless work against a dangerous Ole Miss lineup that had cranked out 13 runs the day before. His eight strikeouts worked the crowd into a frenzy and his hitters came to his aid quickly.
The Hogs posted four runs in a decisive rally in the bottom of the second, with Trevor Ezell capping that with a two-out, two-run single. The furious attack continued with an expertly manufactured three-spot in the third. Ole Miss had to go to a depleted bullpen early and often, and thanks to highlight-reel hitting from Heston Kjerstad and Ezell’s continued postseason wizardry at the plate and in the field, the rout was on. Arkansas simply smothered Ole Miss, 14–1, and for the first time in program history has reached the College World Series in consecutive years.
And in an almost un-Arkansas fashion, the Hogs just seemed impervious to the moment. It was a nervous occasion, what with the season hanging in the balance and a normally composed freshman lefty having his struggles right out of the gate. But Scroggins calmed the stormy seas quickly, and yet again, the Hogs looked like the most dangerous team in the nation once a few hits were strung together. Kjerstad had two hard doubles before then ripping a solo homer that may still be hovering somewhere over Crawford County. Casey Opitz had an impactful offensive day and as usual handled the pitchers with aplomb behind the dish, even adding on a perfect swipe tag at home in the eighth inning on Dominic Fletcher’s rifle from center, a terrific play in a game laden with them from the hosts.
This team has the perfect temperament to advance deep again in Omaha, and yes, I realize I may well be guilty of putting a jinx on the Hogs by saying it. But it’s an objectively proper observation: The lineup is powerful with few holes, the staff ace is the kind of guy who can win two or even three games over the 11-day tourney, and the bullpen is deep and defense is generally steady. Last year’s runner-up squad was a blend of young upstarts like Kjerstad and Casey Martin meshing well with veterans like Eric Cole and Carson Shaddy. They achieved notable heights, but this group is proving to be incredibly resilient. They swept Mississippi State, did not get swept in any series, and hit the 20-win mark in SEC play for the first time in Van Horn’s prodigious 17-season run.
But most impressively, perhaps, is the fact that after dropping two of three to Ole Miss at Baum-Walker early in SEC play and then getting excused from the conference tourney by the Rebs, the Hogs battered Ole Miss pitching for 30 runs over three days and, with a few exceptions, seemed dialed in from top to bottom. This is a dangerous, balanced lineup, and it can produce even in the fairly pitcher-friendly TD AmeriTrade Park.
Arkansas’s experience of a year ago, bittersweet as it was, has hardened it for 2019. The returnees have excelled and improved; the newcomers have provided benefits beyond mere statistical measure. It could be another fun run in the Midwest with three other SEC teams and four other historically proud programs meeting there, and the Hogs’ chances are as good as or better than any other team’s.