Arkansas wasn’t at peak performance over the last couple of weeks of the 2019 baseball season, but the Razorbacks’ middling efforts in the final series against Texas A&M and at the SEC tournament weren’t enough to dissuade the selection committee from staking the Hogs as a strong No. 5 overall seed, with the potential to host a Regional and Super Regional at Baum-Walker Stadium if the diamond Hogs deliver against a rather favorable field.
The Fayetteville Regional, for a change, has almost no regional flair. Instead of hosting a cluster of teams from a neighboring state, Baum-Walker was the landing spot for Central Connecticut State, the Northeast Conference champions who sport a decent but unimposing 30-21 record and a lineup that doesn’t exactly foment fear in the Razorback pitching staff. The Blue Devils are a .260 hitting bunch that played a lot of station-to-station ballgames in 2019, and, as evidence of their resiliency, consider that roughly half of their games have been decided by two runs or less. They’ve taken a few lumps in those close games, but teams like this are dangerous at this time of year because they embrace the underdog role, and their confidence swells the longer they stay competitive in any given contest.
The Blue Devils will open the tourney Friday with the Razorbacks in their friendly confines. The winner of the initial matchup will take on the winner of TCU and California, the former of which took the third seed in the regional after battling through a Big 12 schedule with a modest but still sturdy 11-13 league record. The Horned Frogs also stacked their schedule with good nonconference teams and battled their way into the field by sporting a solid lineup and just enough pitching depth to keep them in games.
Cal, the second seed, is the enigma of sorts. The Bears (32-18) acquitted themselves in winning one of three at No. 1 UCLA and also took a game from defending national champion Oregon State. California sports a beefy lineup with plenty of power (80 home runs in only 50 games, with the team having yielded several contests to cancellation by weather). The staff is led by Jared Horn and Arman Sabouri, two guys who have sported exceptional strikeout-to-walk numbers.
Other regional hosts within the SEC drew some dandy matchups — LSU, for instance, gets to take on Stony Brook, the little engine that steamrolled the Tigers en route to Omaha several seasons ago — but this Fayetteville Regional definitely feels skewed to the hosts. Arkansas’s late-season struggles were minor and not damning, though the abundance of strikeouts and lack of plate discipline at College Station and at Hoover for the SEC tourney was evident. This is still a regional where the Hogs are the clear and convincing favorite, and if the so-called chalk holds, it would set the stage for a potential showdown with conference rival Ole Miss in the Super.
Dave Van Horn, though, is a successful coach for a reason. He can point to his 2004 and 2009 teams that overcame a lot of defects to make it to Omaha, but he can also easily note that some of his heralded squads have fallen short in certain areas (2007 and 2017 squads come to mind for faltering at the home regional). He’s seen highs and lows in his distinguished tenure at the helm, and exudes his usual stoic confidence in his team to get the job done and to pay heed to the quality of the opponent.
It’s an interesting regional simply because it’s hard to fathom the setting at Baum-Walker this weekend being anything other than overwhelmingly electric and squarely in favor of the host school. Cal, TCU and Central Connecticut State don’t necessarily have aggressively nomadic and zealous fan bases. There will be a sea of red and white on the hill this weekend, and if things go well, that attire will last another weekend in Fayetteville if the Razorback lineup can get recharged and the fielders can exhibit some control and discipline. This is still a formidable team that has as much talent as any squad, top to bottom, but the question remains: How will the bittersweet finish to the 2018 season impact this bunch? We find out soon enough.