NCAA run proved Arkansas tournament worthy

Posted: July 7, 2012 at 3 a.m.

Arkansas Coach Dave Van Horn said when it comes to the NCAA regionals, his Razorbacks benefited from their short stay at the SEC Tournament.

— Dave Van Horn wasn't sure what to expect from Arkansas following a two-and-out performance at the Southeastern Conference tournament.

The Razorbacks coach had said his team was built for tournament play because of its pitching depth. He defended the highly touted squad during a midseason slump, remained positive throughout the season but he finally had enough after the lackluster performance at the conference tournament — and he let the team know it by asking the players if they thought they could win an NCAA regional.

"I don't know if you guys have got it in you," Van Horn said. "All year long I've said this team could be a great tournament team, but we haven't proved it yet."

Arkansas (46-22) heard Van Horn's challenge, and it responded by reaching the College World Series for the third time in 10 years under its head coach. The Razorbacks did so behind one of the top pitching staffs in the country — winning the Houston Regional and Baylor Super Regional before falling one win short of the championship series.

The end-of-season performance is one Van Horn won't soon forget, though he'll equally remember the struggles Arkansas overcame to reach Omaha, Neb. The Razorbacks entered the season with lofty expectations and opened 22-3, but a 5-8 midseason stretch and quick exit from the SEC tournament tested the resolve of both the players and coaches.

"The team held it together, and I thought the coaches did a great job keeping it together," Van Horn said. "We stayed positive all year. It was a bad two weeks, and we survived it."

Arkansas' final team ERA of 2.83 was the second best in school history and lowest since 1976. The Razorbacks entered the College World Series with the lowest team mark of any of the remaining teams, and the team's pitching was by design — with Van Horn allocating the majority of Arkansas' scholarships to the staff.

Junior DJ Baxendale (8-5, 3.11 ERA) led the Razorbacks in experience and innings, starting 20 games, but it was the overall pitching depth that stood out. Seven regular members of the Arkansas bullpen had sub-3.00 ERAs, as did starter Ryan Stanek (8-4, 2.82), and the postseason success affirmed Van Horn's decision to focus the scholarship money on pitching.

"It worked out," Van Horn said. "It worked out, obviously."

Baxendale was drafted in the 10th round of the Major League Baseball draft and signed with the Minnesota Twins following the season. The right hander was one of eight Razorbacks drafted, but Stanek will return next year for his junior season — highlighting a pitching staff that Van Horn expects to continue to rank among the country's best.

While pitching carried Arkansas this season, Van Horn is hopeful an offense that was 170th in the country in runs per game (5.2) can improve next season. The Razorbacks will look for that improvement despite losing three members of its infield, third baseman Matt Reynolds, shortstop Tim Carver and second baseman Bo Bigham.

Reynolds was the most accomplished of the three, hitting a team-best .323 with seven home runs and 45 RBIs this season. He was drafted in the second round by the New York Mets, but Van Horn is confident first baseman Dominic Ficociello (.290, 41 RBIs) and others are ready to carry the load.

However next season's roster shapes up for Arkansas, Van Horn won't soon forget how close it came to advancing to the championship series this season. The Razorbacks won their first two games at the College World Series, over Kent State and two-time defending national champion South Carolina, to come within one win of the final series.

Arkansas lost its final two games against the conference nemesis Gamecocks and fell just short.

Still, Van Horn felt like the Razorbacks learned plenty during their four games in Omaha — experience he expects to carry forward.

"I'm just really excited for guys like DJ Baxendale to get to go to the College World Series," Van Horn said. "That's what we want. We want every class to get there.

"We need to get there every third year, at least."