FAYETTEVILLE – When Arkansas was at its lowest this season, the opportunity to play every day was exactly the medicine it needed.
The result was a sudden and shocking turnaround that led to the Razorbacks’ fourth appearance in the College World Series in 13 seasons under coach Dave Van Horn.
Arkansas (40-23) opens play in Omaha on Saturday against Virginia (39-22), the same team that eliminated the Razorbacks in regional NCAA play last season.
Even returning to a regional seemed a far-fetched possibility for Arkansas after it fell to 11-12 following a defeat to Memphis on March 24. However, the Razorbacks bounced back the next night for a 7-3 win over the Tigers — following that by taking two of three games from Ole Miss.
The series against the Rebels happened after a late-night bus ride home from Memphis, one the weary Razorbacks turned into a springboard for their unexpected turnaround.
“We never lost another series,” Van Horn said. “And we still haven’t lost a series … I feel so fortunate to be going back (to the College World Series), and I’m happy for this team because of where we came from.”
Since falling below .500 on the season in the loss to Memphis, Arkansas has gone on a 29-9 tear to end its season — including sweeping the Oklahoma State regional and taking two of three games against nationally seeded Missouri State last weekend.
Also, Van Horn was correct about the Razorbacks’ success in series play — particularly during their late-season push in the Southeastern Conference. After taking two of three games against Mississippi, Arkansas won its final six SEC series, with one two-game split with Tennessee as well.
“I feel like a lot of people doubted us a little bit, and if anything, that drove us and brought us closer together when we were struggling,” Arkansas closer Zach Jackson said. “That paid off, and we’re closer than ever right now.”
While success is nothing new for a program that’s reached the NCAA Tournament in each of Van Horn’s 13 seasons, this season’s recovery has left the Razorbacks with a larger-than-usual sense of perspective about what they’ve accomplished.
And it’s allowed them to carry a chip on their shoulder into the College World Series, where their depleted pitching staff has many wondering if they can realistically challenge for a national championship.
Arkansas was already without starting pitcher Dominic Taccolini because of an injury against Missouri State, and Van Horn said this week that James Teague — who started the super regional-clinching win — is out for the College World Series with a “stress reaction” in his pitching elbow.
Junior Trey Killian is expected to start against Virginia, but anything is possible on the mound after that as the Razorbacks try to get to Jackson — who is 5-0 with nine saves and a 1.91 ERA this season. The sophomore went 3 2-3 innings to close out Missouri State, striking out six of the 12 batters he faced, but the rest of Arkansas’ staff has been inconsistent all season.
While even Van Horn will admit the pitching staff is unproven, one area the Razorbacks have few question marks is on offense — with center fielder Andrew Benintendi leading the way.
The sophomore was the seventh pick in the Major League Baseball draft by the Boston Red Sox this week, and he’s tied for the national lead with 19 home runs this season. Also, fellow outfielder Tyler Spoon is hitting .331 and more than ready to prove Arkansas can continue its second-half resurgence in Omaha.
“Coach told us that we had to earn it,” Spoon said. “But here we are now; I feel like we earned it.”