December 22, 2014

College World Series Preview: Still Grinding

We have seen it all now.

With the miracle finish in Waco putting some much-needed wind in their sails, the Diamond Hogs look to keep it going at the College World Series in Omaha.  The Razorbacks (44-20) will face one of the Cinderella stories of the season right off the bat — the Kent State Golden Flashes (46-18) — Saturday at 4:00 on ESPN.

Without question, Dave Van Horn’s 2012 squad was the most unlikely of his three Arkansas teams to date to make it this far.  The Hogs pitching staff has just been lights out in five of the six NCAA tournament games.  And with some solid defensive play thrown in for good measure, this team has scratched and clawed their way to the mountain.  Gutsy doesn’t begin to describe their level of play the last two weekends.

Grinding, though, isn’t pretty.  We know this has been a frustrating year for fans because of the lack of production at the plate.  It has forced the pitchers to be perfect, and sometimes they just can’t be.  But you have to be proud of the way the entire team has competed down the stretch.  Whether they win it all or not, this team has stuck together and exceeded expectations.

Arkansas’ side of the bracket looks like a SEC convention down in Destin.  South Carolina and Florida join the Hogs and Kent State.  The winner of that four-team group will play in the best-two-out-of-three Championship Series against the winner of the other side of the bracket (UCLA, Arizona, Stony Brook, and Florida State).

South Carolina is the two-time defending CWS champions and have won a record 21 straight NCAA tournament games.  Florida is the #1 overall seed in this year’s tourney.  The Hogs have played these two very well this season, going 3-3 against them combined.  Florida has the best players, but after suffering though a mid-season slump, didn’t even win the Eastern division.

Kent State is making their first appearance in the College World Series.  The #3 seed out of the Gary Regional, the Golden Flashes took down Purdue and Kentucky (twice) to advance.  Then in the Super Regional, KSU dropped Oregon — winning 2 of 3 in Eugene. All three were one-run games.  These guys are an experienced team who have won the MAC the last four years.

We’re guessing the Hogs will see left-handed starter David Starn (11-3, 2.21, 114 IP, 89 H, 45 BB, 123 Ks) out of the gate.  Starn, a seventh round selection by the Atlanta Braves, is eighth nationally in strikeouts.  The Hogs will have to try and work the count on this guy and get his pitch count up quick.

At the plate, the Golden Flashes are led by 2012 MAC MVP first baseman George Roberts (.368, 8HRs, 64 RBIs, 23 2B). Shortstop Jimmy Rider (.364, 5HRs, 56 RBIs, 29 2B, 66 Rs) is second nationally in doubles.

While the Hogs bracket is formidable, their first round draw is good.  Kent State is not as good as Baylor, so if we can find a way in game 1, Stanek will be sitting there ready for the Florida-South Carolina winner.  Who knows…stranger things have happened. Enjoy the ride.