FAYETTEVILLE – It was only a matter of red tape Monday. The Arkansas baseball team knew it was going to the NCAA Tournament. The only question was where.
Turns out, the selection committee thinks the Razorbacks are good.
Arkansas received what was realistically probably its best possible draw during the selection show Monday morning. The Diamond Hogs will head to Stillwater, Oklahoma, as a No. 2 seed. There, old familiar opponents Oklahoma State hold as the host No. 1 and Oral Roberts is the No. 3. The outlier, St. John’s is the fourth seed.
Arkansas and ORU will play the first game of the regional, Friday at noon.
"For the future, it’s right out there in front of us," Arkansas coach Dave Van Horn said. "It’s a great field, and we’re excited that it’s a little closer than last year. I feel like it will give our fans that really want to come see us will have an opportunity to get there. Hopefully Razorback fans will show up. That’ll be fun for our players."
Arkansas has made the NCAA Tournament all 13 seasons Van Horn’s tenure. Stillwater is the closest, other than being at home in Baum Stadium, the Razorbacks have had to travel under Van Horn’s watch
The trip is short. The drive is only about four hours. And it’s the most reasonable destination the Razorbacks could have received outside Springfield, Missouri, and Missouri State. Even then, the winner of the Stillwater regional will play the winner of that Springfield one. And though the Bears are a national No. 8-seed, they’d be unable to host a Super Regional because of a scheduling conflict.
That means Arkansas, if it makes out of Oklahoma, could have baseball at Baum Stadium again.
Well anytime you look at your regional and you think if we were fortunate enough to win it, believe me we have a lot work to do," Van Horn said. "There’s some really good teams in our regional. It’s hard to look that far. We need to get through Oral Roberts."
Florida ends Arkansas’s SEC surge
HOOVER, Ala. — For three days Arkansas threatened the status quo of the Southeastern Conference. It was enough, for a while, to cast doubt on the common knowledge the league was the Big Four and everyone else. Two incredible days even had the guessers and pundits of college baseball re-thinking, wondering if maybe Arkansas was not only a postseason threat, but perhaps a favorite.
It won’t probably won’t happen now, not after Friday’s 10-0, seven-inning, run-rule loss to Florida in the final elimination round of the conference tournament. But coach Dave Van Horn isn’t going to sweat it after a 2-2 showing in Alabama. The odds were always long baseball would return to Baum Stadium in 2015. After nearly two whole weeks away from Fayetteville, the Razorbacks can now, at least, return home, rest and prepare for their next, yet-to-be-determined destination. That location will be figured out come Monday.
"I’m not terribly disappointed at all," Van Horn said. "I told the team walk out of here with your head held up high. We ran out of pitching, bottom line."
Friday was Arkansas’ fourth game in four days. Each time the Razorbacks played the final game of the day. Two of those didn’t end until the morning hours. Both fatigue and brain fog were evident.
Starter Dominic Taccolini lasted just two-plus innings, giving up five runs on five hits and two walks. He left for Lance Phillips with the bases loaded in the third. Taccolini had thrown 40 pitches in three innings just two days earlier out of the bullpen, but threw only 44, including just 24 strikes, Friday.
The pitching wasn’t the only issue, though.
Twice Arkansas first baseman Cullen Gassaway fielded a ball to the right of the bag at first base. Neither time did he bother going to the base to beat the runner. Instead he waiting on his pitcher to make the run from the mound and flipped the ball too late.
Andrew Benintendi mistimed a jump on the warning track on a ball that wasn’t a guaranteed out, but had 50-50 chance to be. It became a single to start the fifth which the Gators turned into a run to make it 7-0.
All the while A.J. Puk was making the Arkansas hitters look silly. Or tired. Or both. He collected seven straight strikeouts over the third, fourth and fifth innings. The Razorbacks lineup couldn’t catch up to his fastball at 97 miles-per-hour and couldn’t judge his changeup at 84. Florida’s left-hander worked all seven innings, giving up just three hits and three walks while striking out 11.
"A.J. Puk was, that’s big-league stuff. When you see a body like that, left-handed, throwing downhill, I don’t know how that kid gets to college," Van Horn said.
Florida posted its biggest chunk of runs in the fifth off, scoring five on four hits and an Arkansas error. Taccolini was tagged with five of those. The Gators plated one in the first, fifth and seventh to complete the scoring.
Benintendi, who was named a semifinalist for the Golden Spikes award before the game, finished the game 0 with 2. He finished the tournament with just one hit, a home run against the Gators on Wednesday. It was his worst four-game stretch of the season. He’s one of 21 players in the country and four in the SEC who were named as semifinalists for the award, which is given to the top amateur baseball player in the nation.
Florida’s win meant all four of the SEC’s top seeds, the four which received first-round byes, made the semifinals. All four could and three are likely to host a regional.
For Arkansas, the loss Friday likely won’t affect its NCAA Tournament selection considerations. The Razorbacks are likely a No. 2 seed and were, too, even before the SEC Tournament began. The only thing, besides a conference title, the Razorbacks had to play for over the last week at The Met was location. That title might have allowed them to host a regional in Fayetteville. A good performance probably secured their location as being within a five-hour drive of Fayetteville. A poor showing might have, and still could, send them farther.
Worn out and ready to go, Van Horn did as expected when the deficit began to grow. He has plans for a bigger prize than a semifinal appearance in the SEC Tournament. Step one of that starts Monday.
"We kind of knew our fate," he said. "We didn’t want to go down by 10, but we knew it was going to be a battle. We weren’t going to bring in (All-SEC reliever Zach) Jackson in the fourth and fifth inning to try to keep it close. You’re either going to win or lose, Right now our minds, just excited about Monday, figuring out where we’re going to be next Friday."