FAYETTEVILLE - Coaches at some of the No. 1 seeds hosting the 16 4-team double-elimination NCAA Baseball regionals that begin winnowing to the eight playing for the national championship at the College World Series today contemplate starting their No. 3, 4 or even No. 5 starter in the tournament’s first round.
Arkansas Razorbacks Coach Dave Van Horn isn’t one of them.
No obscure conference tournament champion or unknown at large opponent for Arkansas throughout this Fayetteville Regional that the Razorbacks host starting Friday at Baum Stadium.
Instead, three formidable, old regional rivals come to Fayetteville that the SEC Tournament and SEC West runners-up nationally No. 12 ranked Razorbacks, 42-17 know well.
The Razorbacks at 7 p.m. Friday open with the fourth-seeded Tulsa based Summit League champion Oral Roberts University Golden Eagles, 42-14.
Second-seeded Missouri Valley Conference regular-season champion Missouri State, 40-17 and the third-seeded Big 12 Tournament champion Oklahoma State Cowboys, only 30-25 but lassoing seven consecutive victories, open the tournament at 2 p.m. Saturday.
Friday’s losers play their elimination game at 2 p.m.Saturday, and Friday’s winners play at 7 p.m. Saturday.
Sunday’s loser’s bracket final is 3 p.m. with its winner returning at 8 p.m. for Sunday’s championship game and 6 p.m. winner take all final if necessary.
No Fayetteville Regional games are on conventional TV but can be seen via the Internet on ESPN3. Arkansas’ games air on the Razorbacks Radio Network.
Van Horn’s Razorbacks have played all three Fayetteville Regionals in various regionals past. This 2017 season Arkansas lost, 8-3 to Oklahoma State while visiting the neutral site of Frisco, Texas and outslugged, 12-4 the Missouri State University Bears at Hammons Field in Springfield, Mo.
None of the three Fayetteville Regional outfits allows Van Horn to gamble in the first two games on starting anybody but one of his by far two ace right-handers, junior Trevor Stephan, 5-3, 3.08 ERA, or sophomore Blaine Knight, 8-4, 3.08,of Bryant.
“Probably about as good a regional as there is out there,” Van Horn said of one through four parity. “I think you could flip a coin on all four teams and they are all about the same.”
Knight and Stephan have interchanged starting the opener of Arkansas’ 3-game SEC series weekends though in the final 3-game SEC series and the SEC Tournament Stephan started the first game.
Van Horn seemed inclined to stick with that format but said it’s not etched in stone.
“We’ll look at the matchups,” Van Horn said whether it’s Stephan or Knight vs. ORU.
ORU’s Golden Eagles have appeared often on Arkansas’ schedule but not since the 2015 Razorbacks beat them and host Oklahoma State in the Stillwater Regional and returned to Baum to beat Missouri State, 2 out of 3 in the Super Regional that advanced them to Van Horn’s fourth College World Series coaching his alma mater.
Last year’s 26-29 overall/ 7-23 in the SEC Hogs marked Van Horn’s first losing season in 15 Arkansas years. They obviously rebounded this year including coming back from a first-round loss to Mississippi State in the SEC Tournament at Hoover, Ala. to rout Auburn, Mississippi State and SEC East champion and national regional seed Florida 12-0, 9-2, and 16-0 before losing, 4-2 in Sunday’s championship game to LSU, the SEC West champion, and also a top eight national seed.
“I think we are playing good,” Van Horn said Monday by phone as the Razorbacks bused back from Hoover. “We ran into a really hot team yesterday. We had a couple of chances to break it open and win the game. For the most part we played solid baseball. I thought we swung the bat extremely well. I like where are at right now.”
Arkansas first baseman Chad Spanberger became an ESPN/SEC Network favorite topics blasting three home runs plus three doubles during Arkansas’ five games in Hoover.
And he wasn’t alone.
“Obviously I was impressed with the power that we showed but also I thought we pitched pretty good,” Van Horn said. “We let Game One slip away (the bullpen lost it after Stephan’s fine start) but other than that we threw a lot of strikes and played solid defense until we dropped that ball yesterday (an error opening the LSU gates) that probably cost us the ballgame.”
Knight, beating Mississippi State with an excellent 6 2-3 innings, a combination 7-inning 10-run rule no-hitter against Auburn by Dominic Taccolini, Matt Cronin and Josh Alberius, and Kacey Murphy’s 7-inning 10-run rule shutout over Florida, and Kevin Kopps and Taccolini pitching well in the 4-2 loss to LSU all merited Van Horn’s praise.
Depending on who wasn’t spent in relief, Van Horn said he would feel comfortable starting Murphy, Kopps or Taccolini if the Hogs reach a Game 3 and that Cronin earns more notice as a situational southpaw out of the pen.
Van Horn likes his Hogs but notes that ORU Coach Ryan Folmar, Missouri State Coach Keith Guttin and Oklahoma State Coach Josh Holliday must be liking their clubs’ performances.
ORU starting pitchers Miguel Asua, a lefty and 11-2, with a 1.67 ERA, and right-handers Josh McMinn, 9-3, 2.08, and Justin McGregor, 9-0, 2.87 give Folmar formidable tournament pitching flexibility while the Golden Eagles hit. .294 with power especially supplied by center fielder Noah Cummings, .325, 14 home runs and 69 RBI, and first baseman Brent Williams, .271 with 16 home runs and 50 RBI.
“They have three really good starters with good numbers,” Van Horn said. “Offense is hitting just under .300 and they hit a lot of home runs. They play a really good nonconference schedule. They kind of dominate their own league. And nonconference they’ve done really against good programs in our region.”
Missouri State third baseman Jake Burger, .341, 22 home runs and 67 RBI, paced the Bears to losing but one Missouri Valley Conference game during the regular season, Van Horn said, noting Oklahoma State has regained some injured players to play in the Big 12 Tournament to the potential projected for the Cowboys.
The winner of the Fayetteville Regional is matched next weekend to play in the best 2 of 3 Super Regional the winner of the Fort Worth Regional hosted by national seed TCU of the Big 12 and including second seed Virginia, third-seed Dallas Baptist and fourth-seed Central Connecticut.
The eight Super Regional winners advance to the College World Series in Omaha.