Preparing for the NCAA Tournament, Arkansas posted impressive highlights while winning two of three SEC Tournament games:Dominated the No. 1 seed in the upcoming 64-team competition, defeating a Florida pitcher ranked among the best in the country. Scored 13 runs, the most in six weeks, against South Carolina, No. 2 seed in the East Carolina Regional.
Ironically, the most encouraging developments occurred in the Razorbacks’ only loss. Although carry over from one game to the next is not guaranteed, factoring in the production of Isaiah Campbell, Jake Reindl, and Jared Gates is a must when assessing Arkansas’s chances in the double elimination Regional and beyond.
On Saturday, Campbell pitched like a reliable starter behind Blaine Knight and left-hander Kacey Murphy and a team must win at least three to reach the Super Regional. In his best performance of the year, Campbell struck out seven in five innings and retired 10 in a row in the 2-1 loss. Three weeks earlier, those same Tigers got him for eight hits and five earned runs in 4 1-3 innings.
His command of a variety of pitches evoked high praise from the TV crew and coach Dave Van Horn called Campbell’s 4-5 record deceptive. “His stuff’s a lot better than that,” Van Horn said.
Relieving Campbell, Reindl gave up one hit in four scoreless innings and a solid bullpen is essential in the NCAA Tournament. Even when Knight struck out a career-high 11 vs. Texas A&M in early May, Arkansas’s best pitched only seven innings.
Part of a lineup shuffle in an attempt to get more production from the first baseman, Gates had two of Arkansas’s three hits against LSU, including a home run, and was 1-of-3 in the other two tournament games while batting near the bottom of the order.
Early in the week, pitching coach Wes Johnson and Van Horn were up in the air whether to start Knight, the only 10-0 pitcher in the country, or Murphy against Oral Roberts on Friday although Johnson mentioned that ORU had not faced many left-handers.
Playing three games in Hoover was perfect — enough action to stay sharp, but not so much that the pitching was strained — and getting eliminated in the SEC semifinals does not preclude Arkansas from going deep in the NCAA.
Vanderbilt was 1-2 in Hoover when it won the College World Series in 2014 and Florida lost to Arkansas in the SEC semifinals before taking home the trophy in Omaha last year.
Although the SEC West provided the conference tournament semifinalists and Florida lost six of its last seven, the Gators are best equipped to succeed in Omaha since three juniors, including two pitchers, are supposedly among the top 13 players in the upcoming draft.
Arkansas wrapped up a spot in the NCAA Tournament weeks ago and was always part of speculation about the top eight seeds, a reward deserved for sharing the SEC West title and winning twice in Hoover.
Those accomplishments entitled the fifth-seeded Razorbacks to play the Regional and Super Regional at Baum Stadium where they are 30-3 and one of the voices on the NCAA selection show Monday said it is “hard to imagine them getting beat at Baum …”
Countering that, a curmudgeon is obliged to note that dominance at home is common in the SEC and that baseball is replete with vagaries that often result from a pitcher’s form reversal.
Strictly for historical perspective, the No. 5 seeds have lost three times in the Regional, seven times in the Regional Super, and have won the CWS twice since the tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1999.
The SEC teams provided 147 of the 1,216 tournament teams from 1999 through 2017, won the CWS six times, and has a tournament-high 10 representatives this year. During that same period, the Atlantic Coast Conference placed 124 teams in the tournament and won the CWS once while the Pac-12 won four championships with 88 teams in the tournament.
Starting Friday, surprises are guaranteed.
Sports Columnist Harry King can be reached at: email@example.com