State of the Hogs: Pitching

Give Dave Van Horn credit for knowing how to adjust his team to the way college baseball has changed. It has paid off with another trip to Omaha.

Dave Van Horn can sound like a fortune teller at times. He often says, "We saw it coming." How about this trip to Omaha?

Van Horn didn't say that exactly when he was interviewed on Bo Mattingly's radio show on Tuesday, but he did admit that the NCAA's decision to modify the bats several years ago forced him to change the way he recruited.

I can remember hearing the first little tips that the bats were changing. It came from Van Horn. It was at the 2009 College World Series when the Hogs had sluggers Zack Cox, Andy Wilkins and Brett Eibner cracking balls out of Rosenblatt Stadium -- but not quite enough on the mound.

"They are going to slow the game down, change the bats," Van Horn said. "We probably are going to spend a little more (scholarship) money on pitching than hitting. That's probably the direction the college game is going."

So Arkansas blanked Baylor for the final 14 innings in winning 5-4 and 1-0 to win the Waco Super Regional over the last two days. It gives Van Horn three trips to the CWS in nine years and five covering stints at Arkansas and Nebraska.

Interestingly, fans and media have been critical of the offense this year as the Hogs have gone 44-20. ESPN college baseball analysts called the Hogs "a mystery" offensive club after the NCAA field was announced two weeks ago. The negative talk is fine with Van Horn.

"It's up to them," Van Horn said of the criticism. "We just are going to keep grinding. There has been a lot more support than negative.

"It's part of the job. It's what college athletics is all about and sports in general, so much passion. I'm glad we have that passion.

"We are good with (the criticism). We are big boys. We can handle it."

They can handle it because of great pitching. Van Horn said he remembers the decision several years back to change the focus of recruiting to more high velocity arms.

"You look at all of the regionals, it's the way the game is now," he said. "Oregon and Kent State played three one-run games."

Two of them were settled by 3-2 counts.

"People just don't realize it," Van Horn said. "Obviously, we lost some good hitters off of last year's team. You take our three outfielders out of the lineup and James McCann, that's the heart of the lineup. We replaced them with players who are not used to the type of pitching we face in the SEC."

Van Horn said the pitching has gotten better and better, along with the lack of pop in the bats as mandated by the NCAA over the last two seasons.

"I've been in the SEC for 10 years and this is the best the pitching has ever been," he said. "But we are still here. Day in and day out, we find a way. We had to find another way to win.

"Obviously, with 11.7 scholarships, you have to make decisions depending on who commits."

Van Horn said he did see the game changing several years ago.

"We had a good club in '09," he said. "We could hit. But I knew then that we had to change and go get more pitching because the bats were going to change. We had spent money on hitting, but we had to invest more scholarship money on pitching."

The Hogs were rated No. 4 by several national college baseball magazines in preseason and climbed as high as No. 3 in early March.

"That was a little over rated," he said. "But I couldn't tell those national magazines we should have been about No. 15. We just had lost a lot of offense. I did think we were going to pitch, but we were iffy with the offense. It's just the way it is. My hats are off to the coaches and players because they just kept playing.

"They did it the hard way (by winning two regionals in Texas). The number one thing about this team, they really like each other. There was some talk that there were issues on this team and that was so far off. The people who said that didn't have a clue. We are so close."

As far as ratings, Van Horn gave high marks to the Bears. He did not think Baylor was rated too high at No. 4 as far as the national seeds. He said a 20-4 Big 12 record was all he needed to know.

"Baylor was really, really good," he said. "After the 8-1 game Saturday, I thought it would take two nearly perfect games to get them. They had every ingredient. They had outstanding pitching, strike throwers. They had offensive numbers and they could field.

"This was one of the best teams we played. We were fortunate. But we play hard and we made some great moves with our pitching. Coach (Dave) Jorn called great games and we didn't leave our pitchers out there too long."

Now it's off to play Kent State at 4 p.m. Saturday, the second day of the CWS. He'll see a new friend from last summer, Kent State coach Scott Stricklin. They coached together with Team USA last July.

"The last day we were together was (in Omaha) at TD America Park, the last day of that little series with Japan," Van Horn said. "I'm happy for him and we'll be back together in Omaha. He told me that his team was older and going to be really good."

This is one time Van Horn didn't say he saw it coming. But maybe he did.

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