State of the Hogs: Going Batty

Big park and top-line pitching means College World Series could be low-scoring games -- much like the 12-innning duel between Arizona and Florida State on the opening day.

OMAHA, Neb. -- The numbers say that Arkansas had a tough year. The offense was iffy at best. Well, that's in comparison to two years ago when the Hogs were cracking balls out of Baum Stadium for a school record of 92 home runs.

Then came the modified bats. And, Andy Wilkins, Zack Cox and Brett Eibner left town.

If you want a great illustration with what happened between 2010 and 2011, check out Collin Kuhn's numbers. He hit 16 home runs and .336 as the leadoff man in 2010. Moved to the two spot last year when the big boppers left and the bats were modified, Kuhn hit just seven home runs with a .282 batting average.

Then the Hogs lost James McCann, Jarrod McKinney, Kyle Robinson and Kuhn -- the big bats in the middle of the order. The pitching got better as more and more scholarship money was spent in that direction, but the hitting hasn't kept pace.

Arkansas hitting coach Todd Butler gets the blame. But he was the recruiting coordinator going out to find all of that pitching, sacrificing hitting. Pitching coach Dave Jorn is clear on that.

"I appreciate Todd," Jorn said. "He's the one who was out on the road signing those pitchers. It's the best staff I've ever coached and Todd made the sacrifice. We know that. He knew that's what we needed to get back to Omaha and agreed with the strategy. It's worked. Give him credit."

Butler smiles at that praise and he saw it coming. He thought the pitching was legit and would stand tall in postseason play just as it did in 1-0 victories at Rice and Baylor, the key points in the runs to the College World Series.

"I'm not surprised," Butler said. "I told this group in the fall that I thought we were assembled with the right combinations to go to Omaha. I thought we would be here.

"It's a different type of team than we've had. It's more pitching. The 2009 team that got here was more built with hitting in mind. But they are both good clubs and good enough to be here."

Styles are the key.

"Let's go back to Florida State in 2009," Butler said. "They scored 102 runs ... beat Ohio State 38-2. What are you going to tell the team. I'm going to go back to what Skip Bertman told his LSU team before 1997 when we beat LSU 28-2 and had 32 hit, he told his guys, 'They are exhausted. They are tired. They've had so many hits and had to run the bases so much they won't have energy for the next weekend. We went to Florida State and beat them twice.

"We have to go out there and pitch and play defense and get timely hitting. If we pitch well, it's great for the recruiting coordinator, me, but if we don't pitch well, it's bad if these pitchers I recruited don't do well, you see. "This was fun to assemble this team. I lot of people think I'm just the hitting coach. I'm not. I recruited these great pitchers and help Coach (Dave) Jorn and Coach (Dave) Van Horn. It's fun to assemble these teams. I've been doing this 22 years, 15 in the SEC and it's my fifth trip here to the World Series and all of the teams are different."

It's all about timely hitting.

"This team was built with pitching," Butler said. "We need timely hitting. We are not going to go out there and hit .300. We all know that. You look at Florida, they hit .284. You look at Arkansas, .273. The two-time national champs South Carolina, they hit .271. All you people look at that. There was one team in the SEC hit .300. The bats are changed. They are not as powerful.

"It's about pitching, timely hitting and defense. That's how the game is played now."

How good is this total team?

"If you look at last year's tournament here, the thing that I saw was that the combined team batting averages for all of the teams was .240," Butler said. "South Carolina won it and they hit .269. What stands out from last year's world series, the ERA. That's what it's about.

"This park sits just like Baum Stadium. Well, the wind is going to blow in so the numbers are going to be deflated.

"I think if you look at the three SEC teams that are here, all of us are hitting under .300. All of the other teams are hitting over .300. But they don't have the pitching in their leagues that we have in the SEC.

"I think we have a chance. I'm proud to be there. I think we've got a good chance and we are looking forward to playing. We have an outstanding pitching staff.

"When we've been here before, we had starting pitching, but we didn't have a deep bullpen. We do now."

There has been criticism of Butler because of the low batting average.

"It would be like a pipe fitter or someone who works hard for a living," he said. "You do something for a living and you are proud of it. I've worked hard.

"I keep talking about assembling a team. It would be like having a great offense in football, but you can't stop anyone. We've been good. We need to play right at the right time. Let's remember this team was 23-3 and was No. 3.

"Then we got into the SEC and lost a lot of 1-run games and didn't get the timely hitting. SEC is tough. We see 95-98 mph pitching and everything else. Yeah, it's tough, but all of that helps prepare us for postseason.

"It seems like every year people complain. Our park is tough to hit in. The wind blows it. You better keep the ball out of the air. We moved in the right field fence in and it helped a little bit.

"I'm proud of these guys. Are we a great hitting club. No. But most of the money is in our pitching staff.

"When we are called down to get a sac bunt down, we have to execute the bunt. We work on that every day. We have to execute the hit and run. We have to get the timely hit and battle.

"Great teams rise to the right moment. This team is good enough. I told them that in the fall. It's not a sprint, it's a marathon. There are 56 games.

"A lot happens. The Auburn weekend, we had no energy because of finals. Some guys were up to 4 a.m. studying. We had to work to get that energy back. We've got it now."

Butler knows where the punch will come from this lineup.

"Tim Carver, Matt Reynolds and Dominic Ficociello have been consistent," Butler said. "We need the bottom of the order to get on base for those top three guys.

"Ficociello has to give us more than he has in the last month. He's made some adjustments and I think he can."

This team is seasoned. The SEC gets you prepared. We want to win the SEC tournament. We want to as coaches and players. We went 0-and-2 in the tournament and everyone losing their mind.

"Coaches are coming up to me and tell me the best thing for you guys is to get home and get prepared for the NCAA and you'll be in Omaha. Guys I've known all my life and they were right.

"And here we are. Now we need to have a great tournament and enjoy it. This may be the week where we bust out the bats and have a great run."

Todd Butler supervises batting cage work in Omaha.

Photo by Clay Henry

Tim Carver sports the practice shirts the Hogs are wearing in Omaha.

Photo by Jason Carroll, KNWA

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