MANHATTAN, Kan. - Nothing like playing an NCAA Regional on carpet against a team playing its first ever game in the Big Dance.
That's the stage set for No. 15 and second-seeded Arkansas (37-20) when it opens play Friday night against third-seeded Bryant University (44-16-1) at 7 p.m at Tointon Family Stadium.
The Razorbacks will be playing on a field that is totally synthetic turf, green in the infield and brown on the base paths. The only dirt on the field is on the pitcher's mound.
"If your infielders are fairly quick – and ours are – you should be able to make plays and get to balls," Arkansas head coach Dave Van Horn said Thursday afternoon after practice. "It will expose you if you are big and slow and you are just a big power-hitting team...It's different getting out of those batter's boxes a little, but realistically when it comes down to it, it is about playing good baseball."
Arkansas, whose game will follow Friday afternoon's 2 p.m. battle between top-seeded and host Kansas State (43-17) and Wichita State (39-26), spent about 10 minutes working on sliding into second base because the turf speeds you up as you go in.
"Running the bases is always an issue, but sliding is the issue here," Van Horn said. "We just wanted to slide a little bit. We've watched some games on TV with this stuff and guys were just sliding right through the bag and they just keep the tag on you and get you. Their guys (Kansas State) slide a little earlier and are safe. So we were just trying to figure it out a little bit."
Bryant head coach Steve Owens is happy his team does have experience with synthetic turf surfaces, but also had his team working on its sliding on Thursday afternoon during practice.
"We have played a lot of games on turf so they just needed to get reacclimated to it," Owens said. "We played probably 25 games on turf. We don't have it, but a lot of teams in our conference do. We also played at Ohio State, Oregon State's turf and four to five weekend series in our conference on turf."
It has been a long road for Bryant – located in Smithville, R.I. - to get to its first NCAA game with the Bulldogs being unable to go the past three years despite winning three straight Northeastern Conference regular season titles.
That was because of the certification process involved as the program moves to Division I.
After losing their conference tournament opener, the school won the next four to get the automatic NCAA bid in a regional hosted by the Wildcats.
"If they (the Bulldogs) are not excited, then something is wrong with them," Owens said. "They played pretty even keeled all year. We could not play in the conference tournament until this year. We won the regular season three of the last four years, but then the season was over. Their goal was to play the 56th game and win it. Now we are excited that we have the opportunity to go on and keep playing in the NCAA Tournament."
The game will pit two teams with the best pitching staffs in college baseball with Arkansas' ERA of 1.84 tops in the country and Bryant's 2.54 in the top 10.
The match-up Friday will have Razorback junior right hander Barret Astin (4-4, 1.94) opposing Bryant senior righthander Peter Kelich (7-4, 2.53), an All-Northeastern Conference first-team selection.
"I would hope that it is a (pitcher's duel)," Owens said. "I would expect nothing other than a really good pitching match up because their pitching staff is elite, they play in the SEC and when you have the best ERA in the country and you are playing (30) games against SEC teams, that is really elite.
"We don't get to face hitters every day like that in our conference every day, but our pitchers have pitched well and we have good depth there," Owens added. "We used five starters last weekend to come out of the loser's bracket and we have a good bullpen."
Van Horn expects a challenge from Kelich, who has fanned 83 and walked just 18 this season.
"We are facing a senior who has been going up against everybody's number one all year and his numbers are very good," Van Horn said. "He doesn't give up a lot of hits, he doesn't walk people. He knows how to get people out...When you get a chance to put together a big inning, you had better get a hit and drive in runs and hopefully we can do that."
Van Horn has extreme confidence in Astin, who last outing was a gem against Ole Miss in the SEC Tournament.
"I feel good about Barrett all the time and his last two outings have been really good," Van Horn said. "His outing in the tournament was lights out. He threw eight strong innings and threw 90 pitches. He could have gone out for the ninth, but we just chose to get him out of there because of what was coming up the next weekend – tomorrow night, the Regional.
"Hopefully he is rested, he is ready to roll and hopefully he throws like he has really in his last two outings," Van Horn said.
Likewise, Owens has extreme confidence in what he will get from Kelich.
"His ERA is pretty good, he doesn't walk people and he pitches out of jams," Owens said. "He's got like 32 wins in four years. He is just a real good solid guy that we have a lot of confidence in."
Kelich was asked what he knew about Arkansas.
"I think we know they were preseason number one so that is a pretty awesome accomplishment," Kelich said. "We are not looking too much into it. We have scouting reports and we are just go on and take it one inning at a time."
Kelich talked about his mindset when taking the mound.
"I try to stay level-headed," Kelich said. "I try not to let my emotions get too high or too low. I pride myself on being even-keeled on the mound and just keeping the ball down. I let my movement work more than my velocity. I just try to have fun every time I go out."
Owens doesn't think his players will be in awe of its opponents this weekend.
"This is not my first time, it's my fourth or fifth," Owen said. "The players have played good summer leagues and played with guys from all the big schools. I am sure they are excited, but hopefully there is no learning process and we just come out and play good baseball."
That's in part because of playing four games against national seed Oregon State early in the season - albeit losing all four by scores of 2-1, 7-2, 5-1 and 14-0.
"What we learned is that if you make any little mistake that a really good team is going to beat you," Owens said. "We learn that they have 15 pitchers that throw over 90 miles an hour with no pitches over your knees with plus breaking stuff and command of breaking stuff. And that the last guy coming out of the bullpen is probably better than most people's guy.
"But we also learned that we could play with them and so it was good for our hitters to see that," Owens said. "Our pitchers faced elite hitters, too, and good quality speed on the bases and speed defensively."
Van Horn noted his Hogs will not be taking their first opponent lightly.
"I told our guys last week that whoever we get set up with that it doesn't matter what it says across that jersey, we have to got to go play or they will beat you," Van Horn said. "That's our mindset and I think that is why we have done pretty well the last few years. We just approach it real business like and get after whoever we are playing."
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