State of the Hogs: Simple strategy

Dave Van Horn knows what it takes to be successful in the College World Series. The Arkansas coach is taking his sixth team to Omaha.

Arkansas has the sixth best odds at winning the College World Series. Florida, LSU, Vanderbilt, Miami and TCU – with at least 47 wins on the season – are the clear choice of the smart guys in Las Vegas.

Dave Van Horn doesn't really care at this point. He remember March when he didn't want to be seen around town. The Arkansas head coach remembers when his team was just 11-12 and stood 1-5 in the SEC standings.

There's a simple formula for playing well in Omaha. Van Horn, who will take his sixth team to the CWS, thinks his team can handle it, too.

“You throw strikes and play good defense, you'll be in the game,” Van Horn said Tuesday when he met with the media at Baum Stadium. “We know what it will take.”

Arkansas (40-23) opens with Virginia (39-22) at 2 p.m. Saturday in the CWS opener. It sounds simple, but Van Horn said the key will be getting a good night's rest and not getting caught up in the hoopla. That's why he spent a long time going over details in a team meeting Tuesday.

“We were late getting on the field today,” he said Tuesday. “We talked a long time about everything that's going to happen in Omaha, all of the distractions, knowing how many people are going to be calling them for tickets, the opening ceremonies. There's the fireworks Friday night. But, we play first Saturday, so they need to get to bed and get some rest.”

The good news, Van Horn said, is that the Hogs have a veteran lineup. The only newcomers are junior college transfers Rick Nomura and Tucker Pennell. The rest started last year. Opening day pitcher Trey Killian has been in the weekend rotation for three seasons.

The Hogs have been in and out of the national polls of late, but they want be intimidated by anyone in the field. They have played weekend series against three No. 1s this year, winning at Texas A&M. They won one of three against LSU. They were swept at Vanderbilt, the defending national champs, but had chances to win two of those games.

And, they have top-shelf talent, including No. 7 overall draft pick Andrew Benintendi, the SEC leader in batting average (.380) and home runs (19). Closer Zach Jackson, sophomore righthander, has been mentioned as a potential first round pick next year. He's 5-0 with nine saves.

The bad news is that the pitching depth is depleted with the loss of Dominic Taccolini (shoulder) and James Teague (elbow) to injuries. Teague is the latest to fall out of the rotation. He pitched the first four innings Sunday against Missouri State, but he's now out with a stress reaction. He'll be shut down for around two months and is out for the CWS.

Benintendi has been hot and cold of late. He struggled in the SEC tournament, then made the all-tournament teams in the Stillwater Regional. He had a tough time against MSU's starting lefthanders on Saturday and Sunday. His batting average has dipped from .417 just three weeks ago.

“I think there's been a lot of pressure,” Van Horn said. “But I think getting through the draft will be a big help.”

Benintendi said he's tried to take a level approach through the last month. He downplays the pressure.

“I don't think it was all of that,” he said. “I just think it's baseball. But I'm looking forward to getting to Omaha and helping us win some games. I put pressure on myself to do well every day. It's not been anything other than what I did in that way all season.”

Virginia has had some injuries. They are far from the team which eliminated the Hogs in Charlottesville, Va., last June. But, they may be getting ace pitcher Nathan Kirby back for the CWS. He's been out most of the last month with an injury.

“I hear that,” Van Horn said. “But I wouldn't think he could pitch a lot of innings. We figure we'll see the guys they've been pitching.

“But I'll say this, they are a good team. They are always solid. They play fundamental baseball and don't beat themselves. You will have to beat them. They take a good approach at the plate and play good defense.”

The Hogs are excited for the trip. Junior right fielder Tyler Spoon said the Hogs are on a roll and don't fear anyone.

“We know we are playing solid baseball right now,” Spoon said. “We are a close team. We enjoy playing with each other.”

Jackson said it's a team that hangs out in the locker room and became close on a 13-day road trip that spanned a trip to play Creighton in Omaha, a trip to Georgia and the SEC tournament.

“I think we got a lot closer then,” he said. “It's a family atmosphere. We are close and we like each other.”

Killian said it's “easily the closest” of the three teams he's played for at Arkansas.

“I think it's maybe because we went through so much,” he said. “We struggled early and that will draw you closer.”

Sometime along the way Van Horn decided it was safe to go out in public again.

“Yeah, I did,” he said Tuesday. “I couldn't explain what was going on back in March.”

Now, there's nothing much to say. It usually is a one word answer to congratulations on one of his best coaching jobs. All he has to do is say, “Thanks.”

There were not many who saw this coming. I talked to James McCann earlier this week. The Detroit Tigers catcher works out in the winter in the UA indoor facility. His brother is a team manager for the Hogs.

“I told someone here (in Detroit) that either two things were going to happen with that rough start, either they were going to be in for a tough season, or it might lead to something,” McCann said. “I told him these scuffles might pull them together and they ended up with something special. That's what has happened.”

McCann played in the 2012 CWS and was the catcher in the 12-inning victory over Virginia that featured three future major leaguers for the Hogs – Drew Smyly, Mike Bolsinger and Dallas Keuchel. McCann knows the Hogs still have talented players.

“I've seen these guys practice,” McCann said. “I was around them in January. I know what they've got. They have ability.”

Dave Van Horn knows that, too. That's why his instruction to his team is simple. Just throw strikes and play defense and get to bed early Friday night.

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