State of the Hogs: Closing Time

Zach Jackson has been the difference maker for Arkansas all season. Can the Hogs get to Jackson again in the College World Series?

OMAHA, Neb. -- One of the major pillars in Dave Van Horn's coaching philosophy turned out to be giant in the first game of the College World Series.

Van Horn has taken Arkansas to the NCAA tournament for all of his 13 seasons as head coach in large part because he's always got a great closer. He believes most of the excitement in college baseball happens in the seventh, eighth and ninth innings.

The veteran coach has preached the value of the closer every time I've asked him about his theories on winning at the college level.

“A lot of teams have good starting pitching, but did they save anyone for the back end?” Van Horn said. “I want a great guy in the bullpen for the end of the game.”

Virginia's Brian O'Connor has the same beliefs. And, he knew that Van Horn would have star Zach Jackson ready for the end of game fireworks Saturday in the CWS opener. That's why O'Connor went early to his closer, Josh Sborz, the key move in Virginia's 5-3 victory.

It was Sborz who had the electric slider, his out pitch which produced five strikeouts in three innings. Meanwhile Jackson was missing the electric slider that had been his difference pitch for nine saves and a 5-0 record. It seemed to be down about 3 mph and didn't feature the sharp snap.

Van Horn was asked about Jackson's velocity after Sunday's practice at an Omaha area high school field. Was the velocity down Saturday?

"Yeah," Van Horn said.

As to why, he was perplexed.

"I have no reason why," Van Horn said. "He's had five days to rest. It happens every now and then. It was a good day to get loose, humid, fairly warm in the 70s. Who's to say what it was? With him, it wasn't really about velocity, it was more about location. He had a chance to get a couple guys and they did a good job laying off some pitches. He had to go through the middle of that order, and their two, three and four-hole guys are pretty good."

Jackson will need the location for that devastating slider on Monday if the Hogs are to stay alive.

“It's a wipeout pitch,” James Teague told me last week. “Really, Zach's got a fast ball, a slider and a change and each of them is the best pitch of our staff.”

It's the pitch that earned him the honor of closing for Team USA this summer.

While Sborz was striking out Tucker Pennell (twice), Joe Serrano, Tyler Spoon and Rick Nomura, Jackson delivered just one strikeout against the seven Virginia batters he faced.

Worse, the Cavs stole three bases on Jackson, never quick to the plate with a high leg kick. Generally, that doesn't matter because Jackson gets strikeouts. Not on this day.

The key was that Sborz was getting the strikeouts. The Virginia reliever was perhaps more comfortable in the setting. It was his fourth College World Series victory. It was Jackson's first time on the big stage that is the CWS.

The good news is that Jackson could get another chance Monday when the Hogs face Miami in an elimination game at 2 p.m. The question remains, can the Hogs get the game to Jackson. It's going to come down to freshman Keaton McKinney and senior Jackson Lowery to set the stage.

Van Horn wouldn't name a starter in the post-game press conference Saturday. But he said later that it would most likely be McKinney unless there was a problem at practice Sunday. Lowery started the finale at the Stillwater Regional and delivered.

McKinney has been ineffective in his last three starts and will be on a short leash. Lowery might start the game in the bullpen.

The Hogs should figure they'll need early offense, just like they got in the clinching game against Missouri State last weekend. They scored the game's first three runs and made it stand up for a 3-2 win to punch their ticket to Omaha.

Yes, they've had some brilliant come-from-behind victories this season. But Miami has a great back end in the bullpen. Actually, the Hurricane has two fine pitchers to turn to after the sixth inning.

Closer Bryan Garcia (5-2, 10 saves, 2.31 ERA) and Cooper Hammond (5-1, 2 saves, 2.31 ERA). Garcia has 36 strikeouts in 38 innings.

That's why Florida coach Kevin O'Sullivan said he was nervous until the Gators put up an 11-spot in the fourth inning in the 15-3 victory over Miami on Saturday. Down early, O'Sullivan challenged his team in a dugout meeting after the third inning to change their approach at the plate.

“We had a four-pitch inning in the third,” O'Sullivan said. “We couldn't let them get their starter to their backend. We wanted to make him throw some pitches and not let him get all the way to their two end of game guys.”

That will be the challenge for Arkansas. There's a fine line between extending at bats and being aggressive. Can you do both? That's what coaches are talking about when they talk about approach.

Who gets to their closer with a little cushion? Or who gets to their closer period?

That's what staying alive in the CWS will come down to for Arkansas and Miami in the first elimination game of the tournament on Monday afternoon.

College World Series Notes

Arkansas is 0-4 all-time against the Hurricanes, dropping a three-game series in Coral Gables in 1985, before falling to Miami at a neutral site in 2001. Coach Van Horn has never faced Miami in his 21 years as a Division I head coach.

Leading Off

• The Razorbacks are one of just five teams nationally to advance to the NCAA Tournament each of the last 14 years. Arkansas is joined by Cal State Fullerton, Florida State, Miami (Fla.) and Rice as the only programs to accomplish the feat.

• Arkansas continues its postseason quest, advancing to the College World Series for the eighth time in program history, making appearances in 1979, 1985, 1987, 1989, 2004, 2009, 2012 and now 2015.

• The Razorbacks look to top the program-best National Runner-up finish in 1979. Since the title game appearance, Arkansas has never won more than two games during a trip to Omaha.

• Arkansas is 71-60 all-time in the NCAA Tournament, including 17 tournament wins in the last four years.

• The Razorbacks are 7-4 in postseason play: 2-2 in the SEC Tournament, 3-0 in the Stillwater Regional, 2-1 in the Fayetteville Super Regional and 0-1 in the World Series.

• The Razorbacks are 11-15 all-time in the College World Series and 4-4 in CWS openers after Saturday’s loss to Virginia.

• Over his 13 seasons at Arkansas, DVH has led the Razorbacks to four College World Series appearances, five Super Regionals, 13 NCAA Tournament berths, one Southeastern Conference overall title, three SEC Western Division championships and a total of 524 wins, averaging more than 40 wins per season.

Andrew Benintendi Notes

• Hit his nation-leading 20th home run of the year in the fifth inning against Virginia.

• Is the first player in program history with 20 homers and 20 stolen bases in a season.

• Is the fifth player in program history to hit 20 or more home runs in a season.

• Is the first NCAA Division I player since Western Kentucky’s Wade Gaynor in 2009 to hit 20 home runs and steal 20 bases in a season.

History in the Making

Andrew Benintendi is on the brink of becoming the third player in SEC history to lead the league in home runs and batting average, currently holding a two-homer lead and six-point edge in batting average. He would join Rafael Palmeiro (Miss State in ‘84) and Jeff Abbott (UK in ‘94) as the only players in conference history to accomplish the feat.

Benintendi’s Awards and Accolades

• Dick Howser Trophy Winner

• Baseball America National Player of the Year

• Collegiate Baseball National Player of the Year

• Southeastern Conference Player of the Year

• Golden Spikes Award Finalist

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