With four wins in five games, Arkansas may be making a patented Dave Van Horn move as post-season play approaches. It's too early to know for sure, but it sure looks like it.
The latest push came Tuesday night when the Razorbacks rallied from a 5-2 deficit to defeat No. 24 Oklahoma State, 7-6, at Baum Stadium. Just like last week when they beat Creighton on Tuesday, then won two of three from Kentucky, there were some not-so-subtle differences in Van Horn's lineup.
The Hogs still have an uphill battle to make their 15th straight NCAA tournament appearance, 14th under Van Horn as head coach. They are 25-16 overall, 6-12 in the SEC and have nothing but tough games left on their schedule. Texas A&M, fourth in the RPI, comes to Baum to begin a three-game series on Friday night.
Van Horn started freshmen Eric Cole in left field, Cody Scroggins at third base and Grant Koch at catcher. The starting pitcher was Isaiah Campbell, another freshman. Campbell pitched well enough that Van Horn is considering the 6-4, 230-pounder as his Sunday starter in yet another tweak to his weekend rotation. The closer was another freshman, Blaine Knight. Freshmen Weston Rogers, Barrrett Loske and Kacey Murphy pitched to 15 batters in the middle innings.
With Scroggins playing well at third base over the last week, Van Horn has moved Carson Shaddy to center field. It seems to have relaxed the sophomore from Fayetteville. Shaddy has committed a team-high 12 errors at third base.
Shaddy has been terrific at the plate and solid in center since the switch. He went 3-for-5 on Tuesday night. It was his triple in the eighth that was the highlight for the Hogs as they scored five runs in their final three at bats to catch the Cowboys.
With the score tied, 5-5, Clark Eagan cranked a one-out double to get the Hogs started in the eighth. Shaddy golfed a low slider over the leaping center fielder that went for a triple to plate Eagan. Shaddy scored on Luke Bonfield's long sacrifice fly to right field to provide some breathing room as the Hogs took a 7-5 lead to the ninth.
Van Horn had one more freshman ready for the ninth. Junior James Teague, effective in the eighth, gave up a two-out run to set up a spot for the new closer.
Knight, the skinny 6-3 Bryant product, made three good pitches, getting Colin Simpson on a weak pop to Scroggins in foul ground. It was Knight's first closing opportunity.
"We had some young players out there and they got some good experience for the future," Van Horn said. "Some of those young pitchers are going to be able to pitch longer in time."
Yes, and they came through in the present. The question is can they do it over the next four weekends when the Hogs play A&M, LSU, Alabama and Mississippi State.
It's clear that Van Horn likes the way Scroggins is playing at third and the way Shaddy has hit since the move to center.
"His arm was bothering him and we needed to change it up," Van Horn said of Shaddy, returning from summer Tommy John surgery on his elbow. "His errors were all throwing. He's fielded it fine. And I think he's relaxed since moving to center. He's played it before and so far so good.
"Cody has made all the plays at third. It's worked. Cody got a bunt down tonight and he hit one hard at Kentucky. He'll get more comfortable at the plate."
Van Horn juggled his starting lineup the last two weekends, moving Zach Jackson to the starting rotation. Dominic Taccolini has been in and out of the rotation, back in last weekend at Kentucky when he pitched a 10-inning shutout. It will be Taccolini and Jackson to start the A&M series. Campbell will probably replace Keaton McKinney on Sunday.
Campbell gave up three runs, two earned. He made it one out into the fourth, throwing 63 pitches. His fast ball is solid, but there weren't a lot of strikes with his breaking ball. He throws 90-92 with his fast ball.
"He's given us a good three innings," Van Horn said. "I wish he'd go a little further. But he's throwing 20 pitches an inning. It needs to be about five fewer an inning."
Knight has pitched in 12 games with five starts. He started the season in the weekend rotation, but wasn't always solid. He's been better of late. As for the closing role, Van Horn said he's looking for someone to step up with Jackson in the starting rotation. Could it be Knight?
"You might see that," he said. "We talked to him about that. I think Doug Willey is going to be more of a middle inning guy. I don't know if Josh Alberius has closer stuff.
"I think with Blaine he can let it fly for an inning and get up to 94. He's got a couple of other pitches, too."
Knight said bring it on.
"I'd love it," he said of the closer role. "It's a big role with big shoes to fill in Zach Jackson."
As for Tuesday night against the Cowboys, Knight said, "I liked it. I wasn't nervous."
Bonfield said the Hogs are excited to be playing well. He called Tuesday night's game "an awesome win against a really good team."
How many more awesome victories do the Hogs have in them? No one is saying, but it's easy to see some confidence building. Shaddy was loud and excited when he came into the interview room.
"We got a good series win at Kentucky," he said. "I could tell we were going to play well tonight. I knew we were going to be salty and going to win from the first pitch."
Now, can they keep it going?