Arkansas Glad To Have Chance To Keep Playing

HOOVER, Ala. -- In the court of public opinion, this Arkansas baseball team had about as much respect as Aretha Franklin and Rodney Dangerfield combined last Sunday.

So help us, Judge Judy.

After being swept by Ole Mississippi in Baum Stadium, many felt the Razorbacks had no business being in the Southeastern Conference Tournament after that debacle.

It was as embarrassing as striking out and not getting the bat off your shoulder.

Everyone knows Arkansas snuck in the back door to get into the SEC Tournament.

It was a moon walk worthy of Michael Jackson.

Arkansas didn't pick up much street credit just because it made the tournament with that soft backpedal.

That was still the buzz Tuesday.

Does it really matter?

Nope.

So, like it or not, Arkansas meets top-seeded Florida at 5 p.m. today in Hoover Metropolitan Stadium and that's what really counts.

But ...

Ya just know the Razorbacks are hoping to shut a lot of mouths full of sour grapes about them being here.

They've got to feel like illegitimate children at a family reunion.

There's no way to sugarcoat it, the eighth-seeded Razorbacks clearly needed some luck to not have that door slammed on their snouts.

Better to be lucky, than good?

You betcha.

Somehow, Arkansas slipped its fingers into its pocketful of miracles and didn't come up empty handed.

Oh, it got some help. No argument there.

It came down to the final day of the regular season in Baum Stadium.

Arkansas, which won the 2004 SEC Western Division title, won a tie-breaker with Auburn and Vanderbilt because it beat overall regular-season champion Florida, two-out-of-three, during the regular season.

"That's what the tie-breaker is and we had it," said Arkansas senior shortstop Scott Hode. "We're in, that's the best thing about it. We made it, we had to beat a lot of good teams to get there."

Slowly but surely, it seems, Razorbacks fans are becoming a forgiving bunch.

They're excited again. They're almost giddy.

So are the Arkansas players.

During Tuesday's abbreviated practice, the Razorbacks looked relieved and refreshed. They looked alive.

And they looked confident.

"Now we are here, it's a new season, a new beginning," Hode said. "We don't have anything to prove. We have nothing to lose. Just go out and have fun. Play baseball.

"We just need to play Razorback baseball again."

Razorbacks catcher Brian Walker believes in that theory, too.

He's seen Arkansas get off the canvas more times than Rocky Balboa this season.

"It aren't going to quit," Walker said. "We are NOT going to quit. We've showed that all year. I don't see it happening now.

"It doesn't matter how you get here. The fact of the matter is, we are here. Yeah, it wasn't the way we wanted to get here, and that was the goal -- to get here. Now we take one game at a time. We've got Florida first, we played well against them at home.

"Anything can happen."

Hogs freshman Clint Arnold is excited about a second chance, a chance at redemption.

"We've got new life," Arnold said. "That's the way we have to approach it. Play with confidence. Try to win this thing. Maybe get some momentum. Who knows?

"Main thing, we're here." So, how did it really happen?

Simple, really. Arkansas did what it had to do to make it happen.

Razorbacks coach Dave Van Horn picks up the narrative:

"We went on the road, beat Alabama two-out-of-three, came home, beat Florida at home two-out-of-three, that's how we got here. We just found a way to win. We beat South Carolina two-out-of-three on the road early in the year. We actually played better on the road this year. We got swept twice at home, which is a little embarrassing.

"All the teams are 0-0. Anything can happen. If things start going your way, you could win some games.

"It's a new season."

Right on, brother!



JERRY L. REED IS A SENIOR SPORTS WRITER FOR THE MORNING NEWS. E-MAIL: JREED@NWAONLINE.NET




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