OMAHA, Neb. — The work began back in August, back when freshman catcher James McCann first started to catch Brett Eibner. Back then, McCann knew Eibner as that tall, athletic sophomore who could crush 450-foot bombs over the fence.
Sure, McCann caught Eibner in the bullpen once in a while.
But he didn't take Eibner all that seriously on the mound. In fact, he thought of Eibner as a "thrower," not a pitcher. McCann's opinion gradually shifted, then completely changed in recent months.
"He's really learned a lot," McCann said. "I remember thinking in the fall, ‘This guy's just a hitter.' But he stuck with it. I remember catching 100-plus pitches from him in a day back in the fall. He just worked and worked. He's really learned how to pitch."
So much so that Arkansas coach Dave Van Horn will start Eibner against No. 1 LSU tonight without hesitation — with a spot in the winner's bracket final at stake. At the start of this season, the idea of Eibner starting in the Razorbacks' second College World Series game would've seemed preposterous to Van Horn.
After all, he didn't even enter No. 8 Arkansas' weekend rotation until April 19 at Georgia. Eibner threw a one-hit shutout against the then-No. 1 Bulldogs that day in Athens, Ga., though, and he's only improved since then.
"He's so much better of a pitcher than he was even two months ago," Van Horn said. "Confidence-wise, delivery-wise, being able to repeat his delivery. He can throw the breaking ball in fastball counts and keep guys off balance. He's just learned how to pitch.
"He has a tremendous arm and throws as hard as anybody you'll see, and now he's put it together."
McCann credited Eibner's refusal to simply rely on talent.
"He's been blessed with a wonderful arm," McCann said. "Obviously, he throws the hardest out of anyone on our staff. But the reason he's successful now is he's learned how to throw offspeed pitches and hit spots with them. He thinks like a pitcher now."
Eibner, also an outfielder with 10 home runs, said he became more comfortable once Van Horn yanked him from the batting order for his starts — starting in mid-April. That made him feel even more like a true pitcher, Eibner said.
He no longer had to worry about his at-bats. Eibner could sit in the dugout and concentrate on the next inning.
"The hitting thing bothered me a lot this year," Eibner said. "That's probably the main reason I haven't done as well this year. My head hasn't been in it."
Still, Eibner has experience some struggles lately, not exactly a surprise considering he's still learning on the job. Eibner allowed five earned runs in each of his NCAA Tournament starts, lasting only 5 2/3 innings at Oklahoma and 4 2/3 at Florida State.
Those rough outings should help ready Eibner for a dangerous LSU team that rocked him for four runs on six hits in 3 2/3 innings on May 3 in Fayetteville.
"I'm learning I have to just stay within myself," Eibner said. "Don't try to overthrow, just pound the strike zone, throw strikes and get ahead of hitters. That's really going to help me out (tonight)."
NCAA COLLEGE WORLD SERIES TICKET
NO. 8 ARKANSAS VS. NO. 1 LSU
WHEN: 6 p.m.
WHERE: Rosenblatt Stadium, Omaha, Neb.
ON THE AIR: KFAY-AM 1030; KURM-AM 790, FM 100.3; FM 103.1; KYNG-AM 1590; KHGG-AM 1580
RECORDS: Arkansas Razorbacks, 40-22; LSU 52-16.
SERIES RECORD: LSU leads 47-22.
LAST MEETING: LSU took two of three games from Arkansas on May 2-3 in Fayetteville.
OPENING GAME PROBABLE STARTERS: Arkansas, RHP Brett Eibner (5-4, 4.61); LSU, RHP Louis Coleman (13-2, 2.74).
Hometown: Houston, Texas
High School: The Woodlands High
Notables: Ranks second on the team in strikeouts (66) and carries a 5-4 record and 4.61 earned run average. ... Posted his best career outing in a 2-0 victory on April 19 at Georgia, throwing a one-hit shutout with 12 strikeouts. ... Has struck out at least four batters in six of his last eight starts. ... Also hitting .223 with 10 home runs, the third-highest total on the team. ... Drafted by the Houston Astros in the fourth round of the 2007 Major League Baseball Draft.
Coleman, who earned the Southeastern Conference pitcher of the year award, throws with what Arkansas sophomore Andy Wilkins called a "funky delivery."
The unique way of pitching fooled the Razorbacks the first time around, and Coleman's shutout actually marked the start of Arkansas' eight-game SEC losing streak.
"Seeing him one time will help," said Wilkins, who is hitting .593 (16-for-27) with four homers and 17 RBI in six NCAA Tournament contests. "Maybe the second time we'll see him, we'll get to send him a message."
Cox Heating Up
Freshman third baseman Zack Cox isn't shying from the fact that he's seeing the ball well these days.
Cox is batting .333 (14-for-42) with six home runs, 12 runs and 14 RBI in 10 games since the start of the SEC Tournament. Cox has homered in four of Arkansas' last five games.
"I've just been getting a pitch I can hit and getting a hold of it," Cox said. "That's all it is. It's a tough thing to do, but sometimes you're in that rhythm, you're hot and you don't miss those pitches."
Wilkins said he slipped into bed early Saturday night after Arkansas' victory over Cal State Fullerton. Not before watching a bit of surreal TV, though.
He clicked to ESPN SportsCenter before falling asleep around 11 p.m.
"I think I saw myself in an ESPN highlight for the first time," Wilkins said. "I was taking pictures of the TV with my phone. It was a good deal, but it's time to move on. It was cool for like 10 minutes, and then it was like, ‘OK, let's move on the next one.'"
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