FAYETTEVILLE – This is where Arkansas baseball is supposed to be.
Coming off a fantastic postseason culminating in a College World Series appearance, Razorback coach Dave Van Horn told reporters Wednesday the program had taken the next step.
"Last fall we knew we were going to have a pretty good team," Van Horn said in his year-end review. "We knew we would be young in some areas and were concerned with the depth of our pitching staff. In the early spring we got off to a really good start and won some very tight games. We felt we could continue that. Maybe that was a little unrealistic with the pace we set with so many tight wins. Eventually in baseball it will flip on you and it did. We had some close losses down the stretch to some good teams. If we didn't finish with a flurry or win a regional I would have been disappointed.
"This is where we need to be," he continued. "We need to be in regionals and super regionals and battling to play in Omaha every year. By us going to Omaha and staying there for over 10 days it was great for the players, good for the fans and I think nationally we jumped up a little bit."
After losing eight straight games to end the Southeastern Conference season and splitting four games in the SEC Tournament, the Razorbacks won three straight games to win the Norman Regional and two in-a-row over Florida State in the NCA Super Regional to advance to the school's second College World Series in six years.
At one point in the postseason Arkansas held the nation's second-longest winning streak (six games) and the squad tied school records for wins in a postseason (9) and wins in an NCAA Tournament (7). Entering their stint in Omaha, the Razorbacks owned the third-toughest schedule in the nation and Van Horn said that number likely jumped after wins over Cal State Fullerton and Virginia, and a pair of losses to eventual national champion LSU.
"It was five months straight of tough baseball and it'll wear you down a little bit," said Van Horn, whose team finished 14-15 in the SEC. "But because of it at the end when we kicked it into gear we weren't afraid of anybody."
The biggest positive Van Horn took away from the season was the play of freshmen. Arkansas started three freshmen regularly at the end of the season in second baseman Bo Bigham, third baseman Zack Cox and catcher James McCann.
Cox set a school freshman record with 13 home runs and was named a first-team Freshman All-American by Louisville Slugger after battling back injuries early in the year. McCann beat out senior Ryan Cisterna for the starting spot midway through the conference season.
Bigham, who spent much of the year on the bench because of senior infielders, made the most of his opportunity when senior short stop Scott Lyons went down with a shoulder injury against Ole Miss on May 15. Van Horn slid starting second baseman Ben Tschepikow to short stop and inserted Bigham at second. It worked out well with the freshman earning first-team All-SEC Tournament honors and coming up with big hits throughout the NCAA Tournament.
"When I look back on it, when Scott Lyons ran into the third baseman against Ole Miss my knees buckled because I thought he had broken his collarbone or separated his shoulder," Van Horn said. "And it ended up for our team and the future being a blessing in disguise.
"We got to put Bo in the lineup and I knew Bo Bigham was a very good baseball player. But he threw me over the top on what I'm going to get to see from him in the next couple of years. We got to see him run the bases and clutch hitting, and go the opposite field, turn the double play. The experience he gained down the stretch was invaluable."
Several underclassmen earned playing time in the postseason with Arkansas starting five to six freshmen or sophomores on most nights in the postseason. That experience will only help next year, Van Horn said.
"I'm glad we made it (to Omaha) to help next year's players and next year's program," Van Horn said. "I'd like to get back next year so we can play one more time in Rosenblatt Stadium and make it the next year in the first year of the new ballpark. Those are some goals we'll be throwing out. The team seemed real hungry to get back during our individual meetings Sunday. They're not all giddy and happy about it. They'll get a World Series ring and they deserve that, but they're ready to go back.
"I told them next year we'll have high expectations for our team and we need to be able to handle it. They're looking forward to that."
Who will be back?
In addition to six seniors, Van Horn said he expects a pair of junior left-handed pitchers to leave for the pros this summer.
Dallas Keuchel (7th round, Astros) and Stephen Richards (8th round, Marlins) were taken earlier this month in the Major League Baseball Amateur Draft.
"Dallas is a no-doubter. The Astros really want him," Van Horn said. "Richards is the same way. He's a left-hander, not real big and he goes in the eighth round. He needs to sign. It's probably his best opportunity."
One junior pitcher with a decision to make will be right-hander Mike Bolsinger. The McKinney, Texas, native was a staple in long relief for the Razorbacks after the conference season began, but wasn't taken until the final day of the draft – in the 33rd round by the Oakland Athletics.
"It kind of floored me," Van Horn said of Bolsinger's draft number. "I was in Tulsa yesterday recruiting in the morning and early afternoon and talked to a lot of scouts. I didn't even bring his name up; they brought it up to me. They had him going in the eighth, ninth, tenth round. I don't understand why he didn't go higher.
"I think Mike has a decision to make. He's not going to get the money that he obviously wants. Obviously we'd love to have him back. I think it's 50-50 at best that he comes back."
Asked if Bolsinger would start next season if he returned, Van Horn said it depends on the progression of both pitchers on campus and a loaded class of newcomers.
"He was clutch and key for us down the stretch," Van Horn said. "In the fourth or fifth inning, someone would be struggling a little bit and we bring him in up a run or down a run, and the next thing you know we were winning or putting a game away. He held some teams down.
"He showed good in that middle relief. He could be a closer, he could be a spot starter – I really don't know. I think it really depends on how much some of the guys improve that are already in our program and how much some of the new guys prove what they can do in the fall. It's just so valuable to have a guy like him."
Van Horn also said sophomore first baseman/outfielder Jacob House had decided to leave the team. Asked why, Van Horn said, "It was his decision."
The Razorbacks have already scheduled several teams for 2010. Notables are a return trip to California and a midweek game with Louisiana Tech in North Little Rock's Dickey Stephens Park.
Van Horn said a contract with Arizona State, which has two years remaining, would be put on hold.
"Arizona State became an issue because of when," Van Horn said. "Those were the dates we picked and then I got my SEC schedule and we go to LSU, then are supposed to play at Arizona State that Tuesday and Wednesday and be back Friday for a home series against Alabama. Well I didn't know that when I scheduled Arizona State."
Van Horn said cost was also an issue. Arkansas would have to pay around $120,000 for chartering a flight that week because of the length of the trip and the weight issues the equipment presents.
Arkansas beat the Sun Devils 7-3 and 8-7 during an April midweek series in which both teams were ranked No. 1 nationally by different publications. Arizona State coach Pat Murphy told Van Horn he thought the trip to Fayetteville helped his team – which also made the semifinal of the CWS – and wants to continue the series. It will likely resume in 2011, Van Horn said.
Other nonconference dates already scheduled is a home date with Troy and road trip to McNeese State.
Arkansas will start the conference season on the road at LSU, followed by a home series with Alabama. The Hogs will end the conference season with a trip to Vanderbilt.
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