State of the Hogs: Stepping Up

Arkansas coach Dave Van Horn had a good feeling at breakfast and it didn't have anything to do with the meal.

Arkansas coach Dave Van Horn was at breakfast Monday morning when all the injured players he rested in the SEC tournament began to show up at his table. They wanted to make sure they were in the lineup in what could have been the last game of the season.

"We had talked to them about it being all about team," Van Horn said. "I knew it was going to be a good day when those guys - our high profile guys - started coming up to me. It was guys like Zack Cox, Brett Eibner and Drew Smyly. They were saying they wanted to play.

"Cox wanted to play in the field. Eibner said he could play center and he could pitch. Smyly said he wanted to pitch."

It wasn't just about the high profile guys in the Hogs' 7-2 victory Monday night. In fact, Washington State coach Donnie Marbut said he'd add someone to the high profile list from the Hogs. Outfielder Collin Kuhn, the UA leadoff man, wore the Cougars out all weekend. He was named the tournament's most outstanding player.

"You hear about their big three," Marbut said, meaning Andy Wilkins, Cox and Eibner. "But (Kuhn) is better than advertised. They need to have a big four. He's a great leadoff guy.

"We tried to spin some pitches to him, but he's very balanced. I congratulate him. He plays the game the right way."

Kuhn said it was a matter of getting back to a solid approach at the plate. He said it began with taking more pitches and working the count. That's what he did in the first at-bat of the regional, an at bat that led to a home run against Grambling State.

"I knew that lately I wasn't quite performing," Kuhn said. "I wanted to stick to my approach and try to make them pitch."

Van Horn said, "He took some borderline pitches early and made them be up with their pitches. He did that and saw the ball very well. He played this weekend with power, speed and defense. He was scoring runs. The (most outstanding player award) was much deserved."

Arkansas catcher James McCann didn't wait to be asked for his opinion. He said Kuhn is the "best leadoff man in the country. I wouldn't trade him for anyone in the country. He's got power and he can make contact. He does it all."

The Washington State skipper praised McCann, too. McCann is a California product, but he has roots in Washington, too. His uncle, Michael Spencer, coached with Marbut and another Cougar coach.

"We were real smart," Marbut said. "We didn't recruit him."

McCann spent most of his prep summers playing baseball in Washington, usually for his uncle.

"I played with two of their regulars my last two summers of high school," McCann said. "They all knew my uncle. Everyone calls him Whitey. I heard it all weekend, 'Say hello to Whitey for us.' He's head coach at St. Martin, it's a D-II school in Olympia."

McCann mentioned that he'd gotten close to WSU star Matt Fanelli, the DH and cleanup man. Both McCann and Fanelli made the all-regional team.

"I guess I played against six or seven of their guys," McCann said. "I know them pretty well. I was around Fanelli a lot."

UA coaches let McCann call all the pitches against WSU, relying on that knowledge. McCann said he had an easy job with the way the staff pitched in the finale. TJ Forrest pitched into the sixth inning, then Smyly gave the Hogs two-plus innings. Eibner didn't allow a hit in the ninth.

McCann said Forrest tried to calm a "down" locker room after the loss Sunday night with some reassuring words.

"We were disappointed we didn't end it Sunday night," McCann said. "He walks into the locker room and said, 'Don't worry guys. I got this.' I thought then that we were going to come out and have a good day."

Marbut said he would have liked his team's chances if he knew his depleted pitching staff was going to hold the Razorbacks to just seven runs. He said they had scouted Forrest in the opener against Grambling and thought they could get to him.

"He wasn't sharp against Grambling, but it looked like he brought his 'A' game for us," Marbut said.

Fanelli touched Forrest for a home run in the second, but that's all the Cougars got against the skinniest Razorback.

"He had his fast ball working both sides of the plate and his cutter was good tonight," McCann said. "He had an off speed pitch, too. And McCann did a great job of calling the game. I thought their staff did a great job (in all three games) of mixing up their pitches."

Both head coaches took turns praising the other side in their separate media conferences. It was obvious that there was conversation - all in a good way - during the three games the last three nights.

"We've played them so many times the last two years that we know each other pretty well," Marbut said. "They have good kids. They reflect their coaching staff. They are good people and their team is well coached. You can't do anything but respect the way they do things."

Van Horn said, "Donnie is one of the top young coaches in the game. We got to know him and their staff when they came in here last February to open the season and then we played them in the regional in Norman. All of those games were tight. What we've seen from them, their team doesn't make mistakes. He gets them to play the right way."

Van Horn said he watched closely as Washington State rallied past Kansas State in the elimination game Sunday, then saw the Cougars approach in the night game against the Hogs.

"I was really impressed with them yesterday," he said. "They changed their pants and when they came out for our game, they had them pulled up to their knees and had an attitude. We knew they were on a roll. We noticed. That's the way they are coached."

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