When College World Series play opens for the Texas Longhorns on Sunday, the opponent will be a familiar one — the Arkansas Razorbacks.
Scheduled for 1 p.m. Central on ESPN, the game will provide head coach David Pierce’s team with the opportunity for revenge following two losses in Fayetteville back in March.
The challenge will be significant — Sports Illustrated power ranked each of the eight teams in Omaha and slotted Arkansas at No. 2 due to a complete lineup and a pitching staff with an elite strikeout-to-walk ratio.
That ranking is hardly a stretch given that the NCAA’s RPI rankings have Arkansas at No. 3 nationally and second in the College World Series, behind only Florida, the reigning national champion.
In analyzing how the game may go on Sunday, the previous midweek match up doesn’t provide the best perspective on how Sunday’s game may go in Omaha. Beau Ridgeway started the first game for Texas, but isn’t on the short list of relief pitchers who are likely to appear against Arkansas after falling out of the rotation. Neither are Bryce Elder, Chris Fearon, and Matt Whelan, three of the other four pitchers who struggled with command and walked six Razorbacks batters on that day.
In the second game, Nico O’Donnell was the losing pitcher after allowing four earned runs through three innings as Arkansas drew seven walks against five Texas pitchers.
Arkansas head coach Dave van Horn approached that two-game series a little bit differently than Pierce — while Texas was coming off a huge weekend match up against Stanford, Arkansas had hosted Kent State, so van Horn held his second-best pitcher, Kacey Murphy, in reserve for the first game.
The decision paid off, as Murphy pitched six innings and only gave up two earned runs.
“We went to an SEC school at LSU in Week 2, didn’t look like a very good ballclub,” Pierce said on Friday. “We came out of there and got beat up by Pac-12 team with Stanford at home, lost three out of four. And had to go play Dave and them in a double mid-week on a Tuesday/Wednesday, following Stanford.
“So we were searching, trying to figure out who we were, who we are. And we’re 99 coming out of that.”
Solidifying the infield helped — Kody Clemens started out at third base, with Masen Hibbeler at second and Ryan Reynolds at first. Michael McCann split time with DJ Petrinsky behind the plate.
Moving Clemens back to second, Hibbeler to left, Reynolds back to third base, and inserting Jake McKenzie at first base helped stabilize the defense. Meanwhile, Petrinsky improved tremendously behind the plate to become an above-average catcher.
Offensively, the calling card for Texas has been doing just enough.
“And offensively we’re just finding ways to score. It’s not like we’ve been incredibly -- an incredible offensive group who has found some ways to score, but I just think it’s been a heck of a run for our kids,” Pierce said.
On Sunday, Pierce’s team will face one of the nation’s most successful pitchers.
Since the Longhorns hitters have already gotten a look at Murphy, the starter for the Razorbacks is the staff’s ace, Blaine Knight. A lanky 6’3, 165-pounder, Knight was selected with the No. 87 pick in the recent MLB Draft due to a fastball that will sit consistently in the lower 90s and a slider/cutter hybrid that could give the Horns trouble. Knight will also mix in a curveball and changeup.
The junior has made it all the way to Omaha without suffering a defeat this season, as he boasts a perfect 12-0 record to go along with his 2.84 ERA. Opponents are hitting only .226 against him, but on the rare occasions that batters can get base hits, a significant number of them are squaring the baseball up well. In fact, Knight has given up 18 home runs this season. By comparison, the three Texas weekend starters have combined to allow 22.
As a result, the match up between Knight and Texas superstar Kody Clemens will be one to watch. Clemens has hit five home runs in the last six games, including one in each game of the Austin Super Regional, despite the fact that Tennessee Tech considered not pitching to him at times.
Whether van Horn and his staff opt to do so at any point in the game could depend on the effectiveness of the two hitters in front of Clemens — David Hamilton and Duke Ellis. Both struggled against the Golden Eagles, with Hamilton going 0-9 and Ellis slashing two base hits in 11 at bats. Clemens didn’t get much protection either, as cleanup hitter Zach Zubia failed to get a base hit in 10 at bats in the Austin Super Regional.
Since the Arkansas staff doesn’t allow many walks, those three hitters will likely have to get base hits to be effective. And if they can’t hit better than .066 in the first two games in Omaha, Texas could get sent back to Austin early.
If Hamilton and Ellis can’t get on base in front of Clemens and Zubia continues to struggle behind him, there would be no reason for Arkansas to pitch to the Texas second baseman at all.
The Longhorns offense overall certainly doesn’t compare favorably to that of the Razorbacks. After facing the nation’s best offense in Tennessee Tech, Texas now has to face the nation’s No. 3 team in home runs. Arkansas doesn’t score at the rate of Tennessee Tech, but is averaging 7.2 runs per game and features six players with eight or more home runs, including four with 13 or more.
Second baseman Carson Shaddy is the hottest hitter of the group, with three home runs in the Fayetteville Super Regional against South Carolina. He’s batting .341 to go along with the .334 batting average of third baseman Casey Martin and the .340 batting average of left fielder Heston Kjerstad. All three have between 13 and 14 home runs.
Every batter in the Hogs lineup will work the count with patience — Arkansas has nearly 100 more walks than it has allowed — so the Longhorns starter will have to replicate the game plan from the Tennessee Tech series. Keep the ball low and on the corners and elevate pitches strategically to draw swings and misses.
Last weekend, the plan worked.
The first question is whether it can work again. The second question is which pitcher will take the mound to start the game for the Longhorns. On Friday, Pierce said that he he’s “95 percent sure” that No. 1 starter Nolan Kingham will get the ball to start to game. Kingham wasn’t at his best to open the super regional against Tennessee Tech, while Chase Shugart pitched another gem on Sunday to force the third game.
Kingham allowed five runs on nine hits in 4.2 innings last Saturday, earning the loss. However, he was excellent in his previous appearance against Texas A&M in the Austin Regional, striking out eight and giving up only two runs in 7.2 innings.
So Pierce is sticking with his normal rotation, perhaps wanting to save Shugart in case Texas faces an elimination game on Tuesday against the loser of Florida-Texas Tech.
On paper, Arkansas is the favorite in this game, but baseball often plays out in unexpected ways and Texas has simply found ways to win since it left Fayetteville with a 9-9 record. Perhaps there is a little bit of magic left in this team, courtesy of the late Augie Garrido.