LITTLE ROCK — To make this work, believe that somebody blamed a sportswriter for putting a jinx on the Razorback baseball team.
On Monday morning, along the usual dog-walking path, a red-and-white rubbery Razorback phone cover was discovered. To a conspiracy theorist with an imagination, a disgruntled baseball fan was to blame. I was surprised there was no note blaming Arkansas’ elimination from the NCAA Regional on a column published last week.
The article zeroed in on Arkansas’ proficiency at bunting and went on and on about the Razorbacks using the sacrifice and the squeeze to manufacture runs.
Before linking that column and the Razorbacks’ exit from Manhattan, Kan., I will admit to writing in January about a horse to watch at Oaklawn Park and then watching Brown Almighty disappear from the Arkansas Derby picture by March.
Arkansas was in a bind Sunday evening against Kansas State because of what happened on Friday against Bryant. The Razorbacks took a 1-0 lead in the fifth and wasted opportunities in the sixth and seventh when bunt attempts went awry. With two on and nobody out in the sixth, Dominic Ficociello bunted a pop-up that the Bryant catcher turned into a double play. Ficociello called the play the turning point in the game. It might have been the turning point of the Regional.
In the seventh, Jake Wise’s attempted sacrifice was another pop-up and Bryant rallied to win.
With two outstanding starting pitchers and a solid No. 3, Arkansas is a rarity in college baseball. No team has four and that’s what is needed by a team trying to maneuver through the losers’ bracket.
Note that 11 of the 16 teams that were 2-0 on Saturday completed their work in the Regional on Sunday.
That said, I am at a loss to explain the extraordinary way that the University of Central Arkansas, a No. 4 seed in Starkville, Miss., doubled up on Sunday. The Bears got a complete game from Connor Gilmore — the freshman from Little Rock who also threw nine innings in the finals of the Southland Conference Tournament — in the first game. Then, senior Ethan McKinzie did something he had never done before, start and finish a nine-inning game and against Mississippi State no less.
If, admittedly a big if, the Razorbacks had scrounged up a couple of runs on Friday and beaten Bryant, Ryne Stanek would have faced Kansas State instead of pitching a must-win game against Wichita State. From there, who knows what might have happened.
Desperate for offense all year, pitching was supposed to carry Arkansas.
How ironic that, in the end, the Razorbacks couldn’t piece-meal the pitching to get from the two innings provided by fourth-game starter Tyler Wright to superb closer Colby Suggs. Trailing 3-2, the Wildcats scored two in the seventh on two walks, a sacrifice, and two wild pitches, including one on an intentional walk. Weird as it looked, it has happened before in the major leagues, including last September when Baltimore reliever Jim Johnson overthrew his catcher by two feet.
Looking ahead, Arkansas’ starting rotation is gone. Stanek is expected to go in the first round of the Major League draft this week. Before the season began, Baseball America ranked Stanek, Suggs, and Barrett Astin among the top 100 college prospects for the draft and each of them compiled an ERA under 2.00 this season. No. 3 starter Randall Fant is a senior.
Of course, the high praise for the Razorbacks’ bunting did not affect Ficociello or Wise against Bryant. Now, the curse of the Sports Illustrated cover, that’s a force to be reckoned with. The first one I remember was in 1957, with the headline, “Why Oklahoma is Unbeatable.”
In the Sooners’ next game, their 47-game winning streak was ended by Notre Dame and a living room lamp was toppled during the celebration.
Harry King is sports columnist for Stephens Media’s Arkansas News Bureau. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.