FAYETTEVILLE — When Arkansas was knocked out of the 2009 College World Series, coach Dave Van Horn began to alter the foundation of his program.
A lineup of heavy hitters and a solid starting rotation on the mound had guided the Razorbacks to Omaha that season. But with new bats aimed at taking much of the pop out of the college game coming soon, Van Horn knew a change was needed.
“We had a little meeting and said we’ve got to put more scholarship money in pitching,” Van Horn said. “We don’t have enough pitchers. That’s what we did and it worked out. It really worked out.”
Pitching depth ultimately pushed the Razorbacks to their Waco Super Regional victory against No. 4 national seed Baylor on Monday night. Arkansas finished the final two games of the best-of-three series by throwing 14 consecutive scoreless innings, keeping one of the tournament’s best lineups at bay when it mattered most.
Arkansas used five different in the finale, combining to shut out Baylor for the fourth time this season. It also was Arkansas’ 10th shutout of the season, which is second most in school history only to the 1977 Razorbacks (13 shutouts).
There’s no doubt the Arkansas staff strength left an impression on the Bears, who got off to a great start with an 8-1 win in last Saturday’s opener.
“Their starter Saturday didn’t have his best stuff and we jumped him pretty good,” Baylor coach Steve Smith said. “But other than that, they were really, really good on the mound.”
Smith’s thoughts were similar to the Houston Regional, when Rice and Sam Houston State were frustrated by the Razorbacks. Arkansas only allowed one earned run in three regional games, which included a 1-0 win against host Rice.
“What they have on the mound is going to take them a long way,” Sam Houston State coach David Pierce said after his team’s 5-1 loss on June 3.
The pitching staff has been especially critical in tight spots in the NCAA Tournament, helping Arkansas change its fortunes in close games.
The Razorbacks were 9-8 in one-run games during the reason season, but are now 4-0 in the postseason after Monday’s win. Arkansas worked its way out of a bases-loaded jam twice Monday, stranded 11 runners, and induced a pair of double play balls that kept Baylor scoreless.
The success means a different-looking Arkansas team will make its return to Omaha this week. The Razorbacks will carry a 2.16 postseason earned run average into the College World Series, believing its depth can help it compete for a title.
“We have confidence in every single person out of our pen,” said Arkansas reliever Colby Suggs, who wrapped up the super regional by throwing two scoreless innings. “We love our pitching staff.”
Arkansas won’t need much time to familiarize itself with the three teams on its side of the bracket in Omaha. The bracket includes Southeastern Conference foes South Carolina and Florida, setting up a mini-SEC Tournament.
Arkansas opens play against Kent State at 4 p.m. Saturday. Florida and South Carolina will play in a rematch of last season’s championship series, which was won by the Gamecocks, at 8 p.m.
The losing teams will play in an elimination game at 4 p.m. Monday. The winners will play at 8 p.m.
Arkansas went a combined 3-3 against Florida and South Carolina this season. The Razorbacks won two of three at Florida in late April, then lost two of three at home to South Carolina a week later.
Bonus for DVH
Van Horn won his 400th game at Arkansas during the Houston Regional last week. The coaching milestone also came with an incentive payment.
Van Horn’s contract called for a $25,000 bonus when he earned his 400th win. It’s part of the extraordinary achievement clause in his deal, which is worth $5.4 million before incentives through 2020. He also is in line for more incentives if he reaches wins No. 500 ($50,000), No. 600 ($75,000) and No. 700 ($100,000).
Van Horn, who has led the Hogs to Omaha three times, is 403-221 in 10 seasons. He can earn a $100,000 bonus if Arkansas wins a national title.