FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas wasn't thrilled with the way the baseball regular season ended, going 9-9 during its final six Southeastern Conference series.
FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas wasn’t thrilled with the way the baseball regular season ended, going 9-9 during its final six Southeastern Conference series.
It didn’t enjoy last week’s stay at the SEC Tournament, either, when two losses to Mississippi State and Ole Miss resulted in a quick departure.
But there was good news when the 64-team NCAA Tournament field was announced Monday. Arkansas will get to wipe the slate clean and start all over.
The Razorbacks (39-19) were named the No. 2 seed in the Houston Regional and will open NCAA Tournament play against No. 3 seed Sam Houston State (38-20) at 1 p.m. Friday. Rice (40-17), the regional’s host team and No. 1 seed, will play No. 4 seed Prairie View (28-23) at 6 p.m. The winner of the two-loss elimination regional will advance to play the winner of the Waco Super Regional late next week.
“I feel fortunate we’re in it,” Arkansas coach Dave Van Horn said of the NCAA field. “I think we deserved it. We earned it throughout the year. We’ve been about .500 down the stretch, but we’ve been playing good people and in a lot of one-run games.
“It’s time to kick it into gear and get after it.”
It’s no secret Arkansas had lofty expectations for the 2012 season, but hasn’t lived up to them. The Razorbacks opened the year 22-3 and climbed as high as No. 3 in the Baseball America poll, but limped to the finish line going 17-16 from there.
In the end, though, Arkansas made the NCAA Tournament field for the 11th straight season. It’s the 10th straight under Van Horn. The Razorbacks also were one of eight SEC teams to reach the field and, despite the late-season struggles, are confident they can advance through the regional despite the late-season difficulties.
“It’s just a breath of fresh air,” said Arkansas pitcher D.J. Baxendale, who will start against Sam Houston State. “The postseason is a brand new season. It’s where it all begins for the road to Omaha. It’s a good feeling to have that behind us and know that from here on out, everyone’s 0-0.”
Arkansas’ game against Sam Houston State will be played nine days after their early exit from the SEC Tournament. It’s the longest stretch of down time the Razorbacks have had since the season began on Feb. 17 and Van Horn said they took advantage.
Arkansas spent the time off fine-tuning things on the practice field. Van Horn said the Razorbacks practiced last Friday after returning from Birmingham, then worked out twice Saturday. He called it one of the best practices of the year.
“We’ve been preparing harder,” Van Horn said. “We’ve been practicing harder. Not longer, but harder and probably a little more intense than if we’d just gotten back (from the SEC Tournament).”
The extra time also gave players a chance to rest some injuries. Van Horn said outfielder Derek Bleeker (wrist), shortstop Tim Carver (wrist), third baseman Matt Reynolds (elbow) and reliever Cade Lynch (migraines) have dealt with injury issues.
Van Horn even revealed Lynch was hospitalized in Birmingham because of the headaches and his status for the regional is unknown as he continues to recover from the health issue. But he said Carver, Bleeker and Reynolds should be ready to go this week, believing the time off has helped them.
“We would’ve loved to have won the tournament and stuck around the tournament,” Van Horn said. “But with all the injuries and the issues we had, maybe we’ll be talking in a couple of weeks that maybe it was a good thing that we got back to heal up.”
Arkansas will be playing on the road in a regional for the second straight season. The Razorbacks will be closer to home this time, however, after being shipped West to Arizona State last season.
Second baseman Bo Bigham said it didn’t matter, though. Arkansas knew it wouldn’t be hosting an NCAA Regional. So the Hogs were ready to hit the road.
“We didn’t care where we went,” Bigham said. “We’re just ready to get back on the field and play because we do have a bad taste in our mouth from Hoover.”
Arkansas will get that chance at Rice’s Reckling Park on Friday. Baxendale (7-4, 3.02 ERA), who has been Arkansas’ most consistent pitcher late in the season, will get the ball against Sam Houston State as the Hogs put the regular season behind them.
“I know they were disappointed with the way the season finished,” Van Horn said. “You look back at the season as a whole and we won 39 games, but you come back to Fayetteville and feel like you won 29.
“You just don’t feel good about it. I don’t think people around here feel good about it. I think our players are going to be on a mission.”