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Pitching carries Arkansas back to Omaha

Associated Press Modified: June 13, 2012 at 5:47 pm •  Published: June 13, 2012
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FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. (AP) — Arkansas ace DJ Baxendale could think of only one word to describe the talent level, from top to bottom, of the Razorbacks' pitching staff.

"Ridiculousness," Baxendale said.

The talented staff has carried Arkansas this season, all the way back to the College World Series for the first time since 2009. And now that the trip to Omaha, Neb., is secured, the Razorbacks (44-20) plan to stick around a while.

Arkansas opens play on Saturday against Kent State (46-18). Baxendale is expected to get the ball in the first game, just as he's done each of the past two weekends as the Razorbacks have advanced on the road in both the Houston regional and the super regional at Baylor.

The right hander, however, is far from the only outstanding option on the mound for coach Dave Van Horn. In fact, Baxendale's 3.18 ERA is actually higher than Arkansas' overall team ERA of 2.90 — the seventh-lowest overall in Division I this season and the best of any of the eight remaining teams.

The pitching talent begins with Baxendale and fellow starter Ryne Stanek, but it hardly ends there. Seven regular members of the Razorbacks' bullpen sport sub-3.00 ERAs, and it was the bullpen that threw six scoreless innings in Arkansas' 10-inning, 1-0 win over Baylor in Monday.

Colby Suggs finished off the win with two scoreless innings, lowering his ERA to 1.22 in 37 innings this season.

"There aren't many teams that can bring out guys who haven't thrown all weekend and throw like that, pumping it up there in the mid-90s, in Game 3 of a super regional," Baxendale said.

The Razorbacks started 22-3 but suffered through a 5-8 midseason stretch and went two-and-out at the Southeastern Conference tournament.

Much like last season, when Arkansas hit an SEC-worst .270 as a team, the lack of hitting this year played a significant role in the struggles. They were 160th in Division I with a .273 batting average, and 159th overall with an average of 5.3 runs scored per game.

Baxendale said last season that a rift developed between the team's pitchers and hitters, and that the Arkansas coaches went out of their way early this season to put an end to any problems. Third baseman Matt Reynolds, a second-round draft pick of the New York Mets who is hitting a team-best .338, said they did so by forcing the team to spend more time together.

"It's helped in the long run," Reynolds said. "We've become a little more of family. You've got to like each other, or else it's going to go downhill quickly."

Van Horn was open before last season about his decision to reallocate more scholarship money to pitching than he had done in the past. He did so because of the revamped bats, which carried less pop than before.

Arkansas has now won 84 games over the past two seasons, won at least 40 games in four straight and has reached the College World Series for the third time in Van Horn's 10 years.

So, while Van Horn would certainly welcome more offense, he's also comfortable this his approach has worked.

"It's definitely helped," Van Horn said. "If you're pitching good and you've got some depth, you've got a chance to be in some games that maybe you shouldn't be in just because you're a little bit stronger and you can keep bringing in some good arms. That's what we've done."

Van Horn is also confident that Arkansas' pitching depth will lead to success over a multi-day tournament such as the College World Series.

"That's what we've been preaching all year," Van Horn said. "If we can get to a tournament, we can win it."

Arkansas has won four one-run games so far in the NCAA tournament, including a pair of 1-0 wins. While their nerves might be a bit frayed, the Razorbacks are confident their bats will provide enough support to lead to a long stay in Omaha.

"At this point, we're used to playing those tight games," Reynolds said. "We'd definitely like to get a big win at some point to take some stress off our pitching staff, but we're doing our best. Hopefully we'll get hot at the right time."