As players with the most unfinished business at the College World Series finished their workout, their coach brushed away any notion that, when his Omahogs boarded a bus and headed toward TD Ameritrade Park, there was a hint of frustration left over from last season.
Ah, last season. When Arkansas and Dave Van Horn were a dropped foul ball away from beating Oregon State for the CWS crown. Catch that foul ball, and the Razorbacks return as defending national champions.
As it stands, they come in as one of the favorites — the team to beat on their side of the CWS bracket. Five guys have double-digit home runs. Best of all, Van Horn said, Arkansas hits doubles — missiles down the line or hard into the gap. The kinds of doubles that score runs and thwart teams’ general strategy to play a deep outfield against the Razorbacks.
“This is a new team, a new year, and my lingo this year, a few times, was, ‘You’re writing your own history, your own book,’” Van Horn said. “I think they appreciate that. I don’t think they want to be compared to last year’s team. There’s people who say this team is better.”
“It’s interesting,” Van Horn said. “We’ve won maybe a game or two more than we did at this time last year. We’ve won more games in conference. We have a higher team batting average.”
And Arkansas has an ace in Isaiah Campbell, who might be the most imposing pitcher at the CWS. At 6-foot-4, 225 pounds, Campbell looks more like a college tight end than a college pitcher. A second-round pick in the Major League Baseball draft — no right-hander in the CWS was drafted higher — Campbell is 12-1 with a 2.26 ERA and an excellent .9180 WHIP. For every inning Campbell pitches, he’s responsible for less than one base runner.
“For a big guy, he throws nothing but strikes,” Van Horn said of Campbell, who’s given up just three earned runs in 16.1 innings pitched during the NCAA tournament. “He throws four pitches, and if he’s got two or three of them going, he’s pretty good. You know who’s kind of fading or running on fumes, and I don’t feel that way about Campbell at all. He threw extremely well in the regional and super regional, got us deep into both games.”
The Razorbacks aren’t quite as deep as they were last season. Van Horn only carries 13 position players on the roster.
“I play the same nine just about every day,” Van Horn said. “That’s just how it’s been all year.”
This Arkansas team, he said, is fortunate. Few injuries. Good balance of experience and players new to big roles for the team in general. An Arkansas staffer mentioned that Van Horn “has pushed all the right buttons” with this team, managing it to a dominating regular-season sweep of CWS participant Mississippi State and a super regional victory over Mississippi, which had beaten the Razorbacks four times this season.
As he sits in the dugout, Van Horn seems quietly confident. His 2018 team was close. The 2019 version might be better.
“It’s just as exciting; it’s a lot of different players (who) have done a great job helping us get here,” Van Horn said.
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