Tuesday, May 31, 2011

SPORTS >> Hogs should be hosting

Special to The Leader

FAYETTEVILLE — First, the SEC West champion and 14th-rated national RPI Arkansas Razorbacks thought they would be one of 16 teams hosting a four-team double-elimination NCAA Baseball Regional.

Then they thought they would be playing relatively close to home in the Fort Worth Regional hosted by TCU.

Or maybe the second seed at the Regional hosted by UCLA, the team that the selection committee chose over them as the apparent 16th and final regional host.

Try none of the above. After learning Sunday they wouldn’t host, the Razorbacks, 38-20, learned Monday they are headed to Tempe, where host team Arizona State beat them in two straight 12-inning games in the 2010 Super Regional after Arkansas won Fayetteville Regional at Baum Stadium.

Arkansas opens the Tempe Regional as the second-seed against the Atlantic Ten Conference Tournament champion Charlotte 49ers, 42-14. That game’s first pitch is set for 4 p.m. Friday

Top-seed host Arizona State of the Pac 10, 39-16, meets fourth-seeded Western Athletic Conference Tournament champion New Mexico, 20-39, at 9 p.m Friday.

The regional proceeds with losers’ and winners’ bracket games Saturday and crowns a champion Sunday night or Monday that will play the winner of the Austin Regional.

Likely the Tempe winner visits national seed Texas in Austin since the NCAA lobbed Princeton, Texas State and Kent State the Longhorns’ way this weekend.

Arkansas coach Dave Van Horn was asked if he was more surprised by not hosting or being sent to Tempe.

“Not hosting,” Van Horn said. “Not hosting was a big surprise. But six or seven weeks ago we just wanted to get in. I’m more disappointed that we’re not hosting for the fans. I’m just glad we’re in the tournament, and I know the players are.”

The Razorbacks are one of 64 teams playing in regionals Friday trying to advance to next week’s eight super regionals with those eight winners advancing to play for the national championship at the College World Series in Omaha.

Just getting into the tournament is indeed the key. But the Hogs, always making the NCAA big money when they have hosted regional rounds at Baum in 1999, 2004, 2006, 2007 and 2010, wouldn’t be human if they weren’t chapped about not hosting going 38-20 against one of the toughest schedules in the country and going 2-2 in the tough SEC Tournament.

“Bittersweet,” junior catcher James McCann described his feelings.

McCann is apt to be drafted high in next week’s pro draft which means good-bye to Baum.

“We felt like we did everything we could to host,” McCann said. “A bitter feeling that we are not able to stay here and play in Baum but we are going to go on the road and do what we can. I take to heart knowing we got knocked out by Arizona State last year. I feel like we have some unfinished business there. I look forward to getting back to Tempe.”

Sophomore ace pitcher DJ Baxendale, throwing his best game of 2010 in relief against Arizona State, also cited “unfinished business” in Tempe.

Van Horn said he got in “move-on” mode when the 16 regional sites were announced Sunday. He said the Hogs had better be in “move-on” mode too, (“It’s just the way it is,” he said) though not yet moving on to Arizona State.

Charlotte, formerly known as the University of North Carolina, comes first and Charlotte is no slouch.

Coach Loren Hibbs’ 49ers bat .302 as a team to Arkansas’ .270. They sport a staff with four quality right-handed starters led by Atlantic 10 Pitcher of the Year Andrew Smith, 9-4, 1.85 earned-run average with 88 strikeouts and only 25 walks in 102 innings, in a strong tournament rotation with Tyler Barnette, 9-1, 1.96, Joe Yermal, 6-2, 2.34, and Corey Roberts, 7-3, 3.18.

Arkansas may not start its ace Friday but that’s no slight to Charlotte.

Baxendale, 9-2, 1.75, was lifted after five innings of his SEC Tournament victory Thursday over Mississippi State due to experiencing soreness.

So if it’s deemed that Baxendale could use another day’s rest, Van Horn said he has plenty of Friday options.

Available is normal second-game SEC southpaw starter Randall Fant. Or freshman Ryne Stanek, posting his best outing of the season against Alabama at the SEC Tournament.

Freshman Brandon Moore, who threw a superb 8 innings relieving Fant, is also available. Van Horn said he still has plenty of confidence in Fant and will research how the 49ers have fared versus lefties.