LITTLE ROCK — Until Arkansas was voted No. 1 last year, preseason baseball polls were ignored.
Voting in January on a season that ends in late June seems pretty meaningless, particularly in a sport in which virtually every team has a pitcher capable of shutting down a higher seeded team in the short series that make up the NCAA Tournament. Plus, there are the vagaries of baseball — the seeing eye single and the line drive that seeks out an infielder.
Just last year, Arkansas was eliminated from the NCAA Regional in strange fashion. Leading Kansas State 3-0, Arkansas lost 4-3 when relief pitcher Jalen Beeks walked two men to lead off the seventh and they both scored on wild pitches — the first when Beeks, who had thrown two wild pitches all season, was trying to issue an intentional walk.
“I’ve heard of that happening in big games, but I’ve never had it happen to my team,” said Arkansas coach Dave Van Horn.
LSU in 2009 is the last No. 1 preseason to win in Omaha and matching the preseason polls against merely getting to the CWS is a mixed bag. No. 1 in 2012, Florida reached the CWS. So did UCLA, No. 1 in 2011. In 2010, No. 1 Texas failed.
The preseason signals are even more confusing when comparing the USA Today/coaches preseason poll with the CWS field. Last year, only three of the eight teams in Omaha were ranked in the top 10 in the preseason. The year before, four of the eight were ranked. Same in 2011. In 2010, three of the eight were in the preseason top 10. That year, South Carolina defeated UCLA in the finals and neither were in the preseason Top 25. For trivia fans, Coastal, East, and North Carolina were ranked in the preseason and none of them got to Omaha.
The college baseball landscape is changing. Last year, Louisville made the CWS for only the second time in school history, beating No. 2 overall seed Vanderbilt in Nashville.
The year before, Stony Brook reached the CWS by defeating LSU in Baton Rouge in front of 10,000-plus each day. A Division II program barely 20 years ago, the Seawolves outhit the Tigers 35-15. A week earlier, Stony Brook had seven players taken in the Major League draft and LSU had five. Located on the North Shore of Long Island, Stony Brook was the first team from the Northeast to make the CWS since 1986.
Kent State reached Omaha for the first time in 2012 and then eliminated No. 1 seed Florida. Indiana was also a first-timer last year, beating Florida State in the Super Regional in Tallahassee, and becoming the first Big Ten team to reach the CWS since 1984.
To me, the College World Series has always been synonymous with teams from Texas and Florida and schools in the SEC and the Pac-12.
Hampered by the weather, Stony Brook and others from the Northeast are better in May than they are in February. For a different reason, Arkansas has a license to make similar progress. Prior to last weekend, more than two dozen of the players had never appeared in a Razorback game. Like skill players in football, young ‘uns with talent contribute quickly.
Among the novices are six pitchers, including four freshmen. Pitching coach Dave Jorn will help them and there will be opportunities because Arkansas has only six pitchers who have thrown a pitch in an SEC game. In an expected weekend sweep of Appalachian State, 11 pitchers threw at least an inning and Arkansas remained No. 25 in the Baseball America poll.
Arkansas was picked high last year because the returning players were known commodities; the Razorbacks are penciled in fifth in the Western Division of the SEC because other coaches know little about the new talent. Van Horn is high on this group. Factor in his proven track record and I’m not buying the coaches’ prediction.
Harry King is sports columnist for Stephens Media’s Arkansas News Bureau. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.