Arkansas Counting On Timely Hits In Regional


FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas infielder Dominic Ficociello has had a frustrating season at the plate.

It didn’t start well because of an oblique injury that sidelined Ficociello early, then limited the switch hitter to batting left-handed. But once healthy, the junior still struggled and enters the NCAA Tournament hitting .253 with 16 RBIs in 41 games.

Ficociello admits the lack of production has been hard two swallow. He’s not consumed with his numbers, though as Arkansas prepares to play Bryant in the Manhattan (Kan.) Regional on Friday night. There are more pressing matters.

“It's the postseason,” Ficociello said. “All stats, averages, everything, those goes out the window. It's all about getting ‘Ws’ now.”

Arkansas holds the lowest batting average (.260) of the four teams playing in the Manhattan Regional this week. In fact, it’s the fourth-lowest in the NCAA Tournament ahead of only Oregon (.259), Alabama (.257) and UCLA (.249).

But Ficociello is right. The Razorbacks’ batting average won’t matter now. Instead, Arkansas’ formula for winning postseason games will rely on dominant pitching, solid defense and timely hits. The recipe led Arkansas to the 2012 College World Series and the Hogs are confident it can happen again.

The key, of course, will be producing at the plate when it matters most.

“We have to have timely hitting if we want to move on in this tournament,” Arkansas outfielder Matt Vinson said. “We’ll practice that this week and just put pressure on ourselves during practice and hopefully we’ll get it done during games.”

Arkansas has proven it can win without a dominant offensive performance.

The Razorbacks have scored four or fewer runs in 33 of their 57 games, but it hasn’t led to disastrous results. Arkansas is 17-16 in those games largely because of a pitching staff that leads the nation in earned run average (1.87).

Two of the wins came in last week’s SEC Tournament, when Arkansas advanced to the semifinals after beating Ole Miss (2-1) and LSU (4-1). The Razorbacks turned in key at-bats in both games, including Tyler Spoon’s squeeze bunt that scored Vinson from third base and gave Arkansas the lead in the eighth inning against LSU.

The Razorbacks came up empty in last Saturday’s semifinals, managing just one hit during the 2-1 loss to the Tigers. Arkansas coach Dave Van Horn said his team — which also was no-hit by Nebraska — must avoid a similar struggle this week.

“We had a couple of pretty good offensive games in the (SEC) Tournament,” Van Horn said. “We had a bad offensive game in the tournament.

“We've got to do a better job of manufacturing and driving in runs when we've got a shot. But I think overall the team is pretty confident.”

Outfielder Brian Anderson (.338) is the only Razorbacks hitting over .300. Arkansas’ starting lineup Friday will likely include four players hitting .253 or lower.

But there’s good reason for the confidence. Arkansas’ postseason results last season included two 1-0 wins (against Rice and Baylor), a 2-1 win (against South Carolina) and a 5-4 victory (against Sam Houston State). The Razorbacks were 5-1 in one-run games during the postseason and averaged just three runs in 10 games.

Vinson, specifically, entered the CWS with the lowest batting average among starters in the eight-team field last summer. But the Alma native came up with two big hits in key spots to help the Razorbacks beat Kent State and South Carolina.

Catcher Jake Wise, who is hitting .208, is confident it will be the same this season.

In fact, Wise said Arkansas’ hitters have had a running joke with the pitching staff this season. If timely hits produce three runs it should be enough to win.

“We’ve had our ups and downs,” Wise said about the offense. “But we know we’re going to be in every game. We know they’re not going to score more than two runs (on us). So it keeps us in the game and in postseason, that’s really big.”

NCAA MANHATTAN (KAN.) REGIONAL SCHEDULE

Friday (5/31)

Game 1: No. 1 Kansas State vs. No. 4 Wichita State, 2 p.m. (ESPNU)
Game 2: No. 2 Arkansas vs. No. 3 Bryant, 7 p.m.

Saturday (6/1)

Game 3: Game 1 loser vs. Game 2 loser, 2 p.m.
Game 4: Game 1 winner vs. Game 2 winner, 7 p.m.

Sunday (6/2)

Game 5: Game 3 winner vs. Game 4 loser, 2 p.m.
Game 6: Game 4 winner vs. Game 5 winner, 7 p.m.

Monday (6/3)

Game 7 (if necessary): - Game 4 winner vs. Game 6 winner, 7 p.m.