FAYETTEVILLE — It was tough, disappointing and frustrating.
Pick other similar words to describe the Arkansas baseball team’s midweek trip to Nebraska and the Razorbacks have probably used it. Suffering through two losses — including the no-hitter to begin a doubleheader — wasn’t exactly what the Razorbacks planned when they boarded the team bus for Nebraska on Monday.
“The Nebraska trip … That was a rough trip,” Arkansas coach Dave Van Horn said.
But there’s also one word the 12th-ranked Razorbacks (25-14, 9-6 in Southeastern Conference) refuse to use as they prepare for their three-game series against Texas A&M (21-17, 6-9 in SEC), which begins at 6:35 p.m. tonight: Panic.
Arkansas realizes it’s stuck in a rut after dropping six of the past eight games, but is keeping the problems in perspective as it moves into the second half of conference play. This isn’t the first year the Razorbacks have struggled to win games at some point during lengthy regular seasons. It hasn’t always kept them from their goals.
“We keep reiterating it back and forth to each other that we’re going to hit our low points just like we did last year,” Arkansas infielder Dominic Ficociello said. “And last year it worked out pretty nicely for us regardless.
“As long as we stay on the right path, we’ll right the ship and we’ll be fine.”
The optimism despite the struggles is understandable. Arkansas’ record isn’t indicative of a team ranked No. 1 in preseason polls. But it isn’t far off from the other three teams that have reached the College World Series under Van Horn.
The Razorbacks were 27-12, 8-9 in the SEC after 39 games last season, 27-12, 12-7 in 2009 and 26-13, 10-5 in 2004. Each of those teams battled through slumps in the regular season, but found a way to put everything together when it mattered most.
So Van Horn said the 2013 group can do the same with 17 games remaining.
“I don’t think there’s too many teams – there’s a few – that have incredible depth or a great offensive team that don’t go through a little bit of a spell where you just, things aren’t going well or you’re not hitting or you’re just, somehow, you’re not winning,” Van Horn said Thursday. “The teams that survive that and come out of it, they usually get stronger and they’re tough mentally and they have a chance to play for awhile. … We’ve done it three or four times.”
Of course, no one can guarantee Arkansas will accomplish it once again — unless a few of its recent problems are fixed. The Razorbacks continue to boast a pitching staff with the nation’s best ERA (1.77), but have committed the same number of errors as runs scored (19) during the past eight games.
The biggest concern now is the lack of production at the plate. Arkansas has been shut out three times in that stretch and have been held to seven hits or fewer six times, including the no-hitter by Nebraska’s staff. The Razorbacks’ are hitting .202 over the past eight games, which has led the team’s batting average to dip to .265.
“We just didn't have enough guys - when our main guys aren't hitting, we don't have enough to put us over the top and still win games, it seems like,” Van Horn said. “I think that may be the difference in us and a couple of teams that are rolling 30 or 35 wins right now. We're still in good position. We have 17 games left all against quality teams, SEC teams, OU and Missouri State. … Hopefully we can get it going.”
Van Horn and the Razorbacks held a team meeting after returning to Nebraska. He said it wasn’t the first time it has happened this season. But Ficociello said it left the Hogs in a better mood as they put the Nebraska problems behind them.
“It’s one of those what happens in the locker room stays in the locker room things,” Ficociello said. “But we straightened some things out. We got our minds right. There are no negative thoughts going on in this locker room. We’re all positive.”
This weekend’s series begins a second half in which Arkansas’ five opponents are currently below .500 in SEC play. Texas A&M, Georgia, Kentucky, Tennessee and Auburn are a combined 26-49 in conference games. By comparison, the first half of Ole Miss, South Carolina, Mississippi State, Alabama and LSU are a combined 44-31.
So Arkansas sees plenty of opportunities for wins.
It has to take advantage of them, of course. But Van Horn remains confident his team will rally through the struggles, adding the Razorbacks will “find a way.”
“You hit a little lull - and you've got to fight through it,” Van Horn said. “Some teams it happened at the beginning of the year. There are some teams it's going to happen in a week or so. That's not a good thing. We've got four or five weeks of the regular season left and we have a chance to get in the (NCAA) Tournament.
“So we're going to keep battling until we get it right.”
Texas A&M (32-2, 11-1 in SEC) at No. 12 Arkansas (25-14, 9-6 in SEC)
When: Friday at 6:35 p.m., Saturday at 7:30 p.m., Sunday at 1 p.m.
Where: Baum Stadium
TV: Friday – Cox Sports Television; Saturday – ESPNU; Sunday – ESPN2
Radio: Razorback Sports Network
Starting Pitchers: Arkansas — RHP Barrett Astin (2-2, 2.62 ERA), RHP Ryne Stanek (4-2, 1.64 ERA); LHP Randall Fant (2-1, 2.36 ERA); Texas A&M – RHP Daniel Mengden (4-2, 1.94 ERA), LHP Matt Kent (2-1, 3.48 ERA), RHP Rafael Pineda (3-3, 3.58 ERA)
Top Hitters: Arkansas — RF Tyler Spoon (.316, 3 HR, 37 RBI), 3B Jacob Mahan (.308, 2 HR, 16 RBI), LF Brian Anderson (.301, 2 HR, 22 RBI), DH Joe Serrano (.298, HR, 13 RBI); Texas A&M — SS Mikey Reynolds (.394, 8 2B, 17 RBI), 1B Cole Lankford (.368, HR, 20 RBI), C Troy Stein (.307, 2 HR, 13 RBI), CF Krey Bratsen (.296, 5 2B, 18 RBI)