NCAA Regional: Arkansas Expects Offensive Success


FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas first baseman Eric Fisher hasn’t forgotten the frustrating performance in last season’s Manhattan (Kan.) Regional.

The Razorbacks opened NCAA Tournament play with questions surrounding its anemic offense, which struggled to string together hits and score runs all season. Those issues were clear in a 4-1 loss to Bryant, when Arkansas crippled its hopes of advancing to a Super Regional by collecting only three hits in the first game.

“It was frustrating, especially because the first game … that’s the game that you need to win,” said Fisher, who wasn’t in the lineup. “So going out and playing this first game against Liberty, we know we’re going to have to come out and swing the bats.”

Arkansas (38-23) plans to avoid a repeat performance when it opens the Charlottesville (Va.) Regional against the Flames (41-16) on Friday at 6 p.m. at Virginia’s Davenport Field. The second-seeded Razorbacks aren’t exactly known for their offensive firepower once again, but Fisher and his teammates are confident they’re much more capable of producing at the plate against quality pitching.

The Razorbacks are ranked third among the Charlottesville Regional teams in batting average (.263). It’s slightly better than last season, statistically (.260). More important, Arkansas coach Dave Van Horn points to his team’s recent production during the 9-3 stretch as a sign things are clicking when it matters most.

“Honestly, as a coach, you know when you write up the lineup and it just doesn’t feel right,” Van Horn said Monday. “This one kind of feels right, you know?”

The biggest key to the turnaround is freshman Clark Eagan, who has thrived since moving into the leadoff role earlier this month. He got an everyday opportunity as Arkansas’ designated hitter because of Blake Baxendale’s hamstring injury and has provided life — and even some unexpected pop — to the top of the lineup.

Eagan is hitting .311 with two home runs and 11 RBIs with most of the production coming in Arkansas’ recent surge. Anderson said it’s no coincidence the Razorbacks are 9-3 since Eagan moved into the leadoff spot for the series finale at Ole Miss.

“I think it really starting hitting me at Missouri,” Arkansas second baseman Brian Anderson said. “Every time I came up to the plate he was on base. He has been driving the ball and now he’s starting to split the gaps and get those extra-base hits.

“Clark has been huge for us. We hope he keep this momentum going for them.”

Eagan’s emergence also allowed outfielder Andrew Benintendi — who is hitting .282 with 26 RBIs — to move into the three-hole behind junior Joe Serrano. The consistent hitter is now ahead of Anderson, Fisher and Tyler Spoon, helping Arkansas alternate between left-handed and right-handed hitters among its top six.

“It’s a good mix,” Van Horn said. “It puts a little bit of pressure on the opposing coaches to make a change. Are they going to make a change for just one hitter or leave him in for two? It’s worked out. Guys have come through with some big hits.

“We’ve put together more big innings the last three weeks, as far as — we call them crooked numbers — not just one run. Scoring two, three, four runs, in the last three weeks it seems like more of those innings than we had the whole year combined.”

Spoon, Anderson and Serrano understand how difficult the challenge can become in the NCAA Tournament, though. The three — along with catcher Jake Wise — were in the lineup for Arkansas’ frustrating start against Bryan last season.

Arkansas will be tested once again in the opener against Liberty. Flames ace Trey Lambert (11-2, 2.10 ERA), who was named the pitcher of the year in the Big South, pitched twice on short rest in the conference tournament and will get the ball again in hopes of handing the Razorbacks their second straight loss in a regional opener.

Lambert won’t be overwhelmed by the moment, either. He has a handful of impressive wins on his resume throughout his career, too, registering victories against South Carolina and Georgia last season. Lambert also helped Liberty eliminate Clemson with a 3-1 win in the Columbia (S.C.) Regional last season.

“It’s a big-time opponent and a big-time situation,” Lambert told the Lynchburg (Va.) News and Advance earlier this week. “I’m excited and honored to have the ball.”

Liberty’s ace isn’t the only good pitching Arkansas will face this week.

Three of the Charlottesville Regional’s four teams rank among the NCAA’s top 15 in staff ERA. Liberty is ranked 14th with a 2.62 ERA, which is just ahead of the Arkansas staff (2.63) at No. 15. Virginia, which is led by Atlantic Coast Conference co-pitcher of the year Nathan Kirby (8-1, 1.48 ERA), is seventh in the nation with a 2.36 ERA.

Arkansas knows it will get solid pitching, too, when starters Trey Killian and Chris Oliver step on the mound the first two games of the regional. But the Razorbacks also understand — after last season’s disappointing start against Bryant — their performance at the plate will be key to advancing once again.

“We’ve done a great job moving guys over, driving guys in,” Fisher said. “We’re just going to keep doing what’s working, and I think it’s going to take us a long way.”

NCAA CHARLOTTESVILLE (VA.) REGIONAL SCHEDULE

Friday (5/30)

Game 1: No. 1 Virginia vs. No. 4 Bucknell, 1 p.m. (ESPN3)

Game 2: No. 2 Arkansas vs. No. 3 Liberty, 6 p.m. (ESPNU)

Saturday (5/31)

Game 3: Game 1 loser vs. Game 2 loser, 1 p.m.

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

Sunday (6/1)

Game 5: Game 3 winner vs. Game 4 loser, 1 p.m.

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

Monday (6/2)

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