By Steve Lansdale
OMAHA, Nebraska — When the Texas baseball team begins play in the 2018 College World Series, the Longhorns will be facing a familiar opponent. Texas and Arkansas haven’t been conference foes since the Razorbacks bolted for the Southeastern Conference in 1992, but the teams did play twice this season. Arkansas swept the two-game series, beating Texas 13-4 and 7-5 at Baum Stadium in Fayetteville.
Now in his 16th season as the head coach at his alma mater, Arkansas head coach Dave Van Horn has guided the Razorbacks to a 44-19 record; Texas enters the game with a record of 42-21. This the Hogs’ fifth appearance in the College World Series under Van Horn. Arkansas tied a program record this spring with 11 players were selected in the Major League Baseball draft.
When the Longhorns face the Hogs Sunday, they will face one of the premier pitchers in the entire country in Blaine Knight, whose 12 victories this season are the most among any pitcher in the country without a single loss on his record. The third-round pick by the Baltimore Orioles has a 12-0 record, including one shutout, and an earned run average of 2.84. He has walked just 23 and struck out 92, and allowed just 28 extra-base hits all season.
The Hogs feature five regular starters who are hitting .300 or better this season, including two — third baseman Casey Martin and left fielder Heston Kjerstad — became the 20th and 21st Razorbacks to earn Freshman All-America honors; Kjerstad also was named SEC Freshman of the Year.
Martin has the highest batting average (.344) of any Arkansas player this season, but it’s crowded at the top. Second baseman Carson Shaddy, a 10th-round selection in this year’s draft by the Washington Nationals, is hitting .341, just a point ahead of Kjerstad’s .340 average.
The Arkansas offense has been prolific this season, averaging nearly 7.2 runs per game. Martin and Shaddy lead the team with 14 home runs, while Kjerstad and right fielder Eric Cole (a fourth-round selection by the Kansas City Royals) each have gone long 13 times this season.
Knight is the headliner among Arkansas pitchers, but the staff has been strong this year, as would be expected on a team with 44 wins heading into the College World Series. The Hogs have allowed 3.44 earned runs per game, and like to shorten the game by turning the ball over to closer Matt Cronin, who has 12 saves in 42-1/3 innings over 21 appearances.