What a difference a year can make.
This time a year ago, the Arkansas Razorbacks had already sacked up their gear and were in the midst of soul searching after an uncharacteristic season for their proud program.
The Hogs closed out the 2016 season with a 13-game losing streak that left them not only out of the NCAA Tournament but also the 12-team SEC Tournament. It was a bleak time for Razorback skipper Dave Van Horn, the first time his Hogs missed out on postseason play in his 13 seasons at Arkansas.
Even at the time, it felt like an anomaly, something out of one those sci-fi alternate timelines that was all the rage this year on TV. No one believed it would last, and most believed the Razorbacks would rebound this season to some degree.
However, Arkansas (39-15, 18-11) did more than rebound. Picked to finish fifth in the SEC West, the Hogs not only finished second in the division but fourth overall in the SEC thanks to winning their final series of the season against Texas A&M, 2 games to 1 last weekend.
First baseman Chad Spanberger played the hero for the Hogs in Aggie Land, belting the game-winning, two-run home run in the 10th inning for a 6-4 win Thursday night. A&M got the best of the Hogs, 5-2, in Friday’s second game, but Spanberger belted two home runs Saturday to lead the Razorbacks to an 8-0 shutout.
If Spanberger supplied the power, then pitchers Trevor Stephan on Thursday and Blaine Knight on Saturday provided the inertia, giving Arkansas two fine pitching performances.
The No. 16 Razorbacks are a lock for an NCAA Tournament bid, which will be announced May 29, and they are in the mix of hosting a regional at Baum Stadium.
After winning their last two series of the season against the Aggies and Vanderbilt, the Razorbacks are riding a late-season surge of momentum as they prepare for the SEC Tournament in Hoover, Ala.
With school out, Arkansas’ charter flight from College Station flew directly to the Birmingham area, where the Hogs will spend a few days before opening play in the tournament on Wednesday thanks to receiving one of four first-round byes.
Arkansas will not play until the late game on Wednesday tentatively scheduled for 8 p.m. start, but tournament play begins Tuesday with four games.
The one of most interest to Arkansas fans will be Mississippi State (34-22) vs. Georgia (25-31) at 8 p.m. The fourth-seeded Hogs play its winner Wednesday night.
Auburn (34-22) faces Ole Miss (32-24) at 4:30 p.m. Tuesday. The winner meets top-seeded Florida (40-15) at 4:30 p.m. Wednesday. Texas A&M (36-20) faces Missouri (35-21) at 1 p.m. Tuesday, and the winner will play two-seed LSU (39-17) at 1 p.m. Wednesday. South Carolina (32-23) and Vanderbilt (33-21) play at 9:30 a.m. Tuesday, and the winner meets third-seed Kentucky (38-18) at 9:30 a.m. Wednesday.
The SEC Tournament format is unorthodox with single elimination and double elimination portions.
Tuesday’s opening round is single elimination. While play Wednesday through Friday converts into a double-elimination format to whittle the field down to four teams.
On Saturday, the surviving squads square off in two, single-elimination semifinal games. The winners meet for the SEC Tournament crown at 2 p.m. Sunday.
The SEC Network will televise all games through Saturday’s semifinals. ESPN2 will televise Sunday’s 2 p.m. title game.
The event is more like a marathon than a tournament, and while no squad plans on tanking, the this week’s play means more to some squads than others.
For the Gators, Bayou Bengals, Wildcats, Razorbacks, and Aggies, the tournament is more of a formality than an opportunity.
Those squads will want to play well, but they are already locks for the NCAA Tournament. An extended stay in the conference tournament puts unnecessary stress on their pitching staffs as well as their everyday players without much reward.
Most feel Florida, LSU, and Kentucky are locks to host NCAA Regionals. Arkansas may be too. Mississippi State and A&M probably would not leapfrog any of that quartet with an extended stay in Hoover, and some experts are unsure whether the SEC will host four regionals much less getting a fifth.
The conference tournament means more to Auburn, Vanderbilt, Ole Miss and Missouri. A poor showing would likely lock any of the four out of the NCAA Tournament, while a solid stay could vault them into the field.
South Carolina and Georgia would probably have to win the SEC Tournament for the automatic bid to make the field.
It should be an exciting week of baseball that tests the depth and desire off each team. However, some are questioning whether it’s wise for the SEC to use such an endurance-challenging format with the NCAA Tournament opening less than a week from the SEC Tournament’s semifinal games.
While baseball has a strong tradition of double-elimination play, a single-elimination tournament would be more manageable.
That said, the Razorbacks have shaken off a midseason dip and look prepared to play well in the tournament. It will be interesting to see how far their momentum will carry them this week in Hoover.