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Postcards From Omaha
SEC losing streak hits five games
By John Manuel
OMAHA—The Southeastern Conference isn’t off to a great start at the 2004 College World Series.
South Carolina and Louisiana State both lost in their bracket on Saturday, and both Georgia and Arkansas lost Sunday. Since Georgia opened the Series with an 8-7 win against Arizona, the league’s four representatives have combined for a five-game losing streak.
Top-seeded Texas has dealt the league two losses; no shame there, except for the totality of the defeats. The Longhorns, the Big 12 Conference regular-season champion, have throttled both of the SEC’s regular-season standard bearers by a combined score of 22-5. This comes after Texas annihilated Vanderbilt of the SEC in the super-regional last weekend by a combined score of 25-5.
The first team eliminated at this year’s event was Arkansas, the No. 1 seed in the SEC tournament, as the Razorbacks went two-and-barbecue. That extended coach Dave Van Horn’s winless streak at the CWS to six games; no other coach has lost his first six Series games.
At least Van Horn has brought three teams (from two different schools) to Omaha. He should have been content with that knowledge when asked the predictable post-game question of his reaction to his unfortunate record. Instead, Van Horn lost his poise and snapped at a reporter.
He probably wasn’t as frustrated with the question as he was with his team. The ’Backs failed to get their offense going at all in two games, scoring four runs in losses to Texas and Arizona. No one struggled more Sunday than No. 3 hitter Clay Goodwin, who finished the season hitting .319, second on the team. Goodwin failed to get a bunt down in the first inning, as Van Horn tried to sacrifice after Arizona starter John Meloan walked the first two hitters he faced. Goodwin seemed to press the rest of the game, striking out twice with the bases loaded (in the fifth and seventh innings) and committing an error in the field. His play seemed to sum up the Razorbacks’ frustration. Van Horn said he considered pinch-hitting for Goodwin at one point, and second-guessed his decision in the post-game press conference.
Still, no one expected Van Horn to even have this Razorbacks team anywhere near Omaha. Baseball America tabbed Arkansas to finish sixth in the SEC West and 11th overall in the league (just behind Georgia). The Razorbacks were written off early, dismissed during the season as a fluke, left for dead after losing a game in the regional to Wichita State and tabbed the underdog against visiting Florida State in the super-regional.
All Arkansas did was win at every step along with way, led by savvy players such as shortstop Scott Hode, catcher Brady Toops and outfielder Scott Bridges. They all were starters on Arkansas’ 2002 team, former coach Norm DeBriyn’s last. That club overachieved as well, taking a late run to earn a regional berth and win a regional on the road at Wichita State. The ’02 Razorbacks pushed Khalil Greene and Clemson to the brink in the super-regional that year, losing in three games. Now, the legacy of those veterans (though Bridges, a junior, could return in ’05) will be a Series trip.
“I think we got more out of a team this year than anyone in the country,” said Van Horn, the 2001 Coach of the Year while he was at Nebraska. “We’ve come a long way since the fall from what was expected of us.”
So maybe going 0-2 in the CWS wasn’t so bad. Arkansas wrung all it could out of its 2004 season, and Van Horn has a healthy budget and one of the nation’s top ballparks in Baum Stadium to build around. Now, he’s shown Arkansas can get to Omaha.
“We have no reason to hang our head,” Van Horn said. “This bunch has developed and made us better. Once you get here, it’s easier to get back.”
POSTCARDS FROM OMAHA
· Righthander Bo Lanier had fallen down the pecking order in Georgia’s deep bullpen, but he may have regained the trust of the Bulldogs coaching staff in a two-inning stint against Texas. Lanier touched a 94 on the radar gun, pitched at 90-93 and flashed a plus breaking ball. He struck out three, though he also allowed a run in the eighth.
· Texas righthander Huston Street was at his dominating best in his two-inning stint, also touching a 94 and consistently painting the strike zone with an above-average 84-85 mph slider. Street struck out six of the seven batters he faced and allowed one hit, a line drive double down the left-field line by Bulldogs sophomore lefty Bobby Felmy. “Street needed an opportunity to compete,” Texas coach Augie Garrido said. “He couldn’t wait to get out there.”
· Longhorns outfielder Dooley Prince had four more hits Sunday, giving him six in eight CWS at-bats and making him 11-for-16 overall in the postseason.
· Sunday’s attendance of 26,480 ranks second all-time to Saturday night’s figure of 26,530. Perhaps the fact that the eight teams come from eight different states—the first time that’s happened since 1987—is accounting for the increased interest.