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Saturday, June 13, 2009
Hogs' bats stay hot in Omaha

By Elizabeth Merrill
ESPN.com

OMAHA, Neb. -- It's been three weeks of hotels, buses and ballpark food. Arkansas first baseman Andy Wilkins figures he's slept in his bed maybe three times since late May. It's been the best month in 20 years for the Arkansas baseball team.

Dave Van Horn
Arkansas coach Dave Van Horn can afford to smile after earning his first CWS win in his seventh try.

"I like staying in hotels," Wilkins said. "They make your bed for you."

Arkansas continued its surprising postseason run Saturday, upsetting second-seeded Cal State Fullerton 10-6 in the opening game of the College World Series.

Very little had gone right for the Razorbacks before the NCAA tournament started, as they lost 10 of their previous 13 games. They've played all of their postseason games on the road. As low as coach Dave Van Horn's team was in May, it seemed unthinkable that the Razorbacks would be standing here in Omaha late Saturday, polishing off another offensive showcase against one of the nation's hottest pitching staffs.

Especially with the streak -- the 0-6 CWS record Van Horn carried into Saturday, a run that includes two games with the Hogs and four during his time in charge of Nebraska. That mark had been discussed ad nauseam.

"I'm glad that's over," Van Horn said with both a chuckle and a light sigh. "And hopefully, we'll never talk about it again."

There were plenty of other things to discuss Saturday. Like the 10 runs that were driven in by the heart of the Razorbacks' order. And the towering home runs by Wilkins, the cleanup hitter, and Zack Cox, who batted fifth. Wilkins was hard-pressed to remember the pitching sequence in a frenzied fourth inning, when he put the game away with a three-run blast that made it 9-2.

It sums up the way Arkansas has been playing lately -- hit now, think later.

I kept telling them, 'What's everybody going to remember this team by?' That it was a team that started out great and faded or a team that finished strong? They took it to heart ever since. They've been lights-out ever since they got to regionals.

-- Dave Van Horn

The Razorbacks hacked away at Cal State Fullerton freshman ace Noe Ramirez, who carried a 2.86 ERA into Saturday and had given up just two runs in each of his postseason games. Arkansas had four runs by the third inning, when Cox lifted a two-run homer deep into the right-field bleachers.

"They seemed to play like they were comfortable to me," Van Horn said, "like they've been here before. Obviously, they hadn't been here. I thought they played where we left off the last two weekends."

Van Horn, whose team actually was ranked No. 1 early this spring before its late collapse in SEC play, gave his team some much-needed clarity before regionals started. He told his Razorbacks they could forget about the pressure of winning the conference championship -- that hope had ended long ago, or the strain of winning the SEC tournament.

All they had in front of them was one goal: winning the national championship. Surprisingly enough, none of the Razorbacks cackled at the thought.

"I kept telling them, 'What's everybody going to remember this team by?'" Van Horn said. "That it was a team that started out great and faded or a team that finished strong? They took it to heart ever since. They've been lights-out ever since they got to regionals."

Andy Wilkins
Andy Wilkins drove in five runs in the Razorbacks' 10-6 win over Cal State Fullerton.

Pitcher Dallas Keuchel dimmed any hopes the Titans might have had about matching Arkansas' offensive production. He scattered five hits and four runs over six innings for the 40-22 Razorbacks, who advance to Monday's winner's bracket (ESPN2, ESPN360, 7 p.m. ET), where they will play another national seed, No. 3 LSU, which beat Virginia 9-5.

"That didn't work out as planned," said Fullerton coach Dave Serrano. "We didn't play timely baseball today. We gave them too many opportunities."

Van Horn casually strolled out to the field late Saturday afternoon, when his Omaha struggles had finally ended. He missed his 30-year high school reunion Saturday night in Kansas City, and his wife was back home in Fayetteville. But Van Horn was finally at peace.

He took Nebraska to two College World Series in the early 2000s. The Cornhuskers were winless in both attempts. He then went 0-2 with the Razorbacks in 2004. None of those trips seemed right. In 2001, everything was new and a circus because the Cornhuskers were playing in their backyard for the first time. In his '02 trip with the Cornhuskers, there was the uncertainty of him taking the Arkansas job in the offseason. In 2004, Van Horn said, he felt as if the Nebraska fans were still angry with him.

He said he was finally relaxed here, with the "Wooo, Pig, Sooie" calls and a few locals cheering for him. So were the Razorbacks.

"To be honest, I don't know that [the drought] mattered too much to him," Wilkins said. "Of course he wants to get a win here. He doesn't want to be labeled as a guy who can't win.

"But I don't think that really mattered. We've had a confidence factor going into this that we're going to go out and play our game. And the game we've been playing lately has been unstoppable."

Elizabeth Merrill is a senior writer for ESPN.com. She can be reached at merrill2323@hotmail.com.