Fresh off a wild 6-2 victory against the Nebraska Cornhuskers in the Fayetteville Regional, the No. 1 Razorback baseball team is set to begin the best-of-three Fayetteville Super Regional against North Carolina State at 5 p.m. Friday. Arkansas is seeking its third consecutive trip to the College World Series in Omaha, Nebraska, while the Wolfpack is eyeing its first since 2013.
North Carolina State swept the Ruston Regional last weekend, outscoring opponents Alabama and No. 16 Louisiana Tech by a combined margin of 30-11. The Wolfpack, which has won 17 of its last 21 games, finished the year 19-14 in Atlantic Coast Conference play and advanced to the ACC Tournament title game. It leads the ACC in batting average and slugging percentage at .291 and .503, respectively.
“They’re probably one of the most offensive teams in the country, and they’re hot,” Arkansas head coach Dave Van Horn said during Monday’s postgame press conference. “We figured that’s who was going to win that regional, we all projected it.”
North Carolina State’s top four hitters — first baseman Austin Murr, center fielder Tyler McDonough, left fielder Jonny Butler and designated hitter Terrell Tatum — combined for 24 hits in three games last weekend, driving in 13 runs and scoring 15. The rest of the order produced as well, with four of the remaining five batters recording at least three hits apiece.
Both of the Wolfpack’s regional opponents, however, suffered series losses at the hands of the Razorbacks earlier in the season. Arkansas took two of three from Louisiana Tech in March, posting 17 runs in its two wins. The Hogs faced Alabama the very next weekend, outscoring the Crimson Tide 12-2 in two victories to open the Southeastern Conference circuit.
Both North Carolina State and Arkansas, which has mashed 102 home runs this season, have high-powered offenses, but the glaring difference between the two squads lies in the depth of the bullpens. In four regional games, the Razorbacks used 10 pitchers, including the ever-dominant senior righty Kevin Kopps. In three games, the Wolfpack used just five.
Starters Reid Johnston, Sam Highfill and Matt Willadsen ate up 19 ⅓ of the 27 innings, while relievers Chris Villaman and Evan Justice took care of the rest. If the Hogs can string hits together against the Wolfpack starters, they will expose its lack of depth in the bullpen and North Carolina State could be in for some long games in front of raucous crowds at Baum-Walker Stadium.
That is the big “if” for Arkansas after a weekend almost characterized by offensive lulls. Between Saturday’s and Sunday’s games against Nebraska, the Razorbacks amassed just nine hits. Before staging a comeback Monday night, they had only one through four innings.
“We’re going to have to swing the bats a lot better the next couple of days if we’re going to win the series,” Van Horn said Thursday. “(We are) hoping that we got jump-started there in that eighth inning of the last ballgame.”
The Razorbacks and Wolfpack will play at 5 p.m. Friday, 2 p.m. Saturday and if necessary, 5 p.m. Sunday. The opener will be broadcast on ESPNU, while ESPN2 will carry the Saturday and Sunday games.