FAYETTEVILLE - Dave Van Horn spells respect K-n-i-g-h-t.
So, it’s Blaine Knight, today, leading as the ace of Van Horn’s Fayetteville Regional top-seeded Arkansas Razorbacks playing coach Ryan Folmar’s fourth-seeded Oral Roberts University Golden Eagles in today’s 2 p.m. start of the four-team double-elimination NCAA baseball tournament that Arkansas hosts at Baum Stadium.
Second-seeded Southern Mississippi and third-seeded Dallas Baptist clash at 7 p.m. tonight with a 2 p.m. loser’s bracket game and 7 p.m. set for Saturday, feeding into Sunday afternoon’s loser’s bracket final and Sunday night’s championship game and, if necessary, a winner take all championship game Monday for the right to advance to next week’s super regionals, whose winners advance as the elite eight playing for the national championship at the College World Series in Omaha.
In past regionals Van Horn sometimes has “pitched off,” as they say, and started his No. 2 or No. 3 starter against a lower-seeded opening foe to save his ace.
But Van Horn, even with his SEC West co-champion Razorbacks, 39-17, a No. 5 regional seed assured of hosting the Greenville Regional winner in next week’s best two of three super regional if they win this Fayetteville Regional, asserts there’s no looking past Summit League champion/Summit League Tournament champion, Tulsa-based ORU, 39-18.
Especially how tough ORU historically plays Arkansas, including in last year’s Fayetteville Regional that included a hard-fought Arkansas 3-0 victory over the Golden Eagles before the Razorbacks clawed out of the loser’s bracket to lose winner-take-all championship game against Missouri State.
Right-hander Knight of Bryant, 10-0 and second-team All-SEC, starts against ORU with No. 2 starter Kacey Murphy, 7-4 of Rogers, set for Saturday.
“Respect and not looking past anybody,” Van Horn said of starting Knight today after publicly pondering starting Murphy today and Knight Saturday, his pitching order in last week’s SEC Tournament in Hoover, Alabama, because Knight had thrown more pitches against the preceding SEC regular-season week at Georgia than Murphy had in his rain-shortened start. “Oral Roberts has a great team. Very well coached. A lot of players back from last year and they know how to win. We were thinking Blaine all along unless something changed and he wasn’t ready to go because he threw behind Murphy in the (SEC) tournament. But when he felt good to go it was a done deal.”
What’s it mean to Knight to start the opener?
About the same Thursday for the cool customer noting earlier this week he’s willing to be ready whenever.
“I mean I’m excited about it, but it’s not any bigger than any other game of the year,” Knight replied Thursday. “Yeah, it’s a regional but it’s still another game. You’ve got to win one game at a time and that’s what we’re going to do.”
Van Horn said the Razorbacks certainly can’t look past Miguel Asua, the ORU lefty who gave up but one earned run through six and one-thirds innings starting last year’s pitching duel classic against Stephan.
Knight recalls last year being impressed with Asua and ORU’s hitters even as Stephan pitched superbly.
“They can swing it,” Knight said. “That’s what they are known for. I know they have that lefty from last year who throws for them against us and held us down for awhile. I assume he is going to go again.
Infielders Cal Hernandez .336, and Nick Roark, .322, return from last year’s Golden Eagles and powerful freshman Spencer Henson leads ORU hitting .368 with nine home runs and 54 RBI.
Knight was an excellent pitcher, 8-4, 3.28 ERA last year but said adding a curve to his fastball, slider changeup repertoire obviously improved him.
“The curve ball definitely has made me more effective,” Knight said. “Because everybody attacks me early in the counts with the fast ball the majority of the time. All my pitch speed differences aren’t enough between the fastball, slider and the changeup to keep them off of it. They were fouling it off or making contact one way or another. So, having the curveball being as slow as it is, it allows me to use my fast ball a lot more.”
Regardless how well he pitches, it seems a cinch in this afternoon’s projected heat that Knight will require relief. This year’s Matt Cronin, Jake Reindl, Barrett Loseke and Kole Ramage absolutely is a source of relief to the starters, Knight said.
“Last year you got past the starters and it was a flip of the coin that day,” Knight said. “Because you didn’t know what that guy was going to do. This year we feel really confident with Reindl, confident in Loseke, Ramage, Cronin. We have a handful of guys we know we can go to that are going to get us some innings when needed in long relief or they can come in and close it out either one.”
Whoever awaits Arkansas Saturday looms large.
Coach Scott Berry’s 43-16 Southern Miss team, also called Golden Eagles, won both the Conference USA regular season and Conference USA Tournament championships and opened the season in February sweeping three from the Mississippi State Bulldogs who later swept Arkansas and SEC regular-season champion/national top seed Florida in three-game SEC series.
Coach Dan Heefner’s Dallas Baptist Patriots, 40-19 advancing to NCAA Tournaments the past five years, finished runner-up to always tough Missouri State in both the Missouri Valley Conference regular season and the Missouri Valley Conference Tournament.