Thursday, June 11, 2015

game preview: Arkansas

Date/Time: Saturday, June 13; 3:00


Record against the Hogs: 2-1

Last meeting: UVA 9, UA 2; 6/1/14, Charlottesville (NCAA Regional)

Last weekend: UVA 2-0 over Maryland (5-3, 5-4); UA 2-1 over Mo. St. (18-4, 1-3, 3-2)

Pitching probables:

Virginia: RHP Connor Jones (7-2, 2.95, 105 Ks)
Arkansas: RHP Trey Killian (3-4, 4.74, 56 Ks)

Familiarity, again.  Seems to happen a lot on our roads to Omaha.  UVA played the rude host to Arkansas last year, beating the regional 2 seed twice to polish off a three-game regional sweep.  The stage is bigger now.  UVA must try to battle it out in Omaha against a whole bunch of teams that come much more highly recommended on paper.

It's tempting to draw parallels to Fresno State, the regional four seed that upended the whole tournament and walked out of Omaha as national champs.  Baseball certainly lends itself to that kind of tournament run.  Still, at this point, that's getting ahead of ourselves.  Fresno State had already beaten two regional 1 seeds by this time, and finished up the tourney having beaten literally half the eight national seeds and personally eliminated three of them.  UVA hasn't yet faced a regional 1 seed, and still won't have after this game.  (Miami and Florida, the other teams in the "regional", are both national seeds, so that streak comes to an end in game 2 no matter what.)

UVA faces an Arkansas team struggling, if this is is possible, even more with pitching depth than the Hoos are.  Trey Killian almost certainly gets the ball on Saturday, and those depth issues likely won't hurt the Hogs much yet in game 1, but they recently announced the loss of a mainstay reliever, and they also lost a rotation pitcher during the SEC tournament.  (Dominic Taccolini, who did a very solid job pitching in relief of Killian during last year's first matchup against Arkansas.)

Meanwhile, the Hoos are headed in the other direction.  Nathan Kirby is expected to return to the mound in Omaha.  When, only the coaching staff can say, but at some point, he'll come trotting out of the bullpen.  Given the extra days of rest between games, this is a huge, huge addition, basically giving UVA just about all the depth it needs.  He and Josh Sborz were the gems of their recruiting class and the first two Hoos taken in this year's MLB draft (Brewers and Dodgers, in case you were wondering) - it's a little strange that they're being used as bullpen aces rather than innings-eating starters.

Speaking of starters, Connor Jones will go for UVA.  You know the drill.  Said it before and I'll say it again: as long as Jones and Brandon Waddell are shutting down hitters and pitching deep into games, UVA will keep advancing.  The moment one of them falters, it's the beginning of the end.  Here's the lineup the Razorbacks will send to the plate to face CJ:

-- Catcher: Tucker Pennell (.200-0-7): The light-hitting juco transfer Pennell anchors the ninth spot in the lineup.  With an OPS of just .508, he's neither proficient at getting on base nor a power hitter of any kind.  That means he's probably going to do something totally heroic at some point in this tournament.

-- First base: Clark Eagan (.284-2-30): There's a mashup of solid but unremarkable hitters occupying the 5 through 8 slots in the Arkansas lineup; Eagan is one, having batted both fifth and eighth during the postseason run.  He was a platooning DH last year, but starts regularly at first and boasts a pretty good glove.

-- Second base: Rick Nomura (.294-4-19): Nomura is another back-half player, a hitter who prefers to make contact rather than wait for something to happen; his walks and K's total just 42 all year.  This places him generally fifth or sixth in the order.  He's also an excellent fielder.

-- Third base: Bobby Wernes (.280-5-26):  One of four Arkansas juniors taken in the draft (30th round), Wernes bats second and showed a huge improvement over his numbers from last year, when he barely hit.  This year his bat has some pop, as he's third on the team among eligible players in slugging - 11 of his 63 hits went for more than two bases, a number second only to superstar Andrew Benintendi.

-- Shortstop: Michael Bernal (.280-4-30): Bernal's numbers are a slight oddity; four homers and only five doubles.  Really, he's not a particularly powerful bat, but you can do much worse than to have a .280 hitter in the 7th or 8th slot.  He does have a good batting eye: despite being only seventh among eligible players in batting average, he's second in OBP.  (Partly due to getting plunked a lot, too.)

-- Left field: Joe Serrano (.285-4-35): No, not Pedro.  Leadoff hitter who's also proficient at taking a walk, but also strikes out a bit more than a leadoff hitter should.

-- Center field: Andrew Benintendi (.380-19-55).  The 7th overall pick in the MLB draft, there's not much Benintendi doesn't do.  His OPS isn't a perfectly normal .715 - he slugs .715, with an OPS of 1.204.  His chances of getting on base are almost 1-in-2, and between his extra base hits and his 23 steals, he's got roughly a 1-in-5 chance of getting himself at least to second base every time he steps to the plate.  By far the toughest hitter UVA has faced this postseason.

-- Right field: Tyler Spoon (.331-6-54): As the cleanup hitter, Spoon has the job of protecting Benintendi in the lineup, and does just fine at that.  He's the team leader in doubles and slugs .500 himself.  He doesn't walk much, but it's not his job to.  Spoon is also one of the Hogs' four draftees, going in the 35th round.

-- Designated hitter: Brett McAfee (.280-2-22): McAfee was the starting shortstop for about a month last year before he went down with an injury; he's seen time there this year as well, but settled into the DH job lately.  Sixth or seventh batter and another one of those decent hitters whose numbers don't stink but don't jump off any pages.

-- Starting pitcher: Trey Killian (3-4, 4.74, 56 Ks): Killian has a wide array of different pitches - fastball, cutter, change, slider, curve - and it's the potential to develop at least some of them into major-league stuff that got him drafted pretty high.  That and his excellent sophomore year.  Not so much his junior-year numbers.  Killian battled tendonitis early in the season and hasn't really ever rounded into form.  But he's pitched on Friday most of the year, and with Taccolini out and Keaton McKinney having hip troubles, Killian is really the only healthy starter.  UVA knocked Killian off the bump early in last year's matchup against him; those numbers offer plenty of hope they can do it again.

-- Bullpen: Despite losing James Teague to an elbow injury, Arkansas has plenty of options here; it's their rotation, not their pen, having the major depth issues.  (Teague also started 10 games this year, and probably would've been high on the consideration list to start a game sometime in Omaha.)  Zach Jackson - with 87 Ks in 56.1 innings and a .185 OBA - is used as something of a super-reliever much as Sborz is, and is probably the first off the bench if Killian gets into trouble.  Jackson Lowery is a bit wild at times but a solid option, though he may be held back to start a game himself.  Lance Phillips and Josh Alberius are also dependable options for a couple innings.  One thing about the Arkansas pitching options: they're totally bereft of left-handers, except for a couple players who won't be used.  Every Razorback who takes the hill in Omaha will be a righty.


On paper, Arkansas isn't too scary.  (Neither is UVA, but at least we'll be starting an ace with ace numbers.  On the other hand, four of nine lineup hitters are hitting .252 or worse.)  Arkansas isn't too different from USC.  Pretty good lineup - two stars, one guy with barely any bat at all, and six solid regular dudes.  Killian's numbers, though, might be the worst of any starter in Omaha in recent memory.  He's clearly a better pitcher than his stats, but sometimes that's a thing for next year, not right now.

Benintendi will probably get his hits, but whether he does or doesn't, it's mainly the rest of the lineup that'll win or lose this game for Connor Jones.  If he can mow the rest of them down, UVA will win - possibly by a lot.  If the bottom half of the lineup starts dinging him, UVA might find itself on a track to go 0-for-Nebraska.

You can bet, though, that Arkansas won't let Killian dig too deep a hole, if things start going south.  I expect a quick hook.  If UVA's bats start off lively, Arkansas will ask Zach Jackson to hold down the fort while they try and repair the damage.  A big win will require the bats to stay hot against the bullpen.  Ultimately, though, UVA should be favored.  Joe McCarthy has been heating up after an understandably slow start, and UVA has, if nothing else, been the tourney's most clutch-hitting team.  The Hoos have won five games - and been losing to start the 7th inning in all but one (and that was a 1-1 tie.)  With Omaha's ballpark encouraging low-scoring games, that not only gives UVA a chance to build on their clutch reputation, but levels the playing field for a team like ours with a thin bullpen - starters can go deeper into games.  Game 2 will feature a stronger opponent than UVA has yet faced this postseason, but I really like UVA's chances to get there on the winning side of the bracket.

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