Arkansas, behind Stanek and top pitching staff, eyes return to College World Series

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Arkansas catcher Jake Wise paused for a few seconds when asked to describe this season.

Wise finally looked up and offered as direct an answer as possible about a season that hasn't lived up to expectations after beginning with the Razorbacks ranked No. 1.

"There were too many ups and downs for me, too many veteran guys to have as many ups and downs as we did," Wise said. "The good thing is it's a new season, basically."

Arkansas (37-20) will have its chance to begin that new season when it opens play in the NCAA tournament on Friday against Bryant (44-16-1). The No. 2 seed Razorbacks will travel to the Manhattan Regional with hopes of matching last season's trip to the College World Series.

In order to return to Omaha, Arkansas must first overcome the No. 3 seed Bulldogs — as well as host Kansas State and fourth-seeded Wichita State — before moving on to next week's super regionals.

It's a familiar script for the Razorbacks. Arkansas was a No. 2 seed last season before winning its regional and super regional on the way to the College World Series for the third time in 10 seasons under coach Dave Van Horn.

"I think the team's very confident and looking forward to getting up there and playing," Van Horn said. "We've been waiting on this all year."

The Razorbacks came within one win of playing in the championship series last year against eventual national champion Arizona. They returned much of the core from that team this year, particularly from a pitching staff that was fifth in the country with a 2.83 ERA, leading to the lofty preseason expectations.

Pitching once again hasn't been a problem this season for the Razorbacks, who lead the country with a 1.87 team ERA.

The staff is led by junior Ryne Stanek, who is 9-2 with a 1.40 ERA — including an 0.97 mark in Southeastern Conference play. The right-hander is expected to be taken early in the first round of the upcoming major league draft, but what's intimidating for opponents is that he's only one of several pro pitching prospects at Arkansas.

That made the Razorbacks a trendy pick to advance past this week's regional, but they weren't selected as a host after finishing third in the SEC. The Razorbacks clearly felt overlooked and they are giving themselves an underdog label.

"We definitely should have hosted," Arkansas outfielder Matt Vinson said. "We played well enough to host, so we feel like we're going to go out to Manhattan and play with a chip on our shoulder."

For his part, Stanek said last year's tournament success has made the possibility of another trip to the College World Series seem much more achievable. He's expected to start the second game of the regional — possibly against Kansas State — and is squarely focused on returning to Omaha.

"The task doesn't seem as tall this year," Stanek said. "You know every game out there is going to be a battle, so we've got to be out there and ready to play and work hard every day."

Arkansas was able to overcome an inconsistent offense last year to reach the College World Series. It will have to do the same this year, given that the Razorbacks are tied for 189th in the country with an average of 4.9 runs per game. They have also struggled for much of the season with defense and are 187th in fielding percentage (.963).

Still, in a game in which pitching dominates, Arkansas has some of the best arms in the country. Now the Razorbacks hope that's enough to help them live up to its preseason hype.

"Last season showed us how it's done," Wise said. "When you get to postseason, some people think Omaha is way out there. It's five wins. You've got to win five games, which for this team and our pitching, is something we can do."