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Preview: Arkansas vs. UVA in the 2015 College World Series

CWSGetting to know Arkansas: It is fitting that Arkansas and UVA open the 2015 College World Series Saturday afternoon. Neither team thought they’d be anywhere near Omaha this time of year.

Virginia’s struggles have been well-documented, as it looked for the longest time that the Cavs were going to be hard-pressed to make even the ACC Tournament. Arkansas, for its part, was under .500 on March 25 before starting the 29-9 run that got the Razorbacks into the CWS.

Pitching has been an issue of late for Arkansas, which is fine as long as it can get the ball to closer Zach Jackson (5-0, 1.91 ERA, 9 saves, 87 strikeouts in 56.2 innings, .185 opponent batting average).

Saturday’s starter is likely to be Trey Killian (3-4, 4.74 ERA, 56K/79.2IP, 2.94 opponent batting average), who got the win in the Razorbacks’ 18-4 Game 1 Super Regional win over #8 national seed Missouri State last weekend.

Killian has a 4.91 ERA in two starts in the postseason, both Arkansas wins, though that says as much about the Arkansas offense as it does Killian.

The key to the Razorbacks is national player of the year Andrew Benintendi (.380/.489/.715, 19 HR, 55 RBI, 23 SB). The first-round 2015 MLB Draft pick of the Boston Red Sox (seventh overall) is to the college game what Bryce Harper is to the big leagues.

Benintendi jumpstarts an offense that scores 6.05 runs per game with a team slash line at .289/.379/.431. The lineup features just one other .300 hitter, Tyler Spoon (.331/.370/.500, 6 HR, 54 RBI, 9 SB), so obviously the approach from opposing pitchers is to keep the bases clear ahead and behind Benintendi and Spoon and deal as best as possible with the damage they cause around them.

The Arkansas staff ERA is the highest of the eight teams in the field in Omaha at 4.08, and the weakness in long and middle relief may be an issue with the lack of depth in the starting rotation. Jackson is the only pitcher on the staff with an ERA under 3.00, and the staff has had issues with walks (4.5 per 9 innings) and has allowed opponents to hit .256 on the season.

 

UVA in Omaha: Virginia will start Connor Jones (7-2, 2.96 ERA, 105K/103.1IP, .218 opponent batting average), with the possibility of having first-round draft pick Nathan Kirby (5-2, 2.28 ERA, 75K/59.1IP, .233 opponent batting average) available as a setup man for closer Josh Sborz (4-2, 1.95 ERA, 52K/60IP, .164 opponent batting average), a second-round draft pick.

The UVA offense scores 5.46 runs a game with a .273/.361/.377 slash line. Three-hole hitter Matt Thaiss (.332/.424/.528, 9 HR, 60 RBI) is one of four .300 hitters among the regulars (Pavin Smith, Robbie Coman, Daniel Pinero), with Kenny Towns just on the other side of that line at .298.

The Cavs went through each of the first two rounds of the NCAA Tournament unbeaten for the first time in school history. UVA won two games against Southern Cal and one against San Diego State to take the Lake Elsinore Regional, then swept Maryland in two games to advance from the Charlottesville Super Regional.

 

RPI: Virginia was ranked 21st in the final NCAA.com regular-season RPI dated May 23. Arkansas was 35th.

The NCAA website doesn’t update its RPI once the tournament starts, but WarrenNolan.com does. Virginia is up to 16th and Arkansas is at 20th on the eve of the College World Series.

– Preview by Chris Graham