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June 17, 2012

'We want to knock them off their perch'

OMAHA, Neb. - South Carolina may hold a 22-game NCAA tournament winning streak, but Arkansas accomplished something recently that even the two-time defending national champions haven't done since the current format was introduced in 1999 - win the Regional and Super Regional rounds on the road.

Earlier this month, the Razorbacks were sent to Houston for the NCAA Regional hosted by Rice, but nipped Sam Houston State (5-4) and the Owls (1-0) in hard-fought games before beating SHS again to capture the regional.

Last weekend, Arkansas's Super Regional at Baylor went down - literally - to the final batter as the Razorbacks pulled out an epic 1-0 victory in 10 innings in the decisive Game 3. Baylor had the tying run at second base until a game-ending strikeout punched the Razorbacks' ticket to Omaha.

Now, after opening CWS play with a convincing 8-1 victory over upstart Kent State, the Razorbacks will try to become the first team to knock off the Gamecocks in Omaha since Oklahoma in 2010.

"It's motivation. We want to knock them off their perch," Arkansas pitcher Ryne Stanek, listed as the probable starting pitcher, told the Arkansas media on Sunday following a workout in preparation for Monday's 9 p.m. all-SEC winner's bracket showdown at TD Ameritrade Park.

"We get a chance to knock them down. If we can stop that streak, it's good for us. We're pretty loose, maybe looser than I expected. I haven't seen any nervousness at all. We're pretty confident. We're battle-tested, so nothing will affect us. We know we're right there with them. They're not better than us. We're a good team and they're a good team, too."

Stanek, a 6-foot-4 right-hander from Overland Park, Kan., carries a 7-4 record and 2.91 ERA in 86.2 innings into his 17th start of the season. He has 80 strikeouts and is limiting opponents to a .235 batting average.

He blanked Rice on five hits in seven innings in the critically important winner's bracket game on June 2 in Houston. He followed up that stellar performance by working four innings in Game 2 of the Waco Super Regional, allowing only two runs and two hits.

"The first thing you have to figure out is how do you score runs against a big guy like that who is pitching really well," USC coach Ray Tanner said. "They have a great club. It's another SEC foe. They know a lot about us and we know a lot about them. They're going to go out and play well, and I know we're going to approach it the same way."

Stanek has struggled with his control in recent outings with 11 walks in his last 16.2 innings, including four walks in four innings against Baylor in the Super Regional.

Named the Most Outstanding Player of the Houston Regional for his sparkling performance against Rice, Stanek was knocked around for five runs on six hits in five innings by the Gamecocks on May 4 in Fayetteville, a game eventually won by USC, 8-6, in 10 innings.

"I made some mistakes and they made me pay for them with some runs," Stanek said. "As long as I stay in the zone, we should be able to keep it close."

Out of the nine Arkansas pitchers that have hurled more than 30 innings this season, eight have ERAs under 3.10.

"They have a lot of power arms," Erik Payne said on Saturday after USC beat Florida. "I know they have a really good staff. I remember them putting up a lot of hits against us on that weekend and I know they're really good. They're a top SEC team. We just have to go out there and battle."

Stanek will probably need to significantly improve those numbers against the Gamecocks on Monday, since he'll be opposed by USC junior right-hander Colby Holmes, one of the hottest pitchers in the country.

Holmes limited Oklahoma to one hit in five innings of work in the 5-1 win over the Sooners that secured USC's third straight trip to Omaha. In his prior start, he carried a no-hitter into the eighth inning of the 7-0 win over Manhattan.

In his last 13 innings, Holmes has surrendered no runs and two hits with 12 strikeouts and two walks, an impressive display of pinpoint pitching. Holmes is 7-1 on the year with a 2.80 ERA in 74 innings, with 61 strikeouts to just 15 walks.

Van Horn realizes that his team must try to prevent the outcome from coming down to a late-inning battle with USC closer Matt Price, who registered his 42nd career save on Saturday to become the all-time leader in the SEC.

"He wants the ball at the end of the game," Van Horn said. "It's hard to find guys like that at this level. He's done it so many times, time and time again. You know he's going to attack you. He rarely ever has a bad outing. He's consistent, he's competitive, and on top of that, he's really good. He's got good stuff. He's challenging."

Much like USC, the Razorbacks are built on pitching and defense. The Arkansas pitching staff has a team ERA of 2.87 and has allowed one or fewer runs in four of seven NCAA tournament games, with four or fewer runs in seven of eight contests.

The Razorbacks have a team ERA of 1.86 in the NCAA tournament with 48 hits and 18 runs allowed in 63 innings. Yet, they allowed 32 hits and 24 runs to the Gamecocks in 28 innings at Baum Stadium six weeks ago.

Arkansas is 42-11 when it holds the opponent to five or fewer runs, and 30-13 when it commits one error or less. Will it take a performance like that to beat USC? Probably.

"I remember when Oregon State won it back to back, I thought that was amazing," Van Horn recently said. "I thought that would never happen again, and then Ray did it. Everything seems to be going good in South Carolina now. Every time we play them, it's the same team. They're so steady. They don't make hardly any mistakes. Their fielding percentage every year is around .980, which is incredible."

Arkansas is led offensively by Matt Reynolds, who is batting .333 (75-for-225) with seven homers, 43 RBI and 15 stolen bases to capture the team triple crown. He also leads Arkansas in doubles (20), total bases (116), slugging percentage (.516), walks (40) and on-base percentage (.440).

Even though Arkansas lost the series, Reynolds enjoyed a productive three games against USC in early May with seven hits in 13 at-bats (.538), a double and three RBI.

Appearing in the College World Series for the seventh time in program history, Arkansas and USC are two of nine schools with at least two appearances in Omaha in the last four years. Arkansas is 10-12 all-time in 22 games.

"Arkansas is a great team," outfielder Evan Marzilli said. "We saw that when we went to Fayetteville. They have a bunch of guys out of the pen that throw hard and some really good hitters. It's going to be a battle.

"Just like every other SEC game that we have, it's going to be a tough one. We'll be ready."

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D. McCallum

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