LITTLE ROCK — Side by side with the best in the National League, Joe Serrano’s number of successful sacrifice bunts says much about how the Razorbacks must manufacture runs.
Don’t call Arkansas’ offense "small ball." Bunting runners along, playing for one run at a time, and relying on pitching to do the rest gives this Razorback team the best chance to win.
Serrano has been to the plate 176 times in 48 games and executed a school-record 15 sacrifice bunts — a record that was news to me until Razorback announcer Chuck Barrett mentioned it on the air.
Contemplate Serrano’s stats in light of those compiled by Juan Pierre in 2012 and Omar Infante in 2011. Pierre tied for the NL lead in number of successful bunts with 17 and Infante was No. 1 the year before with 17. Pierre played in 130 games and had 394 at-bats; Infante played in 148 games and went to the plate 579 times. From 1994 through 2012, the NL leader had 15 to 24 successful bunts.
Serrano’s technique is textbook — he "catches" the ball with the bat. Like most teams, the Razorbacks work on bunting every day. Because of the struggle to score, it’s more of an emphasis at Arkansas than at most schools.
Although a database of play-by-play records for every major league game from 1993-2010 indicates that run production declines when swapping an out for advancing a runner to second, Arkansas has no choice but to play for one run at a time.
No less than UA athletic director Jeff Long praised the Razorbacks’ bunting on Twitter when Arkansas beat LSU 4-1 in the second round of the Southeastern Conference tournament. When Arkansas took a 2-1 lead in the eighth on Tyler Spoon’s squeeze bunt, Long tweeted: "How about ole Spooner getting that bunt down in a clutch situation."
Arkansas scored two more in the ninth on three singles, two stolen bases, and what Long described as an "out of nowhere bunt" by Matt Vinson.
That sort of execution, coupled with a gem from pitcher Ryne Stanek, produced a victory over one of the best teams in the country and prompted LSU coach Paul Mainieri to say that Stanek "showed why he’s going to make a lot of money in this game at the next level."
Two days later, the Razorbacks got one measly hit off of five LSU pitchers, and only scored because the second baseman bungled a pop fly.
Expect more low-scoring games this week in the NCAA Regional in Manhattan, Kan.
If the Razorbacks had to travel, they could not have asked for a better assignment. For starters, good Big 12 baseball is usually associated with Texas, Oklahoma, and Oklahoma State, not K-State. In fact, the Wildcats are hosting for the first time.
Based on RPI, Kansas State is the weakest of the 16 regional hosts. K-State’s RPI was 18 and the only two schools with a better RPI that did not host were Clemson and South Alabama. The Atlantic Coast Conference had five host teams before the selection committee considered Clemson and South Alabama, which lost in the Sun Belt Conference Tournament. The committee probably was in a bind anyway because of its desire for geographic balance.
Arkansas opens against Bryant, champion of the Northeast Conference. Although Bryant’s pitchers have an ERA of 2.63, 10th best in the NCAA, the suspicion is that conference members Sacred Heart, LIU-Brooklyn, and Quinnipiac don’t have the same caliber of hitters as LSU, Mississippi State and others in the Southeastern Conference.
Arkansas’ starting rotation is as good as any in the country. To parlay that pitching into a trip to the Super Regional, probably at Oregon State, the Razorbacks need solid defense and a few well-executed bunts. For confident Razorback fans, flying to Corvallis, Ore., from Tulsa will save time and money.
Harry King is sports columnist for Stephens Media’s Arkansas News Bureau. His e-mail address is email@example.com.