June 11, 2010

By Tom Kessler
Special to NCAA.com

The Arizona State Sun Devils love to play postseason baseball in the scorching weather that is mid-June in Tempe. The Arkansas Razorbacks have shown that they can take the heat and withstand the challenge of winning a playoff series on the road.

When the tradition-rich programs square off in an NCAA Division I Super Regional beginning Saturday night at ASU's Packard Stadium, a berth in the College World Series will be at stake. The Pac-10 champion Sun Devils, who are the top national seed in the tournament, and the Razorbacks, ranked 15th in the country, are entering the best-of-three series expecting that the competition will be as intense as the temperatures.

"They do everything right," Arizona State coach Tim Esmay said about the Razorbacks, who finished second behind Auburn in the SEC West. "They run the bases well. They take advantage of things. They're very well-prepared. They've played a very good schedule."

Arkansas enters the best-of-three series with a 43-19 record. Arizona State, meanwhile, will take the field with an overall mark of 50-8 and a No. 1 ranking in the latest USA Today Coaches Poll.

"We've got a tough draw, probably the best team, the hottest team in the country in ASU," Arkansas coach Dave Van Horn said. "They are just a really solid team, and their record reflects that. We know it is an uphill battle, but we're excited to get the opportunity."

Game 1 of the Tempe Super Regional will begin at 6 p.m. (PDT) Saturday at Packard Stadium. And will be televised live on ESPNU. Sunday's second game is scheduled for 7 p.m., and Game 3, if necessary, is scheduled to begin at 4 p.m. Monday.

The Razorbacks, who defeated Washington State 7-2 in an elimination game Monday night to win the regional at Fayetteville, are hitting the road for the second consecutive season in the Super Regionals. Last year, Arkansas swept Florida State in Tallahassee to qualify for the College World Series for the sixth time in school history.

"This is not something new to them," ASU's Esmay said about the Razorbacks' quest to advance as a road team. "So all that is going to add up into a very, very good, tough challenge for us this week."

Arizona State, which defeated Milwaukee once and Hawaii twice last weekend to win the Tempe Regional, is aiming to earn the school's 22nd trip to the CWS. The Sun Devils, who won five national championships between 1965 and 1981, finished third in the CWS last season after sweeping Clemson in the Super Regionals.

The Sun Devils and Razorbacks have met twice previously in the postseason - Arkansas won in a Regional in 1989 and Arizona State won a 1998 Regional. The all-time series between the two teams stands at 3-3 after the Sun Devils swept two games in Tempe in 2008 and the Razorbacks won twice in Fayetteville in 2009.

"They're a great team," said Arizona State sophomore second baseman Zack MacPhee, the Pac-10 Player of the Year who is hitting .394 with 9 home runs and 63 RBIs. "It should be a fun series."

At the forefront of the Razorbacks' cadre of standouts is sophomore third baseman Zack Cox (.427 batting average with 9 homers and 48 RBIs), who was selected in the first round of the Major League Baseball draft with the 25th overall pick by the St. Louis Cardinals on Monday.

Arizona State junior right-hander Seth Blair (12-0, 3.06 ERA), who was also drafted by the Cardinals with the 46th overall pick, is looking forward to the challenge of facing Cox, his potential future teammate in the minors and majors.

"He can hit the ball to all fields," Blair said about Cox, a 21-year-old left-handed hitter. "He's got power. He hits for average. He does everything that you would want a first-rounder to do. He's going to be a tough out, but we're going to pitch to him and try to make our pitches against him."

When Arizona State is at bat, the Sun Devils will face an Arkansas pitching staff that features sophomore left-hander Drew Smyly (a second-round draft choice of the Detroit Tigers who is 9-1 this season with a 2.56 ERA) and senior right-hander T.J. Forrest (8-0, 3.10 ERA).

Also among the Razorbacks' hurlers is junior right-hander Brett Eibner (3-4, 4.39 ERA), who doubles as an outfielder and is batting .337 with a team-leading 21 homers and 69 RBIs. Eibner was drafted in the second round Tuesday by the Kansas City Royals.

The Tempe forecast calls for high temperatures in the 90s over the weekend and reaching the 100-degree mark on Monday.

Arizona State senior outfielder Kole Calhoun (.325, 16 homers, 58 RBIs) and his Sun Devil teammates wouldn't want it any other way.

"We know that we have a great advantage when we play here," Calhoun said.