OMAHA, Neb. – On a day when the SEC took center stage at the 2012 College World Series, most of the attention – understandably – was directed at the nightcap between consensus No. 1 Florida and two-time national champion South Carolina as those two teams met in an opener after the decided the national championship in 2011.
So Arkansas’ game earlier in the day with Kent State wasn’t a hot topic of conversation most of the week leading up to the first round.
It might be time to start taking a second and more serious look at the Razorbacks, though.
Arkansas rode a dominant pitching performance from DJ Baxendale and a pair of timely clutch hits in the late innings after several frustrating misses to an 8-1 victory against the Golden Flashes on Saturday.
The Hogs (45-20) will get their chance to state an even stronger case as a true CWS contender when they face one South Carolina (46-17) at 8 p.m. Monday.
Kent State (46-19) will try to stay alive when it faces Florida (47-19) at 4 p.m. Monday.
|DJ Baxendale: 3 hits and 1 run allowed as he nabs win No. 8|
Baxendale made sure Arkansas had a fighting chance from the get-go as he smothered the Flashes’ hitters with pinpoint control and almost always pitched ahead in the count.
“He threw every fastball where he wanted in the first inning,” Arkansas coach Dave Van Horn said. “That’s a tell-tale sign.”
Turns out there were plenty of signals and omens for the Razorbacks in this one.
Arkansas jumped on top in the first inning when Kent State pitcher David Starn walked the bases loaded as the Hogs established a trend of taking first pitches and making him labor.
Brian Anderson struck the first blow of the day when he rifled a hot shot back through the middle off Starn’s glove for an infield RBI single. That left the bases loaded and the opportunity prime for a big inning, but Starn snuffed those hopes out when he got Bo Bigham to chop into a 6-4-3 double play.
The first two Razorbacks in the second inning went quietly before nine-hole hitter Jake Wise delivered the first big hit from the end of the batting order when he lined a shot to left field that carried over the fence for a home run – Arkansas’ first since May 19 and the first Starn had allowed in 70 innings.
“When I hit it, I thought it was a double,” Wise said. “I was looking for something elevated against him, something to hit the other way. He left it over the plate and I was able to square it up.”
Squared up and pumped up.
After managing only the single run in the first inning, Wise’s blast gave Arkansas and Baxendale some welcome wiggle room.
“It was big for our psyche and out confidence,” Van Horn said.
What didn’t help, and also kept Starn in the game, was a rash of double plays.
Besides the rally-killer in the first inning, Razorbacks’ third baseman Matt Reynolds rolled into three others, the second limiting a threat to one run after Joe Serrano punched an RBI single to score Wise, who had drawn a leadoff walk.
Facing a still manageable 3-1 deficit, Kent State came to bat in the seventh inning and finally posed a threat against Baxendale.
T.J. Sutton drilled a single to center field, the third and last hit Baxendale allowed, with one out. Nick Hamilton followed with a walk – the only one the Hogs’ starter gave up – and the Flashes had two runners on for the first time.
Van Horn summoned Brandon Moore to take over and he got the job done by coaxing Sawyer Polen into a 6-3 and Alex Miklos into a fly ball to center field.
Moore breezed through the eighth and survived a leadoff single in the ninth with the help of a double play to record his third save.
|Bo Bigham: Sparked two late innings with hits and scored both times|
The Arkansas offense made things much less strenuous for Moore by finally ending some frustration and doing so a little unconventionally.
Starn got two quick outs in the Hogs 7th before Bigham whistled a double just over Polen’s head at third base. Derrick Bleeker worked Starn for a walk, his sixth issued, and Matt Vinson made that sting when he hammered a double into the left-field corner to score both runners.
That was the last hitter Starn faced in a rough outing when he allowed five runs on only six hits.
Three of his six walks led off an inning and three of the six batters who got on free came around to score.
|Kent State coach Scott Stricklin: 'If they (Arkansas) play like that, they have a chance to win a national championship.'|
“They hit in some pretty positive counts,” Kent State coach Scott Stricklin said of the Razorbacks. “What David is really good at is getting ahead and working ahead. He faced 26 hitters and only two of them swung at the first pitch. … They had a plan to stay patient and get a lot of strikes.”
Patience paid off again in the eighth when Arkansas iced the victory. Anderson tapped a base hit through the middle with one out, Bigham lined his second hit of the night to left field and Bleeker walked again to fill up the bases against Flashes reliever Ryan Mace.
With Vinson at the plate, Anderson darted home on a wild pitch. Mace struck out on Vinson on three pitches, but Wise came through again when he laced a single to chase home two more runs – the Hogs’ fourth and fifth of the game with two outs.
Wise and Vinson accounted for five of Arkansas’ seven RBIs. By contrast, the Razorbacks’ three- and four-hole hitters were 0-for-6.
Serrano led a 10-hit Arkansas attack with three singles and is hitting .588 (10-for-17) in the NCAA Tournament.
|Matt Vinson: 2-out, 2-run 2B breaks game open in the 6th inning|
“He’s been wearing out left-handed pitching,” Van Horn said of his freshman DH. “His average has gone up probably 70-80 points in the last 10 games because he’s getting two or three hits a game. It’s been a big part of us being here.”
No bigger than lock-down pitching, which the Razorbacks got plenty more of Saturday.
The only dent Kent State made was Jimmy Rider’s solo home run in the sixth inning, snapping a streak of 20 straight scoreless innings. Arkansas has limited foes to one run over the last 23 innings.
With an offense clicking like it did Friday and the kind of pitching the Razorbacks have gotten much of the season, Stricklin was inspired to make a bold statement.
“If they play like that, they have a chance to win a national championship,” he said. “No question about it. With their pitching, if they have that offensive approach and play clean defense with that pitching, they have a chance to win it all.”