If there were any doubt before the game, Alabama moved clearly ahead of Kentucky in NCAA tournament selection pecking order with the win. Kentucky was the first team eliminated from the conference tourney with its 16-10 loss to Georgia earlier on Thursday.
"Every game from here on out we are playing for a regional or a super regional," Tide junior Emeel Salem said. "The regional is definitely in our minds and we know we need to make some noise here to solidify it. Every win is important."
Wade LeBlanc (10-0) was nasty to Arkansas hitters in seven innings of work, throwing shutout ball and allowing just five hits and issuing two walks. He rose to the occasion in the sixth inning after Arkansas got men at second and third with one out on back-to-back singles from Jake Dugger and James Ewing.
Staring his first defeat of the season in the face, LeBlanc didn't blink against the next two batters. He struck out Hamblin on five pitches and faced off against Hogs' designated hitter David Hum in an eight-pitch at-bat that ended with LeBlanc's ninth strikeout of the game.
"That was the turning point in the game," LeBlanc said. "Coach Wells always talks about recognizing when that point comes and taking advantage of it."
LeBlanc got two quick strikes on Hum, but the Little Rock freshman battled back to a full count, fouling off three tough LeBlanc pitches along the way. The veteran pitcher prevailed, however, sailing a low fastball past Hum's swinging bat.
Hum pulled Arkansas to within a run of the Tide with two out in the eighth with a three-run homer in his next at-bat off Tide reliever Jordan Davis, but David Robertson came in afterwards and sat down the next four Arkansas hitters, striking out three of them, to earn his 10th save of the year.
Alabama used three run-scoring bunts and an RBI infield single from shortstop Greg Paiml to score all its runs in the game. Paiml, who was last night's goat after failing to put down a sacrifice bunt with runners on first and third with no outs, earned redemption with a hit today.
"We refused to do the standard first and third safety squeeze again and Greg was able to hit one hard off the guy's glove," Alabama Coach Jim Wells said.
Paiml's stroked a pitch down the line into the glove of Arkansas third baseman Blake Parker. Kent Matthes, who led off the inning with the single and was running at third, started back to the bag, but reversed course as the ball squirted from Blakes glove toward the third base dugout and scored the game's first run without a throw.
"Matthes did a good job there," Wells said. "For a guy that hasn't played a lot he made a good read on it."
After a pinch-hit home run Wednesday night, Matthes got the start in right field over freshman Ryan Rhoden. He lined a 1-2 singled up the middle to start the seventh inning rally.
"I got two strikes and I just didn't give up," Matthes said. "It was hot and (Arkansas starting pitcher Daryl) Maday had thrown a lot of pitches so I knew I could get a bat on the ball."
Brandon Belcher followed Mathes' leadoff single with a 2-2 single to right field after he failed to lay down the sacrifice bunt. Belcher scored the second run of the inning on a safety squeeze from Salem – Salem was safe at first when Arkansas first baseman Danny Hamblin couldn't hang on to the throw.
Matt Downs followed Salem with another bunt that scored Paiml, and Alex Avila attempted a sacrifice bunt with men at first and second with no one out, but flew out to center field after he couldn't get the bunt down. Salem went to third on that fly ball and scored on a suicide squeeze by catcher David Ferazza.
Belcher, Salem, Downs, Avila and Ferazza all attempted bunts in the seventh inning, with Salem, Downs and Ferazza getting the successful sacrifice attempts.
The 2-3-4-5 spots in the Alabama batting order spent another day wilting in the hot sun at the Hoover Met. The combination of Matt Downs, Alex Avila, Kody Valverde and Evan Bush were 1 for 12 on the day, with the only hit being a pop fly double that was mis-played by Arkansas' right fielder.
Wells benched Valverde for David Ferazza after Valverde took three straight pitches for a strikeout in the sixth inning.
The key hits in the game came off the bats of Matthes, who started his ninth game of the year, and Paiml, who entered the game 1 for 10 with seven strikeouts against the Hogs this year and even worse numbers in his most recent games.
"Unexpected, indeed," Wells said. "The unexpected has to do it because the guys you expect aren't. Maybe it will be their day tomorrow."
On Friday at 6:30 p.m., Alabama plays the loser of the Ole Miss-LSU contest to be played later Thursday night. Wells said Tommy Hunter will start the game, and he will limit Hunter to around the 100-pitch mark. LeBlanc threw 109 pitches Thursday.