The Razorbacks were in jeopardy of not making the SEC tournament for much of the day, but they swept a doubleheader -- two seven inning nailbiters -- from Ole Miss when they made all the key plays on defense and the Rebels did not.
Arkansas won the opener 2-0 behind solid pitching from Randall Fant, then rallied from a 3-0 deficit to send Ole Miss home perhaps for the season.
The 36-18 Razorbacks, with a national No. 13 RPI at 6 p.m. Saturday pending other results, won the SEC West outright at 15-15. They will have the No. 2 seed in the SEC tournament this week in Hoover, Ala. They are also likely to play host to a regional in two weeks.
They could have been on the outside looking in until they made a bunch of plays in the seventh inning of both games. Catcher James McCann, junior captain, was the man getting a lot of the defensive praise for two plays at the plate that ruined Rebel chances in the seventh inning of both games.
But there were heroes everywhere for the gritty Razorbacks, who won both games despite getting only six hits in each game. The young UA pitchers -- without an upperclassmen on the mound on the weekend -- thwarted the Rebels at every turn.
They turned to ace DJ Baxendale for the final three outs in the seventh with the Rebels getting walks from both Barrett Astin and Trent Daniel to open the final frame.
The Rebels, like they did in the opener, came up empty on a key play at the plate when Baxendale's fast ball squirted away from McCann but not far enough for pinch runner Jordan King. McCann retrieved it on a slide and flipped to Baxendale for the tag.
The Rebels lost a runner at the plate in the seventh in the opener when McKinney threw out Alex Yarbrough trying to score from second on a ground single to right. McKinney's throw was on the money, but it short-hopped McCann. The catcher made a perfect stab and was waiting on Yarbrough for the out.
"James made two of the most spectacular plays I've ever seen for those two outs," Baxendale said. "The one he caught on McKinney's throw was as good as I've seen. I was amazed.
"I let a fast ball get away on the other one and he did a good job to get most of it and then get it back to me."
Baxendale was the tough-luck losing pitcher on Thursday night when Ole Miss won the opener of the series, 2-1. Baxendale begged for the ball on Saturday despite getting only one day rest after going over 100 pitches on Thursday.
"He told me he was going to ask for the ball," McCann said. "He said he was going to make sure he got to pitch if it was a save chance in the second game. I told him to be smart. I didn't want him to take a chance on hurting himself."
Baxendale might have worked over pitching coach Dave Jorn if he didn't get the ball.
"I told him earlier in the day we weren't going to use him," Jorn said. "He came to me a couple of times late in the second game and I kept telling him no. I was afraid we'd hurt him. But he just kept coming at me. I finally let him go down (to the bullpen)."
Baxendale said, "Coach Jorn sent a couple of other guys down there to start the seventh and I got pretty upset. I wanted to know why I couldn't go, too. He finally let me."
How many pitches did he need to loosen?
"Not many," he said. "It was warm on the job down and I was pretty pumped up by the time I got there. I was ready and feeling good after just a few."
The Hogs finished the SEC West at 15-15, one game ahead of Mississippi State, Auburn and Alabama, all losers Saturday to slip to 14-16. Ole Miss finished at 13-17, tied with LSU and out of the SEC tournament.
"I couldn't be more proud of a team," Arkansas coach Dave Van Horn said. "Someone came to tell me in the third inning of the second game that we'd either be first or not in the tournament. That's crazy. They said they'd checked it five times before telling me."
And he wanted to know?
"Yes, I told them before the game if it got crazy to come tell me and they did," he said. "That was crazy enough and I'm glad I knew.
"I tell you how I feel right now, my hair is either all grey or it's falling out -- and I don't care.
"We've got a young team and it was important for us to get them into postseason play. They need to experience the SEC tournament. It's a great atmosphere and it'll help them for the future."
And with the way the Hogs scrapped all season with a young pitching staff, Van Horn isn't counting them out from this point forward.
"I've always thought with this team, we just needed to get them into tournament play and it would be fun for them," he said. "We've done that now. It's all about having fun from this point forward."
It was white knuckle time throughout Saturday. The huge crowd of 10,084 tried to urge them on, but there were long stints where the partisan fans weren't sure how the day was going to go and were quiet.
"It was tense," McCann said. "We tried to keep things loose, but this was a big situation. I talked to the team after Thursday's loss. I told them we just needed to figure out how to win two games and then it would all turn into fun. I think that's where we are right now.
"But I thought this was fun. I had a blast. I've been to Omaha and we've won some big games in regionals here in my past two years, but this might be something I never forget."
Jorn said he wasn't sure what he had as far as the young pitching staff until early this season. He said there were shaky stretches in the fall where they were learning mechanics and situations. But they were always willing learners.
"They always listened," he said. "And they competed. Lately, I haven't worried because they aren't young anymore. They've seen everything and done everything. They have learned."
Batting coach Todd Butler, the lead recruiter, knew it was going to be a tough season as far as offensive production after the Hogs lost Zack Cox, Brett Eibner and Andy Wilkins early to the draft.
"We just didn't have a lot of experience against SEC pitching," he said. "But I don't think there was ever a time they quit grinding. That's what they did today, grind to the end. We missed some pitches and we took some pitches, but they did enough at the end to get us there."
Collin Kuhn, the most experienced UA hitter, came through on Saturday. He homered in both games, including a two-run liner into the Hogs' bullpen in the third after Ole Miss had taken a 3-0 lead. The Hogs got three in the bottom of the sixth to turn the tables. There was an out erasing balk by Brett Huber in the middle of that rally.
Tim Carver plated a run on a suicide squeeze that turned into a single when it stayed fair. Bo Bigham singled to right on a flare that was just under the outfielder's glove. Kuhn got the last run on a sacrifice fly.
Then it was time for the Hogs to make the plays the Rebels couldn't. They had thrown out a runner at the plate ahead of Kuhn's homer in the third, but the aggressive Hogs forced mistakes in the sixth.
"McCann made two big ones," Van Horn said. "You talk about clutch in both games. The ball he short hopped from McKinney looked like he was a shortstop. Incredible."
Butler said, "It's two situations that our catching instructor, Brian Walker, works with James every practice," Butler said. "Brian is as good at drills for catchers as I've seen."
McCann acknowledged it was similar to the practice drills.
"I love the one where you run down the ones that squirt away," he said. "We work on how to slide so it's a pickup and throw. It worked just like we practiced. We do all the blocking drills and then we get to that one and it's the one I like.
"We do practice the short hop drill, but you don't ever know how that's going to go. You can't work on that too much because the outfielders would have their arms fall off pretty quickly. So that one you either get or you don't. It might be nice if you could use a first basemen mitt. This (catcher's) mitt isn't made for that kind of a scoop."
The Razorbacks climbed into a first place tie with a 2-0 victory to start a Sunday doubleheader when McKinney preserved the shutout by throwing out Alex Yarbrough in the seventh. The only other Rebel threat ended in the first when the Hogs turned a double play with a runner at third.
Ole Miss was short on defense in the first inning when a Bo Bigham's bouncer to open the game went off the shortstop's chest. Bigham later scored on a sacrifice fly by James McCann on a shallow pop to left. Matt Tracy's weak throw sailed up the line.
Collin Kuhn, who ran down several deep flies in center, hit a solo home run in the sixth for the other Arkansas run.
Randall Fant (3-3) got the victory for the Hogs. He left with one out in the seventh after giving up a pair of singles sandwiched around a fly out. Trent Daniel allowed a single to right, but McKinney fired a one-hopper that James McCann fielded cleanly and put the tag on Yarbrough. Barrett Astin recorded the final out for the save.
The other big defensive play came in the first on a bouncer to first that Dominic Ficociello fielded. He fired to Tim Carver at short. Both Fant and Ficociello were on the bag for the return throw. Fant gloved it.
"Neither one of us called for it," Fant said. "We both tried for it. There was some confusion. Coach got on to us in the dugout for not communicating.
"Getting out of that jam helped. The first inning is always the toughest."