State of the Hogs: Pressure

It's a pressure-packed Sunday for the Arkansas baseball team. But that's been where the Razorbacks have flourished. They'll play for a trip to Omaha against Missouri State.

Matt Hall said the road crowd wouldn't matter. He tipped his hat to the record Baum Stadium crowd afterwards, but in the end the Missouri State lefthander was correct.

Hall gave up a first-inning single and almost nothing else in a 125-pitch masterpiece to send the Fayetteville Super Regional to the rubber game.

As third baseman Bobby Wernes said afterwards, this weekend turns out to be just like almost every other weekend for this Arkansas baseball team.

"It's the way our season has gone," Wernes said. "Nothing comes easy. It's the way it's gone for us so we are right on course."

The Hogs won seven SEC series over the final eight weeks of the regular season. Most of those came down to the Sunday rubber game. They whipped MSU, 18-4, on Friday night, but Hall was too much on Saturday when 12,167 mostly Razorback fans were left to cheer four walks. There was one each to lead off the last three innings, but only one came around.

Hall (12-2) bested the Hogs' usual Sunday man, freshman Keaton McKinney, unable to locate his two dynamite pitches. McKinney did not make it out of the second inning, allowing one run. Jackson Lowery got a double play to get clean up McKinney's mess in the second. He allowed two more in the third, but was superb until giving way to Zach Jackson for the ninth.

"We couldn't figure out Matt Hall," said Dave Van Horn, the UA coach. "He pitched a great game. He mixed up his fast ball, change and slider. He got a couple of double play balls."

The first was the only time Andrew Benintendi could square-up something against Hall. Wernes had reached on a one-out single and Benintendi smoked a fast ball that sliced over second base but right to shortstop Joey Hawkins, positioned perfectly for the pull hitter. A flip to first nipped Wernes.

The other double play came in the eighth. Brett McAfee led off with a walk. Michael Bernal, who worked a nine-pitch at bat, bounced one to Hawkins for an easy double play.

"We had a big-game pitcher and he delivered," said Keith Guttin, the MSU coach.

Hall was dealing from the start and seemed to love everything second. He smiled when some of his near misses weren't rewarded by home plate umpire Chris Marshall. He yelled in celebration when he struck out Benintendi to end the fourth. Benintendi didn't like it and responded. Hall motioned him back to the dugout with a wave of his glove.

"There were words," said Matt Fultz, the MSU catcher. "It's lefty on left and it's not much fun for a lefty when the pitcher is painting his pitches.

"Matt was painting that slider away, especially against Benintendi. I liked that."

Hall just said, "Benintendi is a great hitter and he laid into some pitches."

It was Hall who said on Thursday that the Baum crowd wouldn't bother him "once he crossed the lines." It was just like he predicted. Asked if he thrives on such atmosphere, he said he did.

"I love it," he said. "It was a great atmosphere. Baum is a great place to play. I tip my cap to them. I wasn't worried about the crowd. They are great fans and they love their Razorbacks."

The Hogs will go with sophomore James Teague, the sophomore righthander from Bartlesville, Okla. Teague (6-4, 3.67 ERA) pitched one inning on Friday night. He was the starter in a 2-0 loss to the Bears in Baum on March 31. He pitched four innings, allowing three hits and two runs, one earned. It was his first loss.

Teague might have been the Hogs' best pitcher in the fall and was given the opening day start after a strong January, with Trey Killian on the mend. He didn't make it out of the second inning against North Dakota State, mainly because of control issues. Later, as he seemed to gain the strike zone, he said he was just nervous in that role.

So how will he do in the biggest role of the year? It's one game for a trip to Omaha. Van Horn tried to relieve pressure with his comments in the post-game interviews when asked what he'd tell his team.

"What do you say?" Van Horn said. "Two months ago, if you told me we could have one game to see if you are going to Omaha, I'd take it in a heart beat. I will tell them to go play. I don't want them to feel any pressure. Go enjoy it."

Teague has all of the pitches and velocity in the low 90s. His fast ball darts and dives, one of his problems.

"He's got great stuff," Van Horn said. "It's just about locating it. When he's good, he's tough. He's got the good slider, a change and velocity. He's got enough stuff if he can locate it."

Van Horn knows Zach Jackson still has plenty in the tank. He wasn't used in the blowout on Friday and threw the final 18 pitches on Saturday. Did the coach think about saving Jackson for Sunday?

"I thought we had a chance to win today," he said. "I thought we were going to get two in the ninth and I wanted to keep them off the board in the top half of the inning. It's a good thing to get him in a game. We got the leadoff walk and (Wernes) had the bouncer down the line that was just foul. We were one big hit away."

Missouri State will counter with its usual Sunday starter, lefty Jordan Knutson (6-1, 3.06 ERA). Guttin and Fultz pointed to his start in the regional title game against Iowa as a similar situation. Knutson went seven innings to help the Bears beat Iowa, 4-2.

"He's been getting better all year," Guttin said. "Pitching in the regional championship game was a big step for him."

Fultz said, "Last season, he struggled. But he's been very good the last couple of starts."

Van Horn didn't give much of the scouting report on Knutson, but knows the Hogs are facing a strike thrower.

"He's a lefty and we know his velocity is about 84 to 88," Van Horn said.

The Bears have not used much of their top shelf relievers. Closer Bryan Young (7-0) leads the nation with 16 saves. He's got 51 strikeouts against 14 walks.

"We've got pretty much everyone ready except Lowery and maybe Trey (Killian)," Van Horn said. "Trey could probably face a hitter."

The Bears were pumped after Hall's final pitch and danced around him on the mound. The pitcher tossed his glove high in the air as the mob got to him. Did the Hogs notice? Will it fuel them for the Sunday rubber game?

"We don't need any more motivation," Wernes said.

Game time is 2:05 p.m. There may be another record crowd to cheer on the Hogs. They'll be glad they don't have to see Matt Hall.

Andrew Benintendi heads to third in the seventh inning.

Tyler Spoon follows a fly ball.

Matt Hall celebrates the final out.

Michael Bernal makes a tag after a run down.

Tyler Spoon makes a catch.

Andrew Benintendi responds to Matt Hall's celebration after a strikeout.

Zach Jackson recorded the final three outs.

The crowd of 12,167 at Baum Stadium set a record.

Photos by Jason Ivester, Hawgs Illustrated

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