FAYETTEVILLE – Blaine Knight came out on top in a battle of aces Friday night.
The sophomore right-hander struck out 11 batters in seven innings as Arkansas beat Mississippi State 3-1 to open up SEC play at Baum Stadium.
Here is a snapshot of the victory:
The Bulldogs struck first Friday, but their lead didn’t even make it to the next inning.
Trailing 1-0 in the first inning, Chad Spanberger singled and Luke Bonfield followed with a two-run home run to give Arkansas the lead.
Both hits were to the opposite field, with Spanberger getting a line drive to left and Bonfield’s homer landing in the right field bullpen.
“Chad did a great job of fouling off a bunch of pitches and got his pitch count up and then slapped a single to left,” head coach Dave Van Horn said. “And then Bonfield let that fastball get deep and just drove it out over the fence.
“(The wind) was actually blowing in just a little bit lightly, so he kind of muscled that one out.”
They proved to be big hits because Arkansas managed only two more the rest of the game.
Battle of Aces
The first inning featured some fireworks, but both starting pitchers settled in after that.
Knight allowed just two more base runners after giving up a pair of two-out extra-base hits in the game’s opening frame.
Jake Mangum reached on a single in the third inning, but was erased on a strike ‘em out, throw ‘em out double play by the Razorbacks. Then with two outs in the sixth, Knight hit Ryan Gridley with a pitch, but bounced back by retiring the last four batters he faced.
Van Horn said he nearly went to the bullpen after the sixth, but Knight wouldn’t let pitching coach Wes Johnson take him out of the game.
“(Johnson) walked down to me and had the look on his face like, ‘Hey, we’re fixing to yank you,’” Knight said. “I said, ‘Don’t. I got one more in me. Let me get it. Then we can turn it over to somebody else.’”
Despite his forearm cramping up, Knight’s 104th pitch of the game was a called third strike to end the seventh and give him 11 strikeouts. The pitch count, innings and strikeouts were career highs for the Bryant, Ark., native.
Knight said that all of his pitches – fastball, cutter, slider and change-up – were working for him and Van Horn agreed.
“Blaine had his best stuff that I’ve seen maybe since he’s been here,” Van Horn said. “A tremendous job by (him) really shutting it down pretty good after the first inning.”
On the other side, sophomore left-hander Konnor Pilkington was excellent for the Bulldogs, throwing an eight-inning complete game. He allowed four hits and one walk while striking out 13 batters on 125 pitches.
“His stuff was good,” Van Horn said. “He’s pitch it 92-93 (miles per hour), then when he’d try to get you, he’d get up to 95 on that fastball. He throws the ball downhill with a lot of tilt, so it’s hard to hit.”
In a matchup of the SEC’s top home run-hitting teams, it shouldn’t be surprising that all four runs scored in Friday’s game were the result of long balls.
Gridley, the Mississippi State shortstop, hit a monstrous two-out home run in the first inning for the Bulldogs’ lone run. It was one of the few mistakes by Knight all game.
“That first inning I made a mistake with one pitch,” Knight said. “It ran over a little too much, right into his wheelhouse, where he likes it, middle in. He hit it and he hit it out. That’s what he does a lot with those pitches.”
Bonfield answered with his two-run shot in the next half inning.
“It was a fastball, probably outer half, but he left it up a little bit,” Bonfield said. “I was able to take a good swing on the ball and hit it well, and fortunately it got out of the yard.”
The Razorbacks got an insurance run in the sixth inning when Grant Koch hit a first-pitch solo home run with one out. Similar to the one Bonfield hit, he said Pilkington left the pitch up, probably because he was beginning to wear down with a high pitch count.
It was Koch’s sixth home run of the season, which leads the team and is second in the SEC.
Stats to Know
-Friday marked the first time Arkansas opened up SEC play with a win since 2012, when the Razorbacks beat Alabama 4-3 in 12 innings on their way to a sweep in Fayetteville. That season, Arkansas went 16-14 in conference play and eventually made it to the College World Series.
-The win also snapped the Razorbacks’ 11-game SEC losing streak dating back to last year. Arkansas hadn’t won a conference game since beating Texas A&M nearly 11 months ago. Interestingly, it was Mississippi State that capped that streak with a three-game sweep to end the Razorbacks’ 2016 season.
-Jake Alredge saw his 14-game hitting streak end with a 0-for-4 performance at the plate. He struck out three times and lined out to second.
Game 2 of the series is Saturday at 7 p.m. It will be televised on the SEC Network.
Arkansas will send junior right-hander Trevor Stephan (3-0, 0.75 ERA) to the mound and Mississippi State will counter with sophomore right-hander Peyton Plumlee (2-0, 1.88 ERA).