FAYETTEVILLE – Arkansas squeaked a couple of runs across the plate and Trevor Stephan took care of the rest Friday night.
The hard-throwing junior from Texas threw 7 1/3 scoreless innings to help the Razorbacks beat Oral Roberts 3-0 and advance into the winner’s bracket.
He outdueled Golden Eagles ace Miguel Ausua, who gave up two runs in 6 1/3 innings.
“I thought Trevor and Miguel went at it,” Arkansas head coach Dave Van Horn said. “It reminded me of a Friday night SEC game where one big hit or mistake might be the difference.”
Here is a snapshot of the victory:
Oral Roberts’ best two chances to score came in the third and fourth innings, but it came up empty both times.
Taylor McCutchin got the game’s first hit when he led off the third with a double and, after he retired the next two batters, Stephan issued back-to-back walks.
That loaded the bases for Summit League Player of the Year Noah Cummings. He saw three pitches from Stephan, the last of which was a called third strike.
“When he got through that, it seemed like momentum kind of changed a little bit,” Van Horn said. “It’s those timely strikeouts that are really big and we got a few of those tonight that kept them off the board.
Oral Roberts got back-to-back one-out singles in the following inning to get into scoring position once again, but this time Arkansas was saved by its defense.
After Carson Shaddy snagged a line drive by McCutchin, Sam Grellner hit a grounder up the middle. It looked like it might get through for a hit, but Jax Biggers stretched, handled a late hop and flipped the ball to Shaddy for a force out to end the inning.
“That was awesome,” Stephan said. “That was big-time right there. That could have changed the whole inning.
“At first I thought it was going to get through. It tried to sneak through there, but Jax has been awesome all year and he continued in the postseason.”
Since struggling against Auburn and in the first inning against Ole Miss, Stephan has been arguably Arkansas’ best starting pitcher.
In his last 40 1/3 innings, he has allowed only seven earned runs on 27 hits and eight walks while striking out 48 batters. That is an ERA of 1.56 and a WHIP of 0.868.
He got off to a great start, striking out the first two batters of the game and four of the first five, before hitting the aforementioned rough spots in the third and fourth innings.
“I was kind of locked in early and then I went through a little rough stretch there in the third and fourth,” Stephan said. “Then I found it again, so that was nice.”
The final two outs of the fourth actually started a stretch of 11 consecutive Golden Eagles retired by Stephan.
“Trevor gave us every opportunity to get the lead,” Van Horn said. “Just the feel of the game, you knew it was going to be tight.”
Spanberger Strikes Again
Arkansas finally took advantage of Stephan’s great pitching in the fifth inning.
Jack Kenley led off the frame with a single and moved to second on a groundout by Eric Cole. That brought Chad Spanberger – one of the hottest hitters in the country – to the plate.
After working the count full, Spanberger hit a double into the right-field corner to score Kenley and give the Razorbacks a 1-0 lead.
“I tried to get him out with a changeup outside and missed the outside corner by a bit,” Ausua said. “Then I tried to come back with a slider and he got ahold of it.”
The slugger from Illinois is coming off a Herculean performance at the SEC Tournament, in which he hit five home runs, so Kenley wasn’t surprised when he was driven in.
“As hot as he is, I think just about everybody in the ballpark knew something was going to happen when he was at the plate,” Kenley said.
The RBI double was actually Spanberger’s second hit of the day. He reached on an infield single in the third inning, giving him his first single since May 12 against Vanderbilt.
Interestingly, that hit was also of the infield variety. Between those two singles, Spanberger had 13 hits: nine home runs and four doubles.
Stats to Know
-An impressive 11,088 fans packed into Baum Stadium for the nightcap between the Razorbacks and Oral Roberts. That is the fifth-largest actual attendance in Baum Stadium history, trailing only the three 2015 super regional games against Missouri State and one of the 2011 games against LSU.
-Stephan’s ninth strikeout of the game was also the 566th of the season for Arkansas’ pitching staff, breaking the UA single-season record. The Razorbacks struck out 565 batters in 64 games during the 2007 season. Through 60 games this year, Arkansas has 571 strikeouts.
-Kenley started his career 0 for 19 before getting an RBI double in the SEC Tournament. Still, he entered Friday’s game just 1 for 24 (.042). That didn’t matter, though, as he went 2 for 4 with hits in his first two at bats against Oral Roberts.
-Friday was Oral Roberts’ first shutout loss of the season. The last time the Golden Eagles didn’t score a run was their opening game of the last year’s Fort Worth Regional, when they lost to TCU 7-0.
Arkansas will play 2-seed Missouri State at 7 p.m. Saturday in the winner’s bracket, while 3-seed Oklahoma State and 4-seed Oral Roberts will play an elimination game at 2 p.m.
For the Razorbacks and Bears, it will be a rematch of the 2015 super regional. Arkansas won two of three games at Baum Stadium to advance to the College World Series, sparking what has become a rivalry of sorts between the two fan bases.
“That was a good year, 2015, but this is 2017,” Van Horn said. “We’re both 1-0 and it’s a big game. That’s the only thing we look at.”
Weather could be a factor over the next few days. According to the Weather Channel, there is an 80 percent chance of rain Saturday and a 90 percent chance Sunday.