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|GAME AT A
Point: Virginia was one strike away from victory in the ninth inning, with the bases empty and a two-run lead for closer Kevin Arico. But Zack Cox kept Arkansas alive with a single to center, and Brett Eibner followed with a monstrous two-run homer to left, forcing extra innings.
OMAHA—As Wednesday’s game approached the five-hour mark, Arkansas coach Dave Van Horn couldn’t help but reflect upon his team’s manic season. In 15 of the Razorbacks’ 40 wins entering the night, they trailed or tied in the seventh inning or later. Arkansas was 10-8 in one-run games, 6-2 in two-run games, and 6-1 in extra-inning games. This was a team that had been groomed all season long for a nail-biter like Wednesday’s battle against Virginia, which Arkansas won 4-3 in 12 innings to eliminate the Cavaliers.
“I just kept saying, we’ve been doing it all year, we’ve been like this all year,” Van Horn said. “We were winning games like that early, then it kind of went away at the end and we struggled in close games. But it brought back the memories of the season during that game tonight. I was thinking it was unbelievable. We were fighting for our lives.”
The Hogs were down to their last strike in the ninth inning before Zack Cox delivered a two-out single with the bases empty. That brought up sophomore outfielder Brett Eibner, who launched a 1-and-1 pitch into the left-field bleachers for a game-tying, two-run homer. Virginia left runners in scoring position each of the next four innings, and Arkansas won on Andrew Darr’s RBI double in the top of the 12th.
“Just a great ballgame to be a part of as a coach,” Van Horn said. “It was a rollercoaster, dramatic, a lot of moves, and a lot of heart. We have really tough kids that didn’t want to lose, didn’t want to go home. It was fun, it will be one I’ll never forget.”
Virginia starter Danny Hultzen, working on three days’ rest, shut down the Hogs for 6 1/3 innings, allowing just an unearned run on five hits while striking out seven. The UVa. middle relief then built a seamless bridge to closer Kevin Arico, a slider specialist who entered the game with 11 saves and a 2.25 ERA. But Arico hung an 82 mph slider up in the zone, and Eibner made him pay.
“I was looking for an offspeed pitch,” Eibner said. “I really wasn’t looking for a fastball with a guy on base—they were looking for a ground ball.”
That energized the Razorbacks, but Virginia responded in the bottom of the frame as it has responded all season long. The first two batters of the inning reached against Arkansas closer Stephen Richards, and Van Horn summoned ace lefthander Dallas Keuchel out of the bullpen. Keuchel, also working on three days’ rest, escaped the jam after a sacrifice bunt and an intentional walk, battling back from a 3-and-0 hole to get Hultzen to line a one-hopper to shortstop that the Hogs turned into a 6-4-3 double play. The ball was drilled right at Tim Carver, who knocked it down and made a quick toss to second. Carver had replaced senior Ben Tschepikow at shortstop after the senior broke his middle finger when Hultzen hit him with a pitch in the sixth—just one more obstacle Arkansas had to overcome in this game.
Keuchel walked the high wire over the next three innings. He escaped a second-and-third, one-out jam in the 10th by striking out Jarrett Parker and John Hicks, both on sliders. He got out of a bases-loaded predicament in the 11th by getting Dan Grovatt to ground out to second. Then, after Darr’s big hit gave Arkansas the lead in the 12th, Virginia third baseman Steven Proscia led off the bottom of the frame with a double down the left-field line. He stole third base, but Keuchel struck out the next three batters to nail down an emotional victory.
“I was just telling myself, we’d been through so much—this whole team—I wasn’t going to let them go out like that,” Keuchel said. “I kept throwing that slider out there, and I got some swings and misses.”
Keuchel is the clear leader of the Arkansas pitching staff, and he seemed to will his team to victory Wednesday night. Virginia coach Brian O’Connor had to be disappointed by his team’s inability to come up with big hits, but he made sure to credit Keuchel’s “clutch pitching”, and so did Grovatt.
“He got us out in big situations. He was a good pitcher—I tip my hat to him,” Grovatt said. “We had opportunities in every inning from the bottom of ninth all the way to the end. We just didn’t come up with a big hit, and Arkansas did.”
Of course, that was nothing new for the Razorbacks, and it was nothing new for Darr, who delivered a walk-off, two-run single against Florida State to send Arkansas to Omaha. On Wednesday, Darr entered the game for defensive purposes in the ninth, replacing leadoff man Chase Leavitt. In the 12th, Darr battled Virginia righthander Andrew Carraway for 10 pitches before driving in Jarrod McKinney with the winning run.
“I didn’t know it was the 10th pitch,” Darr said. “I came off the bench, I was just trying to get something going, trying to have a good at-bat. I was looking for something up in the zone the entire at-bat. He was throwing a lot of offspeed pitches.”
Finally, Darr broke the 3-3 tie, and Arkansas held on for the win in an Omaha classic.
“That game took everything from Arkansas, and it took everything from Virginia,” O’Connor said. “Unfortunately we came out on the short end of the stick.”