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Off The Bat: Arkansas Enjoys Homecoming, Pac-12 Race Tightens

Baum-Stadium-Arkansas-2015
Arkansas' Baum Stadium

Arkansas Enjoys Homecoming

Over the past two weeks, Arkansas played what might be the toughest two-week stretch any team in the country plays this season. The Razorbacks had back-to-back road trips to Florida and Mississippi and went a combined 2-4 in the series, losing three of the games by one run.

Arkansas returned home this week and emphatically bounced back from its tough road trip. It went 5-0 in Baum Stadium, including a sweep of Auburn to take over first place in the Southeastern Conference West Division. The Razorbacks (24-9, 8-4) moved up to No. 4 in this week’s Top 25, matching their highest ranking this season.

Arkansas on Sunday completed the sweep of Auburn with a 5-4 walk-off win. The Razorbacks quickly fell behind 4-0 in the game but battled back and tied the game in the seventh. Freshman outfielder Heston Kjerstad completed the comeback with a two-out single that set off the celebration in Fayetteville.

To pull out a close victory in the third game of the series was especially important for the Razorbacks after the last two weekends. Against both Florida and Ole Miss, Arkansas stranded the tying run in scoring position in the ninth inning of the rubber game.

“It was huge the way it went down the last couple weekends,” coach Dave Van Horn said. “We got down 4-0 early. That was huge for us to fight back and get a win.”

Arkansas again this week got a strong start to the weekend from ace Blaine Knight. The righthander on Friday held Auburn to one run in 6.1 innings to outduel fellow Preseason All-American Casey Mize in a 2-1 victory. Mize was just Knight’s latest victim. He has beaten four straight Preseason All-Americans: Kentucky’s Sean Hjelle, the 2017 SEC pitcher of the year, Florida’s Brady Singer, Ole Miss’ Ryan Rolison and now Mize, the favorite to be the top pick in the draft.

Knight, who last year turned down the chance to turn pro as a draft-eligible sophomore, is 6-0, 1.93 with 48 strikeouts and 11 walks in 46.2 innings.

Van Horn said he sees a difference in Knight’s maturity on the mound this season.

“He doesn’t let the little things affect him,” Van Horn said. “I’ve seen such a better mound presence. He just competes. Even when he doesn’t have best stuff, he gets us late in games.”

Lefthander Kacey Murphy (4-2, 2.31) has emerged as a second reliable starter behind Knight and lefthander Matt Cronin (2-0, 2.36, 6 SV) has anchored the back of the bullpen.

The Razorbacks’ staff is loaded with talented arms but is still looking for a couple more pitchers to step up. Righthander Isaiah Campbell, who opened the year as the Saturday starter, could well be one of those pitchers. He missed his last start due to inflammation in this elbow but returned to action Sunday. He threw just two innings and will continue to be limited by a strict pitch count as he works back to full strength.

In the meantime, Arkansas’ offense has shown it is capable of picking up the pitching staff. The Razorbacks are averaging 8.06 runs per game, are hitting .314 as a team and have hit 56 home runs in 32 games. Kjerstad is hitting .381/.476/.661 with eight home runs to lead the team and fellow freshman Casey Martin has settled into the three-hole and is hitting .324/.419/.562 with seven home runs. They have been solid additions to a lineup that already had plenty of experience and star power, including seniors Carson Shaddy (.365/.447/.667, 7 HR) and Luke Bonfield (.303/.435/.535, 5 HR).

After two weeks on the road, Arkansas is enjoying a run of home games at Baum Stadium, where it this season has excelled. After sweeping both of their home SEC series—they also swept Kentucky on opening weekend of SEC play—the Razorbacks are 6-0 at home in SEC play for the first time since 1990 and are 19-2 overall at home.

Arkansas will make the short trip to North Little Rock to play Grambling State at the home of Double-A Arkansas before hosting South Carolina next week. The Razorbacks will take the comforts of home when they can get them.

“We were on the road for two weeks straight, for the most part,” Van Horn said. “It was great to be at home and play in our own ballpark.”

Pac-12 Race Tightens After Big Weekend

A few weeks into the season, it appeared that the Pac-12 Conference was setting up to be a heavyweight title fight between Oregon State and Stanford. The Beavers had returned to No. 1 in the Top 25, a spot the occupied nearly all last season, and the Cardinal’s hot start had established it as one of the best teams in the country.

The last two weeks have shown, however, that things won’t be so cut-and-dried. Oregon State last week lost a series at Utah, its first Pac-12 series loss since 2016. It followed that up with a pair of nervy midweek wins against Nevada and then lost a series at Arizona and tumbled to No. 11 in the Top 25.

Stanford lost its first series of the year, falling at UCLA. The Bruins scored 26 runs on the weekend, more than the Cardinal had allowed in any three-game stretch this season. Stanford slid to No. 3 in the Top 25, while UCLA rose to No. 18 following the series.   

It remains very early, but UCLA (19-8, 8-4) is now in first place in the conference, holding a half-game edge on Stanford (23-5, 6-3) and Washington (14-14, 6-3). The top seven teams in the standings are separated by less than three games and all 11 teams are within four games of each other.

“I really don’t look at the standings at this point in the year, I just know how difficult a league it is,” UCLA coach John Savage said. “(Being in first place isn’t) a big deal for us because we know that you have to play well each and every week.”

UCLA last season finished third in the Pac-12 and entered this season expected to contend in the league. But early-season injuries mounted for the Bruins and they hadn’t really hit their stride through the first six weeks of the year.

After UCLA lost a series last weekend at California, scoring nine runs on the weekend, Savage said the Bruins made a point that they had to be better offensively. Outfielders Garrett Mitchell and Jeremy Ydens retuned to the lineup over the last two weekends and Savage shook up the infield, moving Kevin Kendall to shortstop and Ryan Kreidler to third base. The Bruins responded by scoring 39 runs in four games this week against Loyola Marymount and Stanford.

“We needed to play way better than we were,” Savage said. “We were puddling along. This league is so difficult. We really look at each week the same. We’ve just got to keep improving.”

UCLA is also getting healthier on the mound. Righthander Jon Olsen returned to the mound Sunday after missing the last three weeks after getting hit in the face by a line drive. He threw three innings in a 7-2 victory and Savage said the junior looked “competitive and confident” on the mound. Righthander Kyle Molnar is also getting close to a return after missing the last year and a half after undergoing Tommy John surgery.

Having learned how to manage without two of the best pitchers on the staff, their return should greatly help UCLA’s depth.

“Guys have done a pretty good job of holding the fort down on the mound,” Savage said. “Hopefully now we’ll be a stronger team because we’ve built some more depth because we were beat up a bit on the mound.”

Arizona coach Jay Johnson knows the feeling of being beat up on the mound. The Wildcats a couple weeks ago lost Randy Labaut, who had emerged as one of their best starters, for the season due to leg surgery. Without Labaut, Arizona on Sunday found itself without a pitcher prepared to give it a typical starter’s workload in its rubber game against Oregon State.

“We had to figure it out,” Johnson said. “They’re a great team. We had to great creative.”

Johnson has never been afraid to get creative with his pitching staff, but a bullpen game in a rubber game against the defending conference champions was unorthodox even for him. Still, it worked as seven pitchers combined to hold the Beavers to five runs (four earned) and gave the Wildcats’ offense a chance to win the game.

Oregon State led 5-2 at the seventh-inning stretch, but Arizona rallied for three runs in the eighth to tie the game. Facing Beavers closer Jake Mulholland in the ninth, the Wildcats loaded the bases with one out for Preseason All-American first baseman Alfonso Rivas. The junior delivered a walk-off single and gave Arizona the marquee series win it needed.

“The best part about (Sunday) is it wasn’t smooth or clean, but we kept fighting and we put together some great at bats in the eighth and the ninth,” Johnson said.

Arizona was expected this season to be a strong offensive team but got off to a slow start. It scored just three runs all weekend in a sweep at Washington to open Pac-12 play three weeks ago, but since then the offense has gotten on track.

With sophomores Cameron Cannon (.365/.460/.583, 4 HR) and Nick Quintana (.321/.410/.536, 5 HR) getting locked in at the plate, Rivas (.333/.423/.475) now has more protection. And with Cesar Salazar (.365/.471/.448) and Cal Stevenson (.333/.447/.448) also delivering consistent production, the top half of Arizona’s lineup is as strong as any in the Pac-12.

Arizona’s RPI shot up 50 points after the series win and the rest of the schedule sets up well for the Wildcats. Both Stanford and UCLA come to Tucson, where Arizona is 16-2. But Johnson knows they have a lot more work to do.

“We need to continue to improve,” he said. “The mindset of this team is really important – coming to play every game, being competitive.”

In the Pac-12 this season, that will be the key for every over the next two months. With all 11 teams capable of beating anyone on any given weekend and little early separation in the standings, every weekend will hold plenty of significance in the title race.

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Eight for Omaha

Arkansas, Florida, Florida State, Mississippi, North Carolina State, Oregon State, Stanford, Texas Tech.

We’re past the halfway point of the season and while the sample size in college baseball is inherently always small, it’s getting harder to just expect certain things to regress to the mean. One of those is North Carolina State’s pitching staff. The Wolfpack don’t have a true Friday starter and they’ve lost their last three series openers. But they do have two seniors pitching the rest of the weekend and it’s a formula that’s working. It’s working so well that NC State is in sole possession of first place in the ACC and up to No. 2 in the Top 25. I remain slightly concerned about how the Wolfpack will matchup in the postseason, but they’re becoming increasingly likely to get a top-eight seed and the advantages that come with it—most notably home-field advantage through super regionals and an easier draw. So, NC State joins the field.

Dropping out is Kentucky, which has a legitimate ace in Sean Hjelle and an explosive offense. But it’s becoming clearer that the Wildcats are a different team in Lexington. Their path to getting to play at home this postseason is more uncertain, however. Kentucky, like pretty much every team in the SEC, is capable of putting together a hosting-caliber resume. But it needs to make up ground in the conference standings. The next two weeks will be critical, as Kentucky visits Georgia and then hosts Florida, the top two teams in the SEC East. Win those series and the Wildcats will be in great shape to host and will probably return to the field because it’s hard to see anyone beating them at Cliff Hagan Stadium. But, for now, they’re just on the outside.

Eye Catchers

Five players or programs who stood out this weekend.

Logan Alexander, SS, Mississippi State: Alexander powered Mississippi State to a 7-5 victory against archrival Mississippi with a walk-off, two-run home run in the 11th inning into the Left Field Lounge. The Bulldogs have now won three straight series against the Rebels.

Cal State Fullerton: The Titans went 5-0 last week, sweeping a midweek set at Arizona State and then returning home to sweep Cal Poly. It was Fullerton’s first series win against Cal Poly since 2015 and propelled the Titans (15-15, 4-2) to .500 overall for the first time this season. The Titans are on their way to digging out after a 1-7 start to the season and are now tied with Hawaii atop the Big West Conference.

Logan Kaletha, OF, Indiana: In Sunday’s rubber game against archrival Purdue, Kaletha hit a walk-off, two-run home run to give Indiana a 7-5 victory in 13 innings. Kaletha, a junior college transfer, is hitting .318/.467/.561 with five home runs this season.

Scotty Sunitsch, LHP, Washington State: Sunitsch on Sunday threw a no-hitter in a 7-0 victory against Oregon. The senior struck out nine batters, walked two and hit two to improve to 3-1, 3.02. Sunitsch needed 95 pitches to complete the Cougars’ first solo nine-inning no-hitter since 1976.

Tennessee Tech: The Golden Eagles swept Jacksonville State to extend their winning streak to 16 games, the longest in the nation this season and a program record. Tennessee Tech (25-5, 14-1) is leading the Ohio Valley Conference by four games at the midpoint.

Looking Ahead

Three weekend series we’re most excited for

No. 5 Mississippi at No. 14 Vanderbilt: Ole Miss (27-6) this weekend lost its first series of the year, suffering a walk-off loss in extra innings at archrival Mississippi State. The Rebels will have to quickly put that series behind them, as they face another tough road series this week. Vanderbilt (19-13) this weekend won a series against SEC East upstart Georgia, snapping a six-game losing streak in the process.  

No. 10 Duke at No. 9 Florida State: The Blue Devils (27-6) on Monday finish their series at Wake Forest and have another key road series on tap this weekend. Florida State (24-9) is coming off a series loss at Georgia Tech and will be eager to get back on track at Dick Howser Stadium.

No. 11 Oregon State at Missouri State: The Beavers (24-6) have lost consecutive series for the first time since 2016. Now they will look to get back on track as they step out of Pac-12 Conference play for a trip to Missouri State (22-7). The Bears will be keyed up for a huge week at home, with Missouri visiting Tuesday and the Beavers coming in for the weekend. It will be a chance for Missouri State to prove itself and improve its RPI.

Two weekend series you shouldn’t overlook

Florida Gulf Coast at Jacksonville: The Atlantic Sun Conference last season got two teams in the NCAA Tournament and is off to another strong start this year, as three teams rank in the top 50 in RPI. FGCU (24-7, 2-1) and Jacksonville (21-12, 4-2) are two of those teams and they meet for a series that will likely have a significant impact on the title race. Jacksonville upset FGCU in Fort Myers last year, and the Eagles will be looking for payback on the road this season.

Northeastern at College of Charleston: The Colonial Athletic Association has made some noise so far this season with Charleston sweeping Georgia, UNC Wilmington winning a series at Arizona State and Northeastern’s continued presence in the top 15 of the RPI. Charleston (25-9, 7-2) and Northeastern (18-10, 5-1), the top two teams in the standings, will square off for a key showdown. The winner not only will have an edge in the conference title race, it also will add a solid series win to its NCAA Tournament resume.

One midweek game to keep an eye on

No. 7 Clemson vs. No. 21 Georgia, Tuesday, 6:30 p.m. ET in North Augusta, S.C.: This rivalry is always spirited, but it has been some time since both teams have both been ranked when they faced off. Clemson (25-7) comes in hot, having won nine of its last 11 games. Georgia (23-9) is looking to get back on track after a series loss at Vanderbilt and build some momentum before another key SEC series this weekend against Kentucky.

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