By Otis Kirk
Special to the Nate Allen Sports Service
FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas was slow starting offensively on Friday, but once they got the bats to going they rolled past Gonzaga 9-3 on in Game 2 at Baum-Walker Stadium in front of 3,850 fans.
Arkansas didn’t get a hit in the game until the bottom of the fourth when Christian Franklin singled up the middle to score Matt Goodheart from second base for the game’s first run. Goodheart had reached when he was hit by a Mac Lardman pitch.
Casey Opitz had a big game at the plate for the Hogs. He hit a single, triple and home run. He talked about Arkansas’ slow start at the plate.
“He was good,” Opitz said of Lardner. “He was kinda keeping it away. That was the game plan we knew coming it. He was working with that change-up throwing the majority off-speed. Franklin did a good job of adjusting to it and kinda got the word out to the other hitters. We made the adjustment as well and I’m starting to put good barrels on balls.”
After the Zags tied the game in the top of the fifth, Arkansas broke it open with four runs in the bottom half of the inning. It all started with Opitz and Cole Austin reaching on singles. Robert Moore was at the plate and after faking a bunt hit a single through the spot the shortstop had just vacated to cover third. Following the game, Moore talked about the play.
“Casey and Cole got on base,” Moore said. “After Cole got the base hit, as soon as I was walking up to the plate Dave, Coach Van Horn called me over. He said, ‘hey, we’re gonna have you sac bunt here down the third base line.’ I said OK. He said, ‘look for the wheel play and if you see it pull back and hit.’ They threw the first pitch and they were tipping the wheel play very easy because the shortstop was vacating the hole very early. When we run that play we have Casey fake it then run over so it’s not really tipped. After the first pitch, he called me over and said, ‘if it’s there go for it. It’s not a hit and run so you don’t have to swing. So you’ve just got to get a strike.’ I knew they were gonna throw the fastball up because that’s a hard pitch to bunt. I got a pitch and just tried to chop it where the shortstop was.”
That allowed Arkansas to take a 5-1 lead into the top of the sixth inning. Gonzaga’s Gabriel Hughes hit a two-run shot that cleared the bullpen and bleachers in left field. That got the Zags within 5-3, but that was as close as they would get.
Opitz started off the bottom of the sixth with a triple. Austin walked and then Moore had another RBI. Braydon Webb plated Austin as well with a sacrifice fly to put Arkansas up 7-3 after six innings. Franklin got a one-out double to center field in the bottom of the seventh. Two batters later, Opitz hit a shot over the right-field fence to provide the game’s final two runs. On Opitz’s triple there was some question as to whether the center fielder brought the ball back in to save a home run or not?
“I can’t really talk about if he brought it back,” Opitz said. “I was kinda running trying to get on third. I heard some guy say it happened. I’m not gonna complain about it a triple is a triple. I’m not gonna worry about it too much. I felt good today. The swing feels good. I’m gonna keep working, keep doing what I’ve been doing. Keep it going down the road.”
Van Horn was quick to credit Lardner for Arkansas’ slow start at the plate.
“Well, he’s really good,” Van Horn said. “He’s that left-handed pitcher that you really don’t want to see, because he can make you feel bad about yourself honestly. I mean he struck out the first four hitters I think he faced. You know what’s coming in a way. He’s gonna throws the fastball away, 88 miles an hour. He’s gonna throw the change-up at 81 and everything, for the most part, is going to be away. And he still gets you out.
“If you’re going to get a guy like usually it’s maybe the third time through the lineup. Maybe the second here and there. But yeah, we just needed to get somebody on base and we finally did. You know Martin tried to bunt and moved the man up. Franklin had a great at-bat and finally squared up – I don’t even know what he hit. Hit it good through the middle and we took the lead.”
Connor Noland went six innings, allowing five hits, three runs, two earned, walking three and striking out a trio. He picked up the win on the day.
“I didn’t feel too good today,” Van Horn said. “I didn’t really have my stuff going. I just went out there and competed with the guys. They don’t strike out much. They’re swinging the bat and have a good eye. I was just trying to get as many innings as I could to help our bullpen for a four-game series. I wish I could take a couple of pitches back, but that’s just baseball. Build off that.”
Van Horn was more complimentary of Noland’s game than the pitcher was himself.
“We knew that we did not need to get behind these guys a couple or three runs with their pitcher because Lardner is awful hard to get to,” Van Horn said. “But, he did a tremendous job. He got out of a, I think they had runners at second and third with two outs in the first, I know there was another inning or two with runners in scoring position with two outs. They were one hit away from scoring a few more here and there. That would have made it really difficult. So, was his stuff as good as last week? Probably not quite as good. He had some really good innings but wasn’t as consistent. I think, really, that long inning, he’s already maybe around 80 pitches and he’s had to sit over there for 30 minutes or whatever it was. Which, I’m sure he was happy to do that, but he just never really seemed to get his command back. I’m just glad he got through the sixth inning only giving up two.”
Marshall Denton, Zack Morris and Jacob Burton each pitched one inning to close out the game. The three combined to not allow a hit or run, walk two and strikeout one. It was the second consecutive day that Van Horn got good work out of his bullpen late in the game.
“The bullpen was outstanding today,” Van Horn said. “I mean really Denton came in and did a nice job for us. Got through a couple of pretty good hitters. Just wanted to … I’m glad we – Casey Opitz – hit the two-run homer to build the lead up. But we were bringing Zack Morris in regardless with a four-run lead because he’s got good stuff and we want to see him on the mound. It ws really good to see him come out there pounding the strike zone with some velo. He’s got a pretty good breaker and a change-up as well. I think he threw two curveballs, didn’t throw a changeup. It’s a guy that we think could get right in the middle of things.”
Arkansas finished the game with nine hits. Opitz had the three, Franklin and Moore two each and then Austin and Heston Kjerstad each had one. Lardner took the loss for Gonzaga.
The two teams will play Game 3 of the series on Saturday at 2 p.m. with Patrick Wicklander taking the mound for Arkansas. The Zags will counter with righty Alek Jacob.
Photos courtesy of Craven Whitlow, CW3, Sports Action