by Nate Allen
FAYETTEVILLE – For the first time since a May 16-18, 2019 series at Texas A&M, Arkansas has lost a 3-game SEC baseball series.
The Florida Gators, their ace Hunter Barco beaten 8-1 by the Razorbacks Thursday night in Gainesville, Fla., came back to beat Arkansas, 7-2 Friday night and 9-7 Saturday afternoon at the Florida Ballpark.
After playing no SEC series in 2020 because of the covid pandemic shutdown, the 2021 SEC champion Razorbacks won at least two games in all 10 of their SEC three-games game series and opened 2022 sweeping Kentucky at Baum-Walker and winning 2 of 3 at Missouri and 2 of 3 at home over defending national champion Mississippi State before falling to Florida on Friday and Saturday.
Dave Van Horn’s 23-7 overall, still 8-4 SEC West leading nationally No. 2 ranked baseball Razorbacks return to Baum-Walker for nonconference games Tuesday and Wednesday with Arkansas-Pine Bluff and a big SEC West series Thursday night, Friday night and Saturday afternoon with LSU.
Coach Kevin O’Sullivan’s Gators, who are 21-11, 4-8 in the SEC but ranked 22nd nationally in the Coaches poll, snapped a 6-game SEC losing streak winning Friday and Saturday.
“I’ll be honest with you, I could care less about the streak,” Van Horn said after Saturday’s game. “I don’t think the players do. We don’t even talk about it. It’s the media, and that’s probably about the only people that talk about it, in my opinion. We have never mentioned it one time. We just try to win the game that’s in front of us. Credit (the streak) to the players, man. They want to win.”
As do their opposition, Van Horn reminded them.
“What I’ve told them all year long, that winning’s really hard and a lot of times in our league, and in baseball in general, it’s going to come down to one play, one pitch, one swing,” Van Horn said. “Today, it was probably that. But it’s hard. When you have a chance to put somebody away, you’ve got to do it.”
Arkansas has seen stellar SEC starting pitcher play all season from Connor Noland, Hagen Smith and Jaxon Wiggins. They did again Thursday with senior right-hander Noland putting in the best start by any Razorback this season, throwing seven shutout innings, allowing but one hit.
However, neither freshman lefty Smith nor sophomore right-hander Wiggins were up to their usual snuff.
Smith was removed during Friday’s fifth inning, down 7-0, and tagged for home runs by Wyatt Langford and BT Riopelle.
Relievers Gabriel Starks, recording the final two outs in the fifth, and Kole Ramage over the last three innings combined to shut out the Gators thereafter.
Florida Friday starter Brandon Sproat won, pitching 5 2/3 innings, allowing one run. Reliever Blake Purnell, used in all three game, earned a save, closing the final 3 1/3.
Brady Slavens, 3 for 4 with a triple, knocked in one Friday Arkansas run.
The other was unearned.
Wiggins got tagged for nine hits and seven runs upon relief during the fifth by Evan Taylor.
Florida scored four in the third and three on Riopelle’s home run after Langford’s RBI single.
Arkansas came right back, knocking out Gators starter Brandon Neely with a four-run fourth. Singles by Robert Moore and Michael Turner preceded Jalen Battles’ 2-out single. Zack Gregory, 2 for 4 with four RBI, tallied three with a bases-loaded double, tied the game 7-7 with a solo home run in the eighth and also walked and was hit by a pitch.
“I mean, he did everything he could to help us win,” Van Horn said. “He took a pitch, he got hit by a pitch, you know, he took a big walk. Obviously fought and fought and fought and finally dumped a double down the right field line on a full count, scored three runs. And then his last at-bat, he hit the home run. He hit it 450 feet with that wind behind it, would probably have gone 420 without it. I mean, he did everything could. We just needed one more guy to have a day and just needed another hit here or there.”
Gregory was the lone Hog able to use the jet stream to his home run advantage while the Gators launched two, Riopelle’s Geoff Wiggins in the third and Langford’s off Wiggins in the fifth.
Arkansas closed to down 7-6 scoring two in the sixth. Battles doubled with one out and scored on an error. Gregory’s hit by pitching and Braydon Webb’s walk preceded Moore’s bases-loaded walk.
Gregory tied it 7-7 homering with one out in the eighth off reliever Ryan Slater.
Purnell then closed with perfect 1 2-3 innings.
Purnell logged the win after Arkansas’ losing reliever Brady Tygart’s throwing error off a leadoff bunt single that opened the gates for the Gators to win on Deric Fabian’s sacrifice fly and Jud Fabian’s RBI single, the latter hit off reliever Zebulon Vermillion.
Van Horn was asked if the Hogs had enough arms to pitch through Tuesday’s 6:30 p.m. and 4 p.m. games Tuesday and Wednesday with UAPB before the 6:30 p.m., 6 p.m., and 2 p.m. Thursday through Saturday SEC West big ones with LSU.
“We’ve got enough pitching,” Van Horn said. “We won’t use anybody (against UAPB that we’re going to use on Thursday. Maybe somebody that could pitch Friday or Saturday might go Tuesday. And we’ve got a couple guys we might need to throw an inning or two that could still come back on the weekend.”
Mainly, Van Horn looks to correct flaws he saw in Florida.
“We need to play good defense and we need to score runs,” Van Horn said. And we need pitchers to throw the ball over the plate.
I want to see those guys pitch and I want to play some guys that haven’t played a lot. I’ll rest a couple guys if I need to.”