Pinch-hitter Welch’s one-out ninth inning double over right scored Casey Opitz from third with the game-ending 4-3 game-winner over the Florida Gators sending a Baum-Stadium packed house 11,084 and Van Horn’s Hogs into a celebration frenzy that even a one-hour 45 rain delayed start of the game couldn’t dampen.
Regardless the outcomes of Saturday’s final regular season games, including Arkansas vs. Florida at 2 p.m., the nationally No. 1 Razorbacks, 41-10 overall and now 21-8 in the league will finish above SEC East leaders, Vanderbilt, 19-9, and Tennessee, 19-10 and have won the SEC West with West runner-up Mississippi State, 19-10 into its Saturday finale.
Preseason No. 1 ranked Florida, nationally ranks eighth and ninth in the Coaches and D1-Baseball polls and stands 35-17 and 17-12 third in the SEC East going into Sunday’s finale.
Arkansas’ coach since 2003, Van Horn has five times coached the Razorbacks to the College World Series in Omaha but never, as only Vanderbilt had done it previously, won at least two games in all 10 SEC 3-game series since the baseball league expanded to two 7-team divisions.
“ It feels great,” Van Horn said. “They (SEC Overall championships) are really hard to get. So many things have to happen over a 30-game season to have that opportunity. We’ve just played really well every weekend. Some better than others but always just enough.”Reliever Kevin Kopps, who else since he’s won or saved the majority of Arkansas’ 21 SEC victories, won Friday’s game striking out the side in the ninth after saving Thursday’s 6-1 victorious start of the series pitching a final three scoreless innings.A hit by pitch to start Kopps’ ninth was voided on appeal because the batter was deemed not trying to avoid being hit.
Kopps now stands 10-0 with eight saves. Picking up in Thursday’s seventh from Thursday winning starter Patrick Wicklander’s six complete innings, Kopps Friday followed the start by Caleb Bolden and relievers Peyton Pallette and Caden Monke.
Bolden on Friday trailed 3-2 after four innings on Kendrick Calialo’s 2-run single in the first and Sterlin Thompson’s second-inning solo home run.
Benton’s Pallette pitched a scoreless fifth inning then was lifted because of an injury in the sixth. Monke erased the runner he inherited from Palette on doubleplay grounder, struck out the next batter and pitched shutout ball through the eighth.
“ I mean just what a great job by our bullpen,” Van Horn said. “Threw up a lot of zeroes there, I guess all the way from the third to the ninth and gave us a chance to get back in it.”
Arkansas scored two in the second off Florida starter Hunter Barco. Christian Franklin solo homered and Jalen Battles lofted a bases-loaded sacrifice fly.
Against Florida ace reliever Jack Leftwich, Robert Moore’s 2-out home run tied 3-3 in the eighth.
“We knew right when it left the bat the game was tied,” Van Horn said. “Robert has done a tremendous job coming through in the clutch. Just a big time swing from a guy who wants to be in the middle of it.”
Opitz’s double leading off the ninth became 3-bases as center fielder Jud Fabian slipped and erred trying to field the hit.
With the infield clustered in and the outfield shallow trying to cut down the game-winning run, Jalen Battles popped up before Welch, pinch-hitting for Braydon Webb, whacked a Leftwich pith for the 1-out game-winning hit deep enough to win it whether caught or not.
“It was an unreal opportunity that Coach Van Horn gave me,” Welch said. “He’s been plugging me into some big spots lately in pinch-hit at-bats. I’ve been getting the job done, and he just looked at me and said, ‘Are you ready?’ I said, ‘Yeah, let’s go.’ It’s just surreal being out here with these guys in front of this fan base. I mean, you can’t beat it.”