FAYETTEVILLE – Wolfpack Day replaced Groundhog’s Day Saturday at Baum-Walker Stadium.
So up 6-2 and withstanding a 3-run Razorbacks rally in the seventh, the North Carolina State Wolfpack beat nationally No. 1 ranked Arkansas, 6-5 in Game Two of the best of three Super Regional forcing a winner take all championship game at 5 p.m. Sundayon either ESPN2 or ESPNU.
After a groundhog skittered across the field following Friday night’s first inning, the Razorbacks scored 21 consecutive runs between the second and eighth innings to wallop the Wolfpack, 21-2.
Sellout crowds of 11,084 viewed the Friday evening and Saturday afternoon games in 90-degree heat at Baum-Walker with another capacity crowd expected to witness whether Coach Dave Van Horn’s 50-12 SEC champion/SEC Tournament champion/Fayetteville Regional champion Razorbacks or Coach Elliott Avent’s 34-18 ACC/ ACC Tournament runner-up/Ruston Regional champion Wolfpack advances among the Elite Eight playing for the national championship at the College World Series in Omaha.
Arkansas took two steps towards Omaha Saturday when Charlie Welch followed Brady Slavens’ leadoff second-inning walk with a 2-run home run deep over left.
Wolfpack pitchers Sam Highfill and Evan Justice deterred the Razorbacks’ Saturday route to Omaha.
Other than a 1-out seventh-inning solo home run by Slavens followed by walking Welch, that’s all Wolfpack winning right-handed starter Highfill, 8-2 allowed through his 6 1-3 innings. He retired the rest, including 16 consecutively after Welch’ second-inning home run.
Justice, the Wolfpack’s lefty ace reliever replaced Highfill after the Welch walk, got Robert Moore to pop to short, then was victimized Cullen Smith’s single literally off second base and shortstop Jose Torres’ throwing error scoring one run and extending the inning for Jalen Battle’s RBI single up the middle.
Arkansas All-SEC center fielder Christian Franklin, withheld Friday night because of strep throat and not played Saturday until pinch-hitting in the sixth for center fielder Braydon Webb and staying in the game, battled Justice to a full count but struck out.
Justice set the Hogs down 1-2-3 in the eighth and added three more strikeouts.
Justice threw 48 pitches Saturday but the Hogs are almost certain to see him by game’s end Sunday evening.
Ditto the Wolfpack Sunday night seeing Kevin Kopps, Arkansas’ SEC Pitcher of the Year/Collegiate Baseball Newspaper National Player of the Year throwing 21 pitches Saturday with a perfect eight and ninth innings.
Van Horn called his Sunday night pitching plan: “What we’ve been doing on a lot of Sundays. Mixing it up and trying to get to Kevin. I think Kevin (12-0, 11 saves 0.66 earned run average) will show us what he can do.
“Got to give Justice credit,” Van Horn said. “He didn’t give us much the last couple of innings. Highfill threw a great game. Just kept us off the bases. We had a chance to walk a couple of times and swung at balls that were up, fouled them off, swung and missed, popped up. He just got us to swing at it and it cost us.”
Saturday’s Arkansas bridge between pulled early starter Lael Lockhart and Kopps didn’t hold up.
A leadoff walk was all lefty Lockhart allowed the first two innings and he was pulled in the third without allowing a ball out of the infield.
Shortsop Battles made a great play on a grounder deep in the hole but had no chance to erase Vojtech Mensik’s infield hit leading off the third. J.T. Jarrett bettered his would have been sacrifice bunt beating it out for a single. Austin Murr sac bunted them to second and third.
Van Horn summoned right-handed reliever Ryan Costeiu.
“Just behind most all the hitters,” Van Horn said of giving Lockhart the hook trying to build a bridge to Kopps. “Really wasn’t landing things. When he’s on, he can spot it up pretty good. They were just ahead in the count.”
Costeiu initially did OK. An out for a run on Tyler McDonough’s grounder to second and striking 3-hole hitter Johnny Butler stranding Jarrett at third.
Everything unraveled in the fourth. Terrell Tatum singled leading off. Torres hit a 2-run home run barely clearing leaping left fielder Cayden Wallace and the left field fence. Luca Tresh followed with a no-doubter home run over left-center and Mensik solo homered in the same spot two batters later.
“Missing some spots,” Van Horn said. “Give them credit too. They fouled off a lot of pitches and got finally got something they could handle. They did a good job getting to him.”
Lefty reliever Caden Monke struck out the last two batters in the fourth and threw a scoreless fifth.
Connor Nolan pitched the sixth and gave up a leadoff single to Luca Tresh and walk to Devonre Brown Mensik’s sac bunt followed by Mensik’s short to first groundout RBI for the Wolfpack’s sixth run.
Van Horn said shortstop Battles had no choice but to throw to first with Tresh, the cousin of New York Yankees 1960s outfielder Tommy Tresh, running on contact.
“He would have been safe,” Van Horn said. He (Battles) was moving too far to his left. He would have to throw it sidearm off balance. They were running the contact play. When the ball was hit, he was gone.”
Now everything rides on this evening for an Arkansas team that has won at least 2 of every 3-game series it has played in 2021.