FAYETTEVILLE – Ground Hog’s Day arrived in June Friday evening at Baum-Walker Stadium.
For after a scoreless first inning of the Arkansas Razorbacks vs. North Carolina State’s opener of the best 2 of 3 Super Regional, a ground hog skittered across and out of the field followed by a 23-runs rampage.
Arkansas scored 21 of them, all consecutively between a leadoff Wolfpack home run in the second and a 2-out Wolfpack run in the ninth. The 21-2 trouncing tallied the most Razorbacks runs ever scored in the NCAA Tournament postseason.
By walloping a the Wolfpack before another 11,084 full house like their four Fayetteville Regional games last week, the Coach Dave Van Horn’s 50-11 nationally No. 1 SEC/SEC Tournament/Fayetteville Regional champion Razorbacks need only to win Saturday’s 2 p.m. ESPN2 televised game to advance among the Elite Eight playing for the national championship at the College World Series in Omaha.
Should Coach Elliott Avent’s 33-18 ACC runner-up Wolfpack win Saturday, there will be a winner take all game at 5 p.m. Sundayon either ESPN2 or ESPNU.
Winning starter Patrick Wicklander pitched 99 through six full inning in 99 degree heat scattering six hits with the just the one run while insuring a night off for ironman reliever Kevin Kopps, winning two games and saving one advancing Arkansas through the Fayetteville Regional completed last Monday.
Relievers Heston Tole, a scoreless seventh and eighth, and Kole Ramage allowing only a 2-out walk and triple in the ninth, finished Friday’s frolic keeping Kopps at rest.
The Wolfpack had long since waved Friday’s white flag to save the front-line pitchers for Saturday after Cullen Smith’s grand slam put Wicklander and the Hogs up, 7-1 in the third and Wolfpack ace starter Reid Johnston out of the game.
Between them second baseman Robert Moore, third baseman Smith and designated hitter Charlie Welch knocked in 13 Razorbacks rums Friday.
Moore knocked in five while going 4 for 5 with two home runs, the first a 2-run shot during Arkansas’ 3-run second more than answering Jose Torres’ solo home run for N.C State and also singled and doubled.
Smith went 2 for 6 with all RBI on his grand slam while Welch went 3 for 4 with a home run, double and single and four RBI.
The Hogs pummeled seven N.C State pitchers for 17 hits and drew eight walks while scoring rums in bunches, three in the second, four in the third, three in the fifth, six in the sixth and five in the eighth all while resting All-SEC center fielder Christian Franklin ill with strep throat.
Friday’s frolic did not appear so Arkansas frolicsome at the outset.
Wicklander fell behind hitters in the first and stranded No. 2 hitter Tyler McDonough at second after his double.
Torres homered leading off the second followed by two walks and a sacrifice bunt. A short fly to center held the runners and then second baseman Moore, robbed Austin Murr of a potential 2-run single throwing him out shifted to cover his grounder hopping into short right field.
“I was able to see the one-hop,” Moore said. We practice that a lot. Just pick it and get the out, and luckily Wicklander had his A stuff after that. He got us through six and the bats came alive.”
Wicklander pitched out of a bases-loaded jam in the fourth then set the Wolfpack down 1-2-3 in the fifth and sixth.
“Just a really good job by Patrick Wicklander giving us six innings tonight,” Van Horn said. “I think when he got out of that jam. Maybe his confidence jumped and he got it together and gave us three or four more innings. He started working ahead of some hitters and started flipping some curveballs up there and a couple of changeups.”
Wicklander said, “ I would say around the third or fourth inning, Just kind of got back to myself and got some stuff figured out.”
And his hitters couldn’t figure him out when it figured most, Avent implied.
“ He (Wicklander) had a good fastball that he threw at different velocities,” Avent said. “I thought he commanded the zone good enough to scatter like six hits early, we left a lot of guys on, he made the pitches when he had to early and then he settled in after they hit that grand slam.”
After Moore followed Welch’s second-inning double with a 2-run homer, Opitz singled, and surprised stealing second to be set to score on Jalen Battle’s 2-out double.
Smith’s 2-out grand slam in the third changed everybody’s strategies.
“‘Reid didn’t seem like himself so we got him out of there,” Avent said of then going to to his backline pitchers Friday with all on the line Saturday. “It got ugly, but that’s fine. We saved the guys we needed to save, and we’ll just have to come out a lot better tomorrow.”
Been there done that, says Van Horn and every coach who ever coached.
“When they pulled Johnston, they went with some guys who weren’t as experienced,” Van Horn said. “We got up 7-1 and I don’t blame them a bit. Sometimes you just have to let it go and that’s what they did.”
Moore had no illusions it would come so easily come Saturday.
“We’ve put ourselves in a good position to win this series,” Moore said. “But it is far, far from over. We have to go through their best guys.”
Van Horn will start left-hander Lael Lockhart, 3-3, 4.50 with Kopps another day rested after throwing seven innings last Monday to beat Nebraska in the winner take all Fayetteville Regional championship game.
Franklin, who did dress out Friday, is wait and see but not likely to start Saturday’s game in center, Van Horn said.