FAYETTEVILLE – Arkansas blasted five home runs but it can’t be said the nationally No. 1 now 47-10 Razorbacks blasted the underdog New Jersey Institute of Technology Highlanders.
Not said without saying the Highlanders blasted first and kept blasting back before Arkansas finally prevailed, 13-8 in Friday afternoon’s first round of the 4-team double-elimination Fayetteville Regional before a packed house 11,084 at Baum-Walker Stadium.
“That was a marathon,” Arkansas Coach Dave Van Horn said. “Got to give credit to our team for hanging in there because, man, it was not going our way early. But on the other hand, you’ve got to give the other team credit, man. They were scrappy and they were hard to strike out and whenever we made a mistake, they hit it.”
Arkansas advanced had to rally from down 3-0 and bring nationally premier reliever Kevin Kopps in the fourth inning to do it.
Van Horn had to spend Kopps for 2 1-3 innings and 24 pitches.
Upping his record to 11-0 as the pitcher of record when the Hogs forged ahead, Kopps was Arkansas’ lone for long effective reliever among the six that followed struggling starter Caleb Bolden.
And Kopps wouldn’t have been so immediately effective without Arkansas center fielder Christian Franklin.
Franklin’s catch against Paul Franzino, the first batter that Kopps faced inheriting wo on and two out in the fourth, turned a sure 2-run extra-base hit into an inning out followed by Arkansas’ 7-run salvo in the fourth.
“I think the catch really swung the momentum,” Van Horn said. “Because if he doesn’t catch it, we’re down 5-2. And they still would have two outs and a runner on second and third. So that was a big play. That’s one play that helped us stay in the game and kept it a little closer.”
Running from second, NJIT No. 3 hole hitter David Marcano said he didn’t see the catch that most denied the Highlanders’ upset bid.
“I was running hard and then everyone started cheering,” Marcano said. “I was shocked because Paul mashed that ball. Most said Christian Franklin’s catch was the best they’ve ever seen. I haven’t seen the replay, but I’m sure if that didn’t happen the momentum would have been on our side.”
NJIT Coach Robbie McClellan concurs.
“It was just such a huge momentum play,” McClellan said. “If we get two runs there and keep the momentum, who knows what happens in the game, but they make a great catch and save two runs and then we don’t have a very good inning after that. So, I think that play was the defining play of the game.”
For the Highlanders, only 26-23, compelling Van Horn to use Kopps in the fourth defined their fight.
“He’s a great pitcher, the national player of the year,” Marcano said. “But we did have him on the ropes. Our goal is to play them again and we will make it to that game.”
With the game’s first batter the Highlanders stunned the Hogs.
Behind 0-2, Albert Choi powered Bolden’s third pitch into the left field bullpen. The leadoff home run was all NJIT scored in the first but Bolden had to labor through an 18-pitch inning yielding a single and hitting a batter.
When Bolden with one out walked No. 8 and No. 9 batters Kevin Blum and Jared Donnelly in the second and Choi about to bat, ArkansasVan Horn had seen enough.
He summoned Connor Noland to relieve.
But for the worst defensive inning of normally peerless shortstop Jalen Battles’ Razorback life, Noland would have kept it 1-0 in the second. Battles bobbled Choi’s possibly doubleplay grounder to settle for a barely achieved forceout at second.
Battles, who make a fine play on a foul fly ending the third, flat missed Julio Marcano’s grounder. A run scored on the error.
Noland’s error throwing wide to first on Franzoni’s all-hands safe sacrifice bunt after a walk and a single, handed reliever Ryan Costieu a bases loaded nobody out third inning.
With two strikeouts and the Battles caught foul fly, Costeiu minimized the damage to Blum’s run-scoring bases loaded walk.
Braydon Webb’s 2-run home run after Battles was hit by a third-inning pitch broke the ice for Arkansas against Highlanders starter Tyler Stafflinger in the third.
Van Horn and McClellan both compelled to summon ace closers Kopps and Jake Rappaport trying to save the game in the fourth.
Thanks first to Franklin, Kopps did. Costeiu had just hit a batter putting runners at first and second with two out when Van Horn brought in Kopps to face Franzoni for the clout that Franklin ran down and lunged to catch.
Franklin opened Arkansas’ 7-run with a 3-3 game-tying home run off Stafflinger.
Rappaport, 8-2 and matching Kopps’ 10 saves, was summoned to pitch to Webb after Battles was hit with a 1-out pitch loading the bases. Webb walked for a run. Matt Goodheart’s sacrifice fly scored the next. On a 3-run shot over center and a solo shot over left, Cayden Wallace of Greenbrier and Cullen Smith consecutively homered.
Franklin singled before Rappaport finally retired Robert Moore and called it a day.
Battles blasted his fifth-inning home run off reliever Jared Kasco.
Kopps set the Highlanders down in order for the fifth and sixth then was saved for use today and or Sunday.
In the seventh the Highlanders went back to their business as usual battering the bullpen.
Another defensive gem, Wallace’s throw from right and catcher Casey Opitz’s kept cutting down Franzino running from second, on Nick Hussey’s single, limited NJIT to a 2-run seventh that easily could have netted more.