FAYETTEVILLE – This Arkansas Razorbacks baseball team of firsts completed another first on Sunday.Coach Dave Van Horn’s Razorbacks, already the first Razorbacks to win an outright, unshared SEC regular season Overall baseball title since Norm DeBriyn’s 1999 Razorbacks, and Arkansas’ first ever to finish a regular season ranked No. 1 in the country, became Arkansas first to win the SEC Tournament. The SEC West/Overall champions Hogs beatTennessee, 7-2 in Sunday’s championship game at the Hoover Met in Hoover, Ala.It marked Arkansas’ only conference tournament championship since DeBriyn’s Razorbacks in 1985 won their lone Southwest Conference Tournament championship with 1982 Razorbacks second baseman Van Horn a first-year Razorbacks graduate assistant coach.
For this week’s NCAA Regionals, the Razorbacks are expected to be the No. 1 national seed and of course the No. 1 Fayetteville Regional seed, the Regional that Arkansas hosts, the NCAA announced officially Sunday night.
With Sunday’s championship game victory, the Razorbacks completed a 4-game run through the SEC Tournament at the Hoover Met in Hoover, Ala.
Last Wednesday, Thursday and Saturday they defeated Georgia 11-2, Vanderbilt, 6-4, and Ole Miss. 3-2.
Shortstop Jalen Battles, making Sunday’s key momentum building defensive play via a sitting position forceout throw to second off a diving fourth-inning stop, and following Saturday’s 2-2 tie-breaking game-winning RBI double to beat Vanderbilt, knocked in the first run of Sunday’s 3-run fifth putting Arkansas up 3-1 on Tennessee and irrevocably ahead. Battles’ RBI single followed Smith’s leadoff walk and Casey Opitz’s single. Zack Gregory singled home Optiz before Matt Goodheart’s sacrifice fly scored Battles.
Battles added a mammoth solo home rum over left in Sunday’s eighth and was voted SEC Tournament MVP and of course SEC Tournament shortstop.
“He deserved it.” Van Horn said. “He looked like a Big Leaguer this weekend. He started a few double plays, He made a couple of diving plays, fielded balls up the middle. He got the big hit when we were losing.”
Kevin Kopps, the SEC Pitcher of the Year with a 10-0 record and now 10 saves, notched saves 9 and 10 in Hoover pitching the seventh through ninth against both Vanderbilt and Tennessee on behalf of twice winning long reliever Ryan Costeiu, also was voted to the All-Tournament team.
Razorbacks pitchers Lael Lockhart, starting with six perfect innings before finally scored on in the seventh in the 11-2 victory over Georgia and relieving a scoreless Sunday inning against Tennessee, and Connor Noland, saving reliever Heston Tole’s victory over Ole Miss with a scoreless seventh through ninth, flashed performances worthy of All-Tournament consideration.
Cullen Smith, the third baseman who had to play first base because slugging first baseman Brady Slavens was sidelined for the tournament upon severely spraining his ankle in the fourth inning Wednesday against Georgia, should have been All-Tournament in Van Horn’s view.
Against Georgia, Smith, the transfer via East Tennessee State, homered and doubled knocking in two runs. He singled home a run during the 3-run fourth off Vandy All-American candidate Kumar Rocker, hit the first-inning 2-run home run in the 3-2 victory over Ole Miss and hit a 2-run home run against Tennessee all while playing an errorless first base.
“He’s All-Tournament to us,” Van Horn said. “Base hits, home runs, he had to flip over from his regular position of third base to first and played it great.”
Smith didn’t mention feeling any injustice that Tennessee first baseman Luc Lipcius was named All-Tournament. He was too consumed with Van Horn, Arkansas’ coach since 2003, winning his first SECTournament.
Van Horn early week prefaced this SEC Tournament like all the previous with he’d “like to win it but …”
The buts concern not wearing out the Hogs, particularly the pitchers for the upcoming Regionals which Van Horn’s teams have won en route to five College World Series trips to Omaha.
The “buts” kept Kopps in Saturday’s dugout with a 2-run lead against Ole Miss two days after his save against Vanderbilt.
But the more the Hogs won in Hoover the more they knew how much their coach wanted to bring home the tournament trophy.
“The team kind of bonded together and said we want to do this for DVH, man,” Smith said. “He may not say it, but he secretly wants to win this thing every single year he’s here, and we want to do that for him. I’m just glad we won it.”
Battles noticed a pregame difference in his intense yet customarily emotion controlled coach.
“That’s probably the most fired up we’ve seen Coach in a while,” Battles said.
Van Horn “appreciated a lot” that they noticed.
“ I think that they knew that I wanted to win it, and I made sure that they knew that,” Van Horn said Sunday. “I wanted the team to know that the coaches were 100 percent in to do whatever we needed to do to win this game today. Didn’t want them thinking we were going to hold back or hold back this guy or that guy, saving them for down the road. The University of Arkansas never won this tournament in baseball, so it’s big for the school. Trophies are going to be there after we’re all long gone, and they’re going to talk about it one day.”
For Arkansas, Sunday started much like Saturday with starting pitching easily forgotten because of the relief that followed
but still remembered fondly by Van Horn.
Caleb Bolden started four scoreless innings in the Ole Miss game remembered for Tole’s win and Noland’s save.
Arkansas freshman Jaxon Wiggins, beaten by a ninth-inning Tennessee home run relieving during the regular season in Knoxville,. Tenn, logged Sunday’s start with Van Horn praise.
Other than consecutive 2-out first hits producing Tennessee’s 1-0 lead and a leadoff fourth inning single erased by Battles diving stop of Connor Pavolony’s grounder and flip to second baseman Robert Moore for the force, Wiggins held Tennessee hitless and scoreless while striking out five through 3 2-3.
Costeiu pitched Pavolony’s forceout and was the pitcher of record when Arkansas scored three in the fifth off losing starter Will Heflin making his second tournament start.
Lockhart pitched a scoreless sixth.
Kopps, bringing a nearly inhuman, 0.71 ERA into Sunday’s session, briefly proved mortal on Pete Derkay’s home run.
Tennessee would single in the seventh, eighth and ninth but never again touch second base.
The Hogs toted home the trophy with Van Horn confident his SEC Pitcher of the Year would be ready for the Regional at Baum-Walker Stadium.
“Kevin went twice, but he always does,” Van Horn said of a typical SEC weekend. ” He’ll be fine.”