FAYETTEVILLE – Playing as hard Saturday afternoon with nothing at stake as they did beating Florida 6-1 Thursday and 4-3 Friday to clinch outright the SEC Overall and SEC West Baseball championships, the nationally No. 1 Arkansas Razorbacks rewarded another Baum-Walker Stadium packed house with a 9-3 triumph completing a 3-game sweep of the currently nationally ninth ranked and preseason No. 1 ranked Gators.
Coach Dave Van Horn’s Razorbacks, winning Arkansas’ first outright SEC Overall title since Norm DeBriyn’s 1999 Razorbacks and first SEC Overall title since Van Horn’s 2004 SEC West champions shared the Overall with SEC champion Georgia, closed their regular season, 42-10 overall and 22-8 in the SEC and with a Tuesday first-round bye in hand, as top seed enter Wednesday’s double-elimination SEC Tournament in Hoover, Ala against Tuesday’s single elimination play-in winner between LSU and Georgia.
Though it might seem the Razorbacks would be emotionally spent from Friday night’s thrilling championship clincher won by pinch-hitter Charlie Welch’s game-ending ninth-inning double, Van Horn wasn’t surprised to see them fire themselves up to complete their second SEC 3-game sweep in 10 series after winning the other eight 2 out of 3.
“That’s just the way this team is,” Van Horn said. “No motivational speeches. They showed up and got after it. That’s this 2021 team. They are something else.”
Welch, coming through again Saturday with a pinch-hit 2-run double during the 7-run seventh inning busting a 2-2 game into a rout, described Saturday’s motivation inspired by the capacity crowds finally allowed after previously limited by covid-19 restrictions limited attendance.
“I mean we all knew as players coming into the weekend that it was sold out and we wanted a sweep for these fans,” Welch said. “They showed out for us and we are going to show out for them and we got it done.”
Welch could have struck out Saturday and still never forget the at bat for the standing ovation he received stepping into the batter’s box.
“I wasn’t expecting it,” Welch said. “Chills for sure.”
Arkansas completed the sweep without two mainstays. Senior catcher Casey Opitz, 3 for 4 with 2 RBI Thursday and doubling and taking third in Friday’s ninth to score on Welch’s 1-out game-winner, got Saturday off. So did indefatigable senior reliever Kevin Kopps, notching his eighth save Thursday with three scoreless innings on behalf of winning starter Patrick Wicklander, and striking out the side in Friday’s ninth following the shutout relief work of Peyton Pallette and Caden Monke to become the 10-0 winning pitcher on Welch’s hit.
Benton’s Pallette had to leave Friday’s game because of an arm injury and had medical examinations scheduled Saturday and Sunday, Van Horn said.
In Kopps’ absence, a 1-inning each Saturday Arkansas bullpen of Kole Ramage, Kole Ramage, Heston Tole, Zebulon Vermillion and Zack Morris collectively allowed but three runs after freshman Jaxon Wiggins in his first SEC start threw three scoreless innings allowing just two hits.
“I thought Wiggins came out and threw the ball really well,” Van Horn said. “And then just going through the bullpen trying to get some guys some work. For the most part they all did a nice job for us.”
It marked only the third time this season and the first since a 17-10 May 1 victory at LSU that Arkansas won a SEC game without bringing in Kopps from the bullpen.
“Yeah it was nice,” Van Horn said Saturday of winning on Kopps’ guaranteed day off. “Obviously we weren’t going to throw Kevin again today. Didn’t even write him in.”
Brady Slavens’ five RBI on two home runs, including a 3-run home run combining with Welch’s 2-run off the wall double for the 5-run, seventh-inning Saturday, allowed Kopps to totally relax on his day off.
“I think the story of the offense we got five hits in a row there in the seventh,” Van Horn said. “A couple of big hits, a ball off the wall and a 3-run homer. Just really excited how it went today, gave some starters some rest and it worked out.”
With freshman right fielder Cayden Wallace literally hitting home runs left and right Thursday, Slavens became the second Hog homering twice in a game against Florida.
Home runs by Christian Franklin and Robert Moore, with Moore’s clout tying it 3-3 in the eighth, and Jalen Battle’s sacrifice fly on Friday rallied the Razorbacks from a 3-0 deficit before Welch started the Friday night party that partied on through Saturday’s sweep.