The No. 1 Arkansas Razorbacks lost the second game of the Fayetteville super regional versus the NC State Wolfpack in a 6-5 defeat on Saturday. Sam Highfill held the Hogs to just two runs over the first six innings as Arkansas only had four total hits in the game, and a trifecta of home runs in the fourth inning by the Wolfpack forced a game three in the series.
The Hogs took an early 2-0 lead on another home run by Charlie Welch, but NC State would score the game’s next six runs as the bats finally came alive for them after Dave Van Horn chose to pull Lael Lockhart after only two innings. The Razorbacks would rally in the later innings but came up just short. Thus, everything comes down to Sunday night as the two sides meet again to determine who will move on to the College World Series.
Arkansas would not waste much time getting on the board again as they appeared to carry over the momentum from yesterday. Once again, it would be Charlie Welch who hit a two-run homer on a hanging curve ball to put the Hogs up early.
The legend of Charlie Welch just keeps growing as he hit his third home run in three straight games. Incredibly, it was his eighth home run in only 61 at-bats on the season, meaning that he has hit one in about 13% of his plate appearances.
It was a rocky start for NC State pitcher Sam Highfill who was making his 15th start of the season and had a 3.95 ERA coming into the game. The freshman right-hander put together a good performance against Louisiana Tech in the regional, but with the season on the line on a sweltering day in front of the packed crowd at Baum-Walker, he would not only atone for his error but completely control the game.
It was a methodical and mercurial performance over 6.1 innings with only two hits and two walks surrendered along with five strikeouts. Arkansas could never get going as batters got behind in the count against Highfill, and the Wolfpack used defensive shifts to get outs on balls that were put into play. After the home run against Welch, Highfill retired the next 16 batters in a row that he faced.
As for Arkansas, Lael Lockhart got the nod in game two but wouldn’t last long on the mound. In the third, he would give up a pair of singles, followed by a sacrifice bunt to advance the runners, and apparently, Dave Van Horn had seen enough. Ryan Costeiu came in to replace him after only throwing for just 2.1 innings and allowing two hits. DVH is known to keep pitchers on a short leash, but unless he was looking for an excuse to speed up an appearance by Kevin Kopps, it was a curious decision.
NC State got one back on a groundout to cut the deficit to 2-1 at the end of the third, but the next inning would be the turning point in the game. It started off when Jose Torres lasered a pitch to the left field fence just beyond the reach of Cayden Wallace for his second home run of the regional to give the Wolfpack the 3-2 lead. Luca Tresh followed with a second consecutive homer over the left field fence. He took a breaking ball for his 15th long shot of the season. After a ground out, Vojtech Mensik hit the third home run in the inning, and with that, Costeiu finally was done. Despite NC State’s potent hitters in the top of the order, the lower half of the lineup powered the team today. In came Caden Monke, but NC State was ahead 5-2.
They would add a crucial insurance run in the sixth. After a single and a walk, Mensik hit a sacrifice bunt to advance the runners. The Hogs brought the infield in, but on a short grounder to Jalen Battles by JT Jarrett, Battles would elect to get the out at first which drove in the runner at third.
However, the rallying Razorbacks were sure not to go quietly. Brady Slavens announced that he was fully back with a homer on a fastball to finally break Highfall’s streak for only the Hogs’ second hit of the game.
That would prompt the introduction of Evan Justice who had been a bit of a mixed bag in relief this season. Casey Opitz would score Welch from third on an infield chopper after the throw to first was thrown off first base. Battles then worked the pitch count to get a hit that he delivered right back up the middle to get within 6-5. Up stepped Christian Franklin, who was making a return after being held out yesterday with strep throat. Unfortunately, Franklin would strike out and end the rally.
Kevin Kopps would come in and do his thing by holding the Wolfpack scoreless over the final two innings, but the Hogs still needed one more run.
They would never get it as Justice retired the final seven batters that he faced and ended the Hogs’ hopes of an early Saturday celebration.
Highfill got the win. Costeiu got the loss. Arkansas is now 50-12 overall.
Once again, it all comes down to a winner-take-all game on Sunday at 5 pm.
With Caleb Bolden out, expect to see Jaxon Wiggins start and Kopps to finish the game. Might we see a performance similar to what Kopps did against Nebraska? I wouldn’t count it out since he only threw 21 pitches today. At the smallest sign of trouble, I wouldn’t be surprised if whoever is starting will be pulled in favor of him even though the rest of our bullpen should still be pretty fresh after today’s game.
As for the offense, the lack of production after yesterday just goes to show that nothing is guaranteed in baseball. If Robert Moore and Charlie Welch can keep it going or if someone like Cayden Wallace can suddenly find their form again, the Hogs should be planning another trip to Omaha after tomorrow night.