Photo: Courtesy, ArkansasRazorbacks.com
Facing elimination from the SEC Baseball Tournament Thursday evening, the No. 13 Arkansas Razorbacks had a record-setting performance to stay alive and advance to Friday quarterfinals round at Hoover, Ala.
Led by three home runs and seven RBI by first baseman Chad Spanberger, Arkansas blitzed the Auburn Tigers, 12-0, in a combined no-hit shutout by Hog pitchers Dominic Taccolini, Matt Cronin, and Josh Alberius.
Spanberger’s three homers and 7 RBI are single-game SEC Tournament records, and the combined no-hitter was the first ever in 510 SEC Tournament games.
The Razorbacks (40-16) will face the loser of the 11 a.m. Florida (41-5)-Mississippi State (36-22) game at approximately 6:30 p.m. The SEC Network will televise both as well as the 3 p.m. contest between South Carolina (34-24) and Kentucky (39-19)
In a televised interview with the SEC Network, Alberius said the no-hitter was not on his mind in the seventh inning.
“I was just pitching like any other game,” Alberius said. “I was pitching, trying to get outs. I was focused on getting the win, and advancing to tomorrow. A no-hitter wasn’t on my mind.”
Right fielder Jake Arledge raced into foul territory to make a great play on a long fly ball for the final out of the game
“You know this was a team effort,” Alberius said. “We pitched well, but the defense really backed us up, and we had a great night at the plate.”
Arkansas head coach Dave Van Horn agreed that the victory was more important than setting records, but he was still proud of his pitching staff’s performance after using seven pitchers in a 4-3 loss to Mississippi State earlier in the day.
“It was quiet in the dugout,” Van Horn said. “All the coaches knew, but we were worried about our pitching staff after the earlier game. We wanted to conserve our pitching as much as we could. We wanted to get the run-rule [win] and get out of here in seven innings if possible.
“When we got into that seventh inning, we went with Alberius. We wanted the no-hitter, but what we really wanted was to get that win so we could come back and play tomorrow.”
Cronin, a freshman, had six strikeouts in three innings to tie up the Auburn hitters, who had a field day against Arkansas in the regular season. Auburn scored 33 runs in the three-game series, played April 21-23.
“This is the biggest stage I’ve ever pitched on,” Cronin said. “It’s exciting. I just focused on throwing strikes.”
Spanberger hit his three homers in his first three at-bats. After his first home run, he said he was hoping to get his second.
“You think that before you’re at the plate,” Spanberger said, “but I was just focusing on the pitches and trying to get in a good swing.”
Spanberger said he was expecting the intentional walk at his fourth at-bat.
“Coach told me to expect it,” Spanberger said.
Van Horn said he couldn’t blame Auburn (35-24) for walking his talented hitter, who now has 17 home runs on the season, 14 against SEC opponents.
“I told [Luke] Bonfield [who follows Spanberger in the lineup] to get ready to hit,” Van Horn said. “I knew they weren’t going to pitch to him. I wouldn’t have.”
Shortstop Jax Biggers also tied a single-game SEC Tournament record by belting two triples.
The victory had to be a bit of vindication for the Razorbacks, who were rolling through the SEC schedule before Auburn upended them in late April. The Hogs suffered through a downturn following that series loss, losing a series to Ole Miss at home the following week and splitting a rain-shortened series at Tennessee the next.
Arkansas bounced back to win series against Vanderbilt and Texas A&M to finish up the season strong, but punching Auburn’s ticket home from the tournament had to feel pretty good.
Earlier in the week, Van Horn said he thought the Hogs had done enough in the regular season to host a NCAA Regional regardless of what happened in the SEC Tournament. However, the Auburn victory has to help the Razorbacks’ resume.
A second win today would only add to the Hogs’ argument.
Whether the Razorbacks host or travel in the NCAA Tournament, this season has been a tremendous turnaround for a team that did not participate in either postseason tournaments a year ago.
“It all started in the fall,” Van Horn said. “We had good workouts, and we could tell that we were going to be a lot better.
“Last year was brutal. Things didn’t go our way, but the guys really took it to heart and came back determined to do something about it.”
MSU 4, Arkansas 3
Arkansas led most of the way Thursday in their opening game of the SEC Baseball Tournament at Hoover, Ala., but the Hogs surrendered the lead on a no-out, bases-loaded walk in the ninth inning against Mississippi State that gave the Bulldogs a 4-3 victory.
After getting a solid start by Trevor Stephan on the mound, the Razorbacks’ bullpen melted down. The Hogs used five pitchers in the ninth inning alone.
Luke Bonfield’s two-run home run gave the Hogs a lead in the first inning, and Arkansas went up 3-0 in the second, but would not score the rest of the game.
Mississippi State chipped away, scoring a run in the sixth and another in the eighth to trail 3-2 going into the ninth when poor pitching allowed the game to slip away.