Diamond Hogs show grit in series sweep of Auburn

Arkansas freshman Heston Kjerstad and junior Eric Cole / Photo: ArkansasRazorbacks.com

You’ve got to love the toughness and resiliency of the No. 4 Arkansas Razorbacks baseball team.

A week ago, the Hogs had lost back-to-back series to two of the other best teams — No. 1 Florida and No. 5 Ole Miss — in the nation at Gainesville, Fla., and Oxford, Miss. Three of those four losses were one-run games, and the other was a snow-ball blowout loss to Florida that sometimes happens in baseball, even to very good baseball teams.

Coming out of that series, the Razorbacks knew they were still a good baseball team. But just how good were they? Those questions were beginning to pop up.

Everyone knew Blaine Knight was an excellent pitcher. The Hogs won every game he pitched. Kacey Murphy had pitched very well, but he absorbed two of the Hogs’ four losses in very tight games. The rest of the Razorbacks’ starters hadn’t lived up to expectations for various reasons.

Arkansas’ defense had been spotty at times. The Hogs had to survive a four-error night last Tuesday to defeat Louisiana-Monroe, 10-9, in 10 innings. Sloppy defensive play has hindered the Razorbacks at points throughout the season.

With No. 15 Auburn coming to Fayetteville with their ace Casey Mize, the series shaped up to be a show-and-tell weekend for the Hogs.

The Razorbacks came through the series just like every Hog fan hoped. Arkansas swept the series to move to 24-9 overall and just as importantly 8-4 in SEC play. They did it with toughness and tenacity of team that is talented but also improving and progressing.

Arkansas leads Ole Miss (27-6, 7-5 SEC) by a game in the SEC West standings, and is just a game back of SEC overall leader Florida (28-6, 9-3). Georgia (23-9, 8-4) also trails the Gators by a game in the East and in the overall race.

Knight and reliever Matt Cronin kept Auburn pinned down all night in the Hogs’ 2-1 victory last Friday. Murphy and reliever Barrett Loseke pitched nearly as well as their teammates on Saturday, but the Razorbacks formidable batting lineup worked the Tigers over for a 13-2 victory to lock up the series.

However, Sunday’s finale was in question. Isaiah Campbell took to the mound after resting his elbow for a week. After Campbell gave up three runs in the second, Van Horn turned to another Razorback pitcher who has been struggling in Jake Reindl.

It seemed an odd move with Reindl’s ERA sitting at 5.62, but Van Horn’s confidence in the junior Shiloh Christian product proved to be as on target as the young man’s arm Sunday. Reindl retired 18 straight batters in his seven-inning stent, mowing down nine for a new strike-out career high.

His work on the mound allowed the Razorbacks to chip away at Auburn’s lead and earn the sweep in the bottom of the ninth when a two-out rally by Eric Cole and Heston Kjerstad lifted the Hogs to a 5-4 victory.

Kjerstad was involved in a somewhat controversial play in the outfield when there was a question on the field whether he had caught Auburn’s Jay Estes’ hit at the wall or if Estes’ shot had cleared the fence for a homer.

In the confusion, Estes passed his teammate Brett Wright on the base path and was called out, nullifying the home run. But Wright was allowed to score.

The upshot was that Auburn lost themselves a run because of West and Estes’ base-running confusion that stemmed from the ref’s inability to rule on the home run.

Arkansas also benefitted in Saturday’s 13-2 victory from a wrong call by the umpire in the first inning, but then again the game wasn’t close.

Despite the confusion and the controversy, the Razorbacks reasserted themselves in SEC play with better pitching and defensive play in the series.

It is a long season, as Van Horn reminded after the game Sunday. It wasn’t a perfect weekend for the Hogs, but it was a perfect outcome. Knight’s continued dominance, and Reindl, Cronin, and Loseke’s outstanding relief performance were huge for the Hogs.

Of the three, it’s hard to say which was more impressive. Topping Mize and tagging him with his first loss of the season was big. Blowing the Tigers out on Saturday was impressive. However, coming back from a 4-0 deficit to be a walk-off-winner on Sunday showed the team’s grit and toughness.

The Razorbacks travel to Little Rock to play Grambling at Dickie-Stephens Park at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday before returning to Baum Stadium to host South Carolina (18-14, 5-7) Friday through Sunday.