If there was any doubt whether the Arkansas Razorbacks would be awarded a National Seed on Monday when the bracket for the 2018 NCAA Baseball Tournament field is announced, Hunter Wilson erased it.
In his only at-bat, the junior from Spiro, Okla. smashed a two-out, ninth-inning grand slam home run Friday to lift the No. 9 Hogs to an 8-2 victory over the No. 1 Florida Gators in the SEC Baseball Tournament in Hoover, Ala.
It was a storybook moment for the Razorback, who was batting .256, had not hit a home run, and missed the bulk of last season with a broken leg. Arkansas was ahead, 4-2, in the eighth, but Wilson’s stroke made it a commanding victory for a Razorback squad that wanted to make it clear just how good they are.
Closer Matt Cronin, who worked out of an eighth-inning jam, made short work of the Gators in the bottom of the ninth, striking out the side for his 11th save.
The Hogs advanced to the semifinal round of the tournament where the Razorbacks (39-17) will play the winner of tonight’s elimination game between Florida (42-16) and LSU (35-24) on Saturday at around 3:30 p.m. in a single-elimination semifinal game, televised by the SEC Network. The SEC Championship game is set for 2 p.m. Sunday and will be televised by ESPN2
Going into the tournament, many experts felt the Razorbacks had proven enough in the regular season to be one of the eight National Seeds that are guaranteed to host a Regional and a Super Regional if they advance that far. Arkansas had the No. 4 RPI going into the tournament and the third-rated strength of schedule in college baseball. However, the Razorbacks’ less than spectacular 8-13 record away from the friendly confines of Baum Stadium planted a small seed of doubt.
With victories over South Carolina, 13-8, early Thursday morning and now the Florida victory, all doubt should be gone. The Hogs should be a lock for one of the top-eight National Seeds no matter what happens on Saturday.
Arkansas ace Blaine Knight moved to 10-0 on the season by pitching a commanding game against what has been considered the best team in college baseball though the bulk of the season. It was his second victory over the Gators this season. Arkansas topped the Gators, 6-3, on March 23 before falling in the final-two games of the series.
Middle reliever Barrett Loseke helped keep the Gators in check for an inning and a third before Cronin closed out the game.
The Razorbacks jumped to a 2-0 in the second inning when freshman Casey Martin crushed a home run to left field driving in Luke Bonfield. It was Martin’s third homer of the tournament.
Arkansas center fielder Dominic Fletcher belly flopped for and outstanding catch in center field, quickly gathered himself to his feet, and threw out a Florida base runner at third for a double play in the bottom of the third.
Fletcher drove a hot single down right field line to drive in Heston Kjerstad in the sixth for a 3-0 lead.Jared Gates belted an RBI single to score Bonfield, but Florida’s Jonathan India tagged out Fletcher at third, leaving Arkansas up 4-0.
Florida kept the Hogs on their hooves by adding two runs, but Wilson’s ninth-inning grand slam stole all of the Gators’ fight.
Jax Biggers returned to his starting role at shortstop and did not miss a beat. Not only did he play well in the field, but he hit two singles despite dealing with a fractured finger, which he hurt against Texas A&M on May 11.
The Razorbacks have now accomplished all they needed to in the SEC Tournament, but the Hogs are just two victories away from a SEC Tournament title. Expect the Razorbacks to play well, but don’t expect for Arkansas coach Dave Van Horn to do anything crazy with his pitching staff in an attempt to win the title.
There are bigger games to be played in the team’s quest to return to the College World Series in Omaha, Neb.