Diamond Hogs secure a share of West title with 6-1 victory over Gators

Freshman right fielder Cayden Wallace slammed two home runs while the pitching duo of starter Patrick Wicklander and reliever Kevin Kopps locked up the No. 9 Florida Gators to propel the No. 1 Arkansas Razorbacks to a 6-1 victory Thursday, earning the Hogs at least a share of the SEC West title.

Dave Van Horn’s Hogs go for even more in the second game of the three-game series at 7 p.m. Friday at Baum-Walker Stadium.

A second victory in the SEC Network-televised contest would give the Hogs the outright Western Division title and win them at least a share of the overall SEC title for the first time since 2004.

Next up for the No. 1 Razorbacks

Opponent: vs No. 9 Florida
When: 7 p.m. Friday, May 21
Where: Fayetteville
Television: SEC Network

Upcoming games

May 22 – 2 p.m. vs. Florida, SEC Network+

The Razorbacks (40-10, 20-8 SEC) thrilled a crowd of 11,084 fans who filled up Baum-Walker Stadium on a damp, cool night for the first time in more than a year after Covid-19 crowd restrictions were lifted last week by the state.

It was baseball the way it was meant to be for delighted Arkansas fans as their Hogs took a bite out of the Gators (35-17, 17-11 SEC), who were the preseason No. 1 team in the nation and the pick to win the SEC. The loss eliminated Florida from the SEC race.

Tennessee (43-13, 19-9 SEC) defeated South Carolina (32-19, 15-13 SEC), 10-4, Thursday to stay on top in the SEC East and to remain in the hunt for the SEC overall title.

With the Gators leading thanks to a solo home run by Kendrick Calilao, Hog fans were a bit reticent early, but by the seventh-inning stretch Hog call, Razorbackers were rocking and rolling like old times with the Hogs holding a 3-1 lead and lockdown reliever Kopps on the mound.

“The seventh inning Hog call was the best one I’ve heard in a couple of years,” said Van Horn in a Zoom teleconference. He added that he could feel the presence of the fans and that his Razorbacks appreciate that kind of support.

However, Florida coach Kevin O’Sullivan wasn’t overly impressed by the Razorback crowd.

“I didn’t think the crowd had much to do with our play,” O’Sullivan said in quotes provided by Florida media relations. “I just thought that when you’re playing teams like Arkansas, or you’re playing teams like Florida or Vanderbilt, or other teams in our league for that matter, when teams are playing really good, all the little things get magnified.”

O’Sullivan was more impressed with the way the Razorbacks played and have been playing this season.

“Arkansas is playing at a high level,” he said. “They battled with two strikes and they competed. We talked about that. One of the things coming into the weekend was Arkansas has probably been the one team in our league that’s figured out how to play as a group probably earlier than anybody else in our league. That’s why they’re in the position that they are. With the same token, coming in we were 11-4 over our last 15 in the league, and we were playing well, too. We just got beat tonight.”

Wallace worked the corners on his 3-for-4, 4-RBI night, slamming his first homer right down the right-field line in the fifth to give the Hogs a 2-1 lead, which they would never surrender.

“I was hunting fastball, and it was a little bit out,” Wallace said of his opposite field shot.

He crushed a booming three-run shot over the left-field foul pole in the eighth to make the Razorbacks’ victory an election sure.

“Yes, I knew it was going to be fair,” Wallace said. “From the previous at-bat, I got five sliders, so I just really thought he was going to throw another one.”

Wallace is the eighth Hog to swat two homers in a game this season, joining teammates Robert Moore, who has done it twice; Jalen Battles, Christian Franklin, Matt Goodheart, Brady Slavens, Cullen Smith, and Charlie Welch.

“He had a great night,” Van Horn said of the freshman who is tied for the team lead in home runs with Goodheart and Moore with 12 apiece. “I mean, what can you say? Drove in four runs. Hits a solo home run to get us the lead. Hits a three-run homer pull side to not put it away completely but give us a good cushion.”

Razorback catcher Casey Opitz also had big night at the plate, going 3-for-4 with 2 RBI.

Other than the Calilao’s second-inning homer, Wicklander kept the Gators in check through six innings. Kopps locked the Gators up in the final three to secure the victory.

“We struck out, I think, 16 times tonight and obviously when you do that, it’s really difficult to string along any type of innings or any type of momentum,” O’Sullivan said. “Credit Arkansas’ pitchers. They were really good tonight. I would expect us to bounce back tomorrow and have a better night offensively, but the amount of strikeouts didn’t help our cause tonight.”

Wicklander struck out a career-high 11 batters and gave up just three hits and a single walk before turning the game over to Kopps. Wicklander fanned Gator slugger Jud Fabian, who leads the SEC with 20 homers, three times.

Kopps was equally impressive in his three innings of work, not allowing a hit and striking out five Gators to earn his eighth save.

Thursday’s win sets up a huge opportunity for the Razorbacks on Friday with Caleb Bolden (2-0, 4.67 ERA) on the mound. Saturday’s starter will a game-time decision by Van Horn..

A Razorback win means a share of the overall SEC title, but while the Razorbacks have won every series they have played this season, second games have been problematic. The Hogs have lost the second game in four of their nine SEC series this season, including the last two.

Turning that trend on its head would delight Hog fans who will no doubt pack Baum Stadium this evening.