FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. - Arkansas proved its worth as the nation’s top ranked team this past weekend, closing out the regular season with a sweep of Florida to claim the SEC regular season title.
The Razorbacks began the first two contests trailing, as Florida scored at least one run in the first two innings of both games. But the Arkansas bats, always reliable, roared to life and powered the Razorbacks to victory. A 9-3 statement win Saturday gave Arkansas the sweep.
The sweep locked in Arkansas as College Baseball Nation’s No. 1 team, as if there was any question, while Florida fell back to No. 11. It marked the first time in four weeks that the Gators slid in CBN’s Top 50.
Arkansas also eclipsed the 40-win mark after winning every single series it played in the regular season, heading to the SEC Tournament with a 40-12 regular season record, and 22-8 mark in conference play. Florida finished the regular season at 35-19 overall and 17-13 in SEC play.
Hoover, Alabama is the next stop for both the Razorbacks and Gators as the SEC tournament begins May 25. Florida, despite entering the week ranked No. 6 in CBN’s Top 50, will be forced to play a first-round elimination game against Kentucky on Tuesday, as the No. 6 seed in the tournament. The winner of that contest is set to face No. 3 seed Mississippi State. Arkansas has a first round bye, and will open play in Hoover May 26, facing the winner of No. 9 seed LSU and No. 8 seed Georgia.
Behind the pitching of starter Tommy Mace and an early 1-0 lead, Florida made a legitimate bid to earn the win in game one. In the words of Arkansas head coach Dave Van Horn, Razorbacks starter Patrick Wicklander “got off to a slow start”, allowing a solo home run from first baseman Kendrick Calilao in the second, but turned it around, with “some good innings in the middle”. Statistically, Wicklander had one of the best performances of his collegiate career, outdueling Mace with six innings of work, three hits, one walk, one earned run, and 11 strikeouts.
By comparison, Mace made it through 4.2 innings, with three earned runs, five hits, four walks and eight strikeouts.
Those three runs were scored in the fourth and fifth innings, as Arkansas tied the score at one in the fourth on a single to right from catcher Casey Optiz with two outs that scored center fielder Christian Franklin. The Razorbacks then took the lead on the first of right fielder Cayden Wallace’s two homers in the fifth to lead 2-1. A three-run eighth secured Arkansas’ victory, much to the delight of the crowd of 11,084.
It helped Arkansas’ effort that Kevin Kopps was untouchable out of the bullpen, firing three innings of scoreless relief. In fact, Kopps did not allow a hit, and issued just one walk.
Friday’s duel was much closer in the score, with Arkansas’ Charlie Welch knocking a walk-off double in the ninth to give the Razorbacks a 4-3 win. It was a moment that will remain embedded in Arkansas history, as Welch stepped to the plate as a pinch hitter and drove a 3-2 pitch to right field, resulting in the Razorbacks’ first SEC regular season title since 2004.
“[Coach] has been plugging me into some big spots lately in pinch-hit at-bats,” Welch said. “I’ve been getting the job done, and he just looked at me and said, 'Are you ready?' I said, 'Yeah, let's go.’
“I knew [Florida reliever Jack Leftwich] was going to attack me with the slider,” Welch said postgame. “I spit on one earlier in the at-bat. But 3-2, I was really just looking for the fastball again and I tried to elevate it.”
Welch’s late game heroics capped off a solid performance from the Razorbacks, who showed an ability to erase a deficit late. Entering the eighth, Florida led 3-2, but second baseman Robert Moore changed that with two outs in the frame. Moore’s two-strike solo homer over the right field wall tied the game, and set up the ninth-inning walk-off.
Once again, Van Horn turned to Kopps, as the reliever struck out the side in the ninth inning. Prior to Kopps toeing the rubber, Caleb Bolden, Peyton Pallette and Caden Monke each threw at least an inning in the contest. Bolden earned the start, and went four innings, allowing all three of Florida’s runs.
Florida jumped out to an early 2-0 lead in the first inning, as catcher Nathan Hickey singled with one out. After Bolden struck out Florida slugger Jud Fabian, designated hitter Kris Armstrong pulled a 1-1 pitch down the left field line to put two runners in scoring position with two outs. A base hit off the bat of Caliliao scored both Armstrong and Hickey in the following at-bat, and a solo home run from right fielder Sterlin Thompson gave Florida a 3-0 advantage in the second.
Arkansas did cut the deficit to one run in the bottom of the inning, behind a homer from Franklin and shortstop Jalen Battles’ sacrifice fly.
With Florida held scoreless for the final seven innings, the Razorbacks were given the chance to tie the score, then take the lead, and in turn, claim the SEC West title.
The series finale had the same victor, as Arkansas rolled to a 9-3 win on Saturday afternoon. The Razorbacks pulled away in the seventh, with Brady Slavens’ power guiding the way.
The first baseman had a 2-for-4 day in the final regular season game of his first year with Arkansas, with both hits going for home runs as he extended his total to 13 on the season.
The first of the Razorbacks two runs did not come until the fourth inning, with the Razorbacks taking a 2-0 lead on a Slavens’ two-run homer past the left field wall.
Florida countered with one run in the fifth and sixth innings to knot the score at two, before a seven-run outburst in the seventh from Arkansas sealed the sweep in front of a rowdy pro-Razorbacks crowd of 11,084. The seven-run seventh was highlighted by the second of Slavens’ home runs, as he stuck the dagger into the Gators with a three-run blast well over the right-center field fence to give the Razorbacks a 9-2 lead.
Two at-bats before Slavens’ home run, Welch again came off the bench, and promptly drove a pitch into the gap for his second pinch-hit double of the series. His two-bagger brought two runs across the plate for Arkansas, as the Razorbacks took a commanding 6-2 lead. Welch, along with Wallace, also scored on the home run, which came with one out.
Once again, the pitching was top-notch for Arkansas, with no signs of uncomfortableness or lack of composure exhibited from any of the Razorbacks’ seven pitchers. Going deep into the bullpen, Van Horn kept Florida on its toes, throwing a different arm in each of the last six innings.
Jaxson Wiggins earned the start, and was the only Arkansas pitcher to throw more than one inning, as he fired three frames of scoreless baseball. Two hits were the only blemishes to his stat line, with zero walks in 11 batters faced. He also struck out two.
Florida’s Franco Aleman threw five-plus innings for the fifth straight game, logging 6.1 innings on the hill. He gave up six runs and seven hits, though he held the Arkansas offense scoreless for the first three innings. Aleman also tallied eight strikeouts.
Also, following Saturday’s game, Van Horn provided the media with an update on Pallette, who left Friday’s game with an apparent injury. He said that Pallette had been checked out Saturday but would also be checked out Sunday. His status entering the SEC tournament remains unclear. He faced just five batters Friday, allowing two hits in one inning of work, and was seen pointing to his elbow as trainers headed from the dugout to examine him.
Florida displayed signs of being a top-10 team in Fayetteville, but Arkansas is a tough team to beat. As was witnessed by Welch’s heroics, the depth and talent on Arkansas’ roster is something special, and a balanced lineup with a mix of power and contact hitters has created the high-octane offense we saw in top shape this weekend.
A lock to host a regional, Arkansas heads south to the SEC Tournament as a clear favorite. The Razorbacks have won their last four games, and have shown no signs of slowing down.
“We have an idea who we’re going to start in game one,” said Van Horn on Saturday when asked about his strategy entering the SEC Tournament. “I would like to see all of our starters get on the mound in Hoover. It would be nice to play at least three games. Obviously, we want to play more. It’s also supposed to be hot, 92, 93. We haven’t played in that type of weather. We’ll monitor that; the heat, the grind. We’ll just obviously try to get through game one, and go from there.
“You won’t see Kopps stretching [his outings]. Maybe once, we’ll see. If he throws 12 pitches on Wednesday, you can maybe use him one other time. [But] we’ll try to get him ready for the next weekend.”