By Steve Parkhurst
The Southeastern Conference Championship was decided Sunday in Hoover, Alabama under a sun-filled sky as the Arkansas Razorbacks faced the Tennessee Volunteers to end a drama-laden week.
Jaxon Wiggins was the starting pitcher for Arkansas opposed by Will Heflin who handled the starting duties for Tennessee.
With two outs, Drew Gilbert singled into right field to plate the first run of the game and give Tennessee an early 1-0 lead.
Both teams were quiet offensively through the fourth inning. Wiggins left the game in the fourth with two outs having allowed just the one run on four hits and struck out five of his eleven recorded outs.
Arkansas shortstop Jalen Battles made an all-world defensive play to end the fourth inning and to stem a potential threat from the Volunteers. A ground ball that seemed destined for left field, was snagged by Battles as he was diving toward the left-field foul line in the 5-6 hole. He sat upright and from the ground, made a throw to second to get the lead runner and end the frame.
Trailing 1-0 in the fifth, the Arkansas offense arrived. Battles (3-for-4) drove a ball to left-center to drive in a run from second to tie the game. Zack Gregory singled into right to drive in another run. Battles would score from third on a Matt Goodheart sacrifice fly to left field for a 3-1 Arkansas lead.
Battles hit an 0-1 pitch over the left field wall and into the Arkansas bullpen for a home run in the sixth to pad the Arkansas lead at 4-1.
Kevin Kopps, the SEC Pitcher of the Year, took the mound in the seventh for the Razorbacks.
Pete Derkay, batting in the eight spot, led off the inning by hitting the second pitch he saw from Kopps over the right field wall. Kopps struck out two batters on his way to ending the seventh inning with the Razorbacks leading 4-2.
The Razorbacks added three runs in their half of the seventh, the first on a Robert Moore batted ball that turned into a fielder’s choice. With two outs, Cullen Smith lined a shot over the wall in right field for a two-run home run making the score 7-2. For Smith, it was his third home run of the SEC tournament. After homering against Ole Miss on Saturday, Smith said, “this is a dream come true.”
The dream grew bigger and better on Sunday.
Kopps retired the Volunteers in the ninth, despite a two-out base hit to right field, as Arkansas took the game and the SEC Tournament.
Battles took home the SEC Tournament MVP honors for his week of work going 7-for-13 at the plate and making several great defensive plays.
This was the first SEC Tournament championship in the history of the Arkansas program. “It’s pretty cool,” said Kopps after Sunday’s win. “First time ever for Arkansas, so that’s pretty sweet.”
After Sunday’s win, Arkansas head coach Dave Van Horn said, “If you can win this tournament you can beat anybody in the country.” Van Horn and his Razorbacks will begin to test that theory next week. Arkansas (46-10) is all but guaranteed the top spot nationally as the NCAA tournament field will be announced on Monday and the Razorbacks will be hosting in Fayetteville.