FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. – Arkansas’ first SEC game of the season saw the Diamond Hogs only come alive for one inning.
Against the odds, it was enough.
Arkansas plated three runs in the first inning and beat Kentucky, 9-4, to open league play Friday night at Baum Stadium. As though the one big inning holding up wasn’t unusual enough, it came against the reigning SEC Pitcher of the Year. Arkansas chased 6-foot-10 Kentucky right-hander Sean Hjelle after just 3 1/3 innings.
Eric Cole, the second hitter of the game for Arkansas, hit a solo home run to start. Casey Martin walked and Dominic Fletcher doubled him home. A Hjelle wild pitch sent Fletcher to third and Jordan McFarland’s single up the middle scored him, too.
That was just in the first. Hjelle gave up four hits and walked Arkansas batters in his time, exiting with Kentucky trailing 4-1.
His counterpart, Blaine Knight, did just enough to counter. Both are All-Americans, but neither had their best stuff. Knight only made it 4 2/3 innings. He gave up six hits, but just two runs. Ultimately he left after loading the bases with two outs in the fifth. His replacement, Jake Reindl, walked in a run on just four pitches, the first batter he faced. But Reindl responded with a three-pitch strikeout to follow to get out of things and leave the Diamond Hogs with a two run lead.
Arkansas tacked on two for insurance in the bottom of the fifth. Grant Koch hit a two-run home run to provide the margin then he popped another, a solo shot, in the seventh, to make it a five-run game.
Kentucky entered the game ranked fourth in the country and tops in the SEC Country baseball power poll. Arkansas was fifth and third in those slottings. The two play Game Two on Saturday afternoon.
Grading the Hogs
Not the most dynamic game ever, but in SEC play, who cares. Knight struck out four, which almost equaled his innings pitched. A bit of luck was on Arkansas’ side, too, though. Only four runs allowed on 12 hits, that’s pretty rare.
Against a lesser pitcher, the grade might be B or B+. Considering the Diamond Hogs did what they did against Hjelle, it was wholly impressive.
The Big Stick + The Arm
Reindl did well to get out of the jam, but he did walk in the run. Knight didn’t give up any extra base-runners. Yes, more hits allowed than innings, but Kentucky’s offense is going to do that to a lot of pitchers. And worse.
Two home runs and four RBI. Maybe Koch is a fit at the bottom of the lineup. He spent most of 2017 in the middle, but he’s been good near the bottom – he was 8-hole Friday night – in 2018.
What’s next for Arkansas?
Two more against Kentucky then a trip east for a midweek set against Charlotte on Tuesday and Wednesday.