FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. — Welcome to New Jack City.
Home runs were flying out of Fayetteville on Friday afternoon at Baum Stadium. Arkansas and Oral Roberts opened the NCAA Tournament with a long-ball show, combining for 6 in front of a full crowd. Four of them belonged to the Diamond Hogs, though, in a 10-2 Arkansas win.
The win advances Arkansas and keeps the Razorbacks in the winners’ bracket of the Fayetteville Regional. Now, top-seeded Arkansas will get the winner of Dallas Baptist and Southern Mississippi on Saturday night. Oral Roberts will play the loser of that game Saturday afternoon. Whichever of those two teams is defeated will be eliminated from the regional.
The old chestnut of the best players showing up in the biggest times held true for the Razorbacks on Friday. Second-team All-SEC pitcher Blaine Knight gave the short bullpen a good rest in going eight innings. Carson Shaddy, a first-teamer, popped a home run. Heston Kjerstad, the SEC Freshman of the Year, added another. Two, actually. All that around some insurance elsewhere made for a fairly comfortable day, or as comfortable as a near 100-degree temperature day can be.
Shaddy’s homer to start the sixth was the most important at the time. It was the opening salvo in a 4-run inning. Arkansas stretched its lead from 1 to 5 runs, accordingly, taking control. After Jared Gates followed with a double, Grant Koch knocked in Gates for the second run of the frame. Two pitches later, shortstop Jax Biggers, not exactly known for his power, popped a 2-run homer.
More than enough for Knight, Arkansas’ ace. In what is almost certainly his final start before he is drafted on Wednesday or Thursday, the Bryant, Ark., native was efficient. Knight allowed just 4 base runners in his eight innings (104 pitches). While he only struck out 2 and gave up that many homers as well, perhaps the most important thing — other than the win — was his going so deep. Cody Scroggins came on for the final three outs.
Things took a bit to get going at the park. Part of that might have been just a feeling, though, as the weather led to some quiet. Nothing happened in the first hour or so. The first two batters of the third inning yielded a couple of standard, can-of-corn flyball outs to left field. That only served to further the crowd’s weariness in the nearly 100-degree weather. Then Kjerstad hit his homer just shy of the chair-back seats. It provided the Diamond Hogs the lead and allowed some sweaty, stale fans some air as they rose to their feet in celebration.
Oral Roberts pulled one back in the fifth when freshman catcher Riley Keizor turned on a ball and planted almost exactly the spot. After that came the big Arkansas inning, though Keizor hit another solo shot in the seventh.
Kjerstad hit his 13th home run of the season in the eighth inning, providing the eighth and ninth runs of the game. The homer tied for the team high with fellow freshman Casey Martin. Those 13 are also tied for the most by an Arkansas freshman in school history with Zack Cox.
Nothing spectacular. Knight’s performance wasn’t one for the advanced-stats crowd. But in old-school baseball ways, it was plenty good.
Every starter reached base at least once. Between the knocks, walks and hit batters, Arkansas had players reach 20 times. No sweat. Throw in the 4 homers and 2 more doubles and it was well-rounded, too.
The Big Stick + The Arm
Knight hadn’t gone eight innings all year. His previous high was seven against Texas A&M in the final home series at Baum during the regular season. Even that was the only game in which he reached that number. In other words, consider the wall he’d hit with stamina now broken through.
Both of his homers were hit to the opposite field. That’s some serious power. He finished 3 for 5 on the day.
Arkansas will play Dallas Baptist or Southern Miss on Saturday night. The game is scheduled for a 7 p.m. first pitch. Storms are projected to come through northwest Arkansas around 5 p.m.