Diamond Hogs clinch series vs. No. 2 Mississippi State
FAYETTEVILLE — When home plate umpire John Brammer rung him up with the bases loaded in the seventh inning Friday night, Heston Kjerstad couldn’t believe it.
Arkansas’ star sophomore virtually always has a smile on his face, but he was visibly angry because he thought the pitch was outside and let Brammer know, arguing to the point he was ejected.
That seemed to ignite the Razorbacks’ offense, which had sputtered and allowed Mississippi State to climb back to within striking distance. The next three batters reached to bring home five more runs and propel No. 11 Arkansas to a series-clinching 12-5 win over the No. 2 Bulldogs at Baum-Walker Stadium.
“It sparked them,” head coach Dave Van Horn said. “We got it going a little bit. It definitely got our attention because that was a big at bat in the game.”
After scoring seven runs in the first four innings, Arkansas couldn’t get a big hit in the middle innings to keep the pressure on Mississippi State’s dangerous offense, which was starting to heat up with five runs of their own.
Casey Opitz struck out with the bases loaded to end the fourth, Dominic Fletcher grounded into an inning-ending double play with the bases loaded in the fifth and Christian Franklin struck out with runners on second and third to end the sixth.
Instead of following suit after Kjerstad’s controversial strikeout, the Razorbacks finally broke through with back-to-back walks by Jack Kenley and Jacob Nesbit to bring in the first two runs of the inning. Then Opitz cleared the bases with a single that included a fielding error by the Bulldogs’ right fielder.
“You just have got to keep playing the game,” Opitz said. “I got up there and didn’t put too much pressure on the situation and just tried to take good swings and good things happened.”
Van Horn was clearly frustrated with the 15 runners Arkansas left on base Friday night, but he was pleased with the outburst that gave his team a seven-run lead.
“We had a chance to build that lead up and didn’t do it,” Van Horn said. “They got back in the game and then we finally had a couple of big walks there in the seventh…and then (Opitz) singled to right. I felt pretty good there.”
Although it was a big moment in the win, Kjerstad’s ejection is costly because he is now suspended for Game 3 of the series Saturday.
Not only will he be missing his first game of the season as Arkansas tries to sweep Mississippi State, it will be the first time he isn’t in the starting lineup for the Razorbacks. Kjerstad had started the first 108 games of his career.
“He’s pretty mild-mannered, so I guess he felt pretty strongly about the call,” Van Horn said. “The problem with the call is that the call was really late.
“It was almost ridiculously late. If it’s all in the same rhythm and the way he’s been calling it the whole game, not a problem. … But the way that was, it was almost like he had to talk himself into making that call and that’s not the way you umpire.”
Freshman Curtis Washington Jr. replaced Kjerstad in right field for the final two innings of the game and drew a walk in his lone plate appearance. He would be the logical choice to start in his place Saturday, but Van Horn could also go with freshman Trey Harris.
The Razorbacks will also have a freshman on the mound, as right-hander Connor Noland (1-2, 5.60 ERA) gets his second nod of the week. After failing to record an out at Vanderbilt, he started and picked up his first collegiate victory with two shutout innings against UAPB.
He’ll face Mississippi State freshman right-hander JT Ginn (7-1, 3.35 ERA), who turned down a reported $2.4 million as a first-round pick of the Dodgers to go to school.
First pitch is scheduled for 2 p.m. and the game will be streamed on SEC Network-plus, meaning it can be watched online on ESPN3.com or on the WatchESPN app.
Kopps Steps Up
As he has been most of the season, Kole Ramage was the first reliever out of the bullpen with a 7-2 lead. It didn’t go well for the sophomore right-hander, as he gave up a three-run home run to Justin Foscue that pulled the Bulldogs within one.
Instead of going multiple innings, Ramage lasted just one before Van Horn turned to Kevin Kopps. The redshirt sophomore right-hander helped calm things down and bring some normalcy to the game.
“The game was going crazy,” Van Horn said. “For both sides, people weren’t throwing the ball over the plate, walking people and it’s Game 2 of an SEC series - you’re supposed to have some decent pitching on a Game 2, but everybody’s scattering and pitching behind in the count.”
Kopps didn’t get off to a great start, though. He plunked the first batter he faced and this issued a one-out walk to the 9-hole to bring the top of the lineup to the plate.
Admittedly frustrated with himself, Kopps retired the final eight batters he faced. He got five straight ground outs, a fly out and two strikeouts to get Arkansas to the ninth inning.
“He comes in and hits a guy then walks the next batter and you’re thinking, ‘Oh baby, here we go again,’” Van Horn said. “Then he got under control.”
The cutter is Kopps’ go-to pitch and even though he left it elevated a little bit Friday, it still had good movement that led to several Mississippi State whiffs.
“He was nasty with that thing, working better than I’ve seen it work,” Opitz said. “Not to say it hasn’t been good, it’s always good, but it was tough on hitters tonight and you could really tell.”
Since the three-game stretch in which he gave up six earned runs in 2 1/3 innings and was credited with the loss in each appearance, Kopps has been lights out. In five appearances, he’s thrown 7 2/3 scoreless innings while allowing just four base runners (two hits, one walk, one HBP) and striking out nine.
Van Horn said the key to his recent success has been his command, which has the potential to be even better with his cutter.
“When it’s down and he’s ahead in the count, it’s nasty,” Van Horn said. “Sometimes they don’t even know what it is - they don’t know if it’s a slider, cutter or if it’s just some time of natural movement. When he can start if off about belt high and it ends up mid-shin, that’s when you know it’s rolling pretty good.”
Kopps is still building up his stamina, so when the last two batters he faced his several foul balls to get his pitch count up to 47, the Razorbacks pulled him and let Marshall Denton throw the final inning.
He still threw a season-high three innings, though, and told reporters after the game that he felt fine physically. The hope, Van Horn said, is that this outing will be a stepping stone for the rest of the season.
“Now he’s been there, now maybe the next time he can go a little more if we need him or maybe he can pitch on a Friday and a Sunday, 30 and 30 (pitches) or something,” Van Horn said. “We’re just trying to take care of our guys so we can have everybody at the end of the season.”
Making his second career SEC start, freshman left-hander Patrick Wicklander was sharp the first two innings. He retired six straight Bulldogs, including three via strikeouts.
The third inning wasn’t quite as smooth. Dustin Skelton led off with a single and then Wicklander walked the 9-hole with one out.
That brought soon-to-be SEC career hits leader Jake Mangum to the plate and the senior made him pay with an RBI single. Wicklander walked in another run before getting a fly out to leave the bases loaded.
“I thought Wicklander had really good stuff,” Van Horn said. “He got in a little bit of trouble, his pitch count got up… We started getting a little nervous.”
It didn’t help that he issued a leadoff walk in the fourth, but he retired the next three batters to get through the fourth. At 81 pitches, that was it for Wicklander, who was charged with two earned runs on three hits and three walks while striking out six.
His catcher said he thinks all of the long innings the Razorbacks put together early in the game might have had an effect on his performance.
“He looked really good early on and when we started scoring, we had a lot of down time and you are kind of in a groove and then you sit for awhile,” Opitz said. “But his stuff was working really well today. He was able to locate and he looked really good, really good stuff.”
Martin’s Grand Slam
The biggest blow in those early inning was a one-out grand slam by Casey Martin in the second. After lining out in his first at bat, he jumped all over Peyton Plumlee’s first pitch and sent it over the fence.
“I was actually looking off speed,” Martin said. “It just so happened to be a fastball over the middle of the plate.”
It was the first grand slam of Martin’s career and the third by Arkansas this season, joining Franklin and Kjerstad.
Van Horn said the Razorbacks have been focusing as a team on driving the ball through the middle of the field or the other way and the grand slam was a perfect example of it. Martin hit it to center field, clearing the 400-foot sign.
“That’s all we’re doing in practice,” Van Horn said. “It’s pretty obvious what we need to do and then it’s up to them to do it, buy in, and Casey’s done a great job.”
Arkansas’ pitching staff received a boost with the return of Jacob Kostyshock, who missed the last two weeks with elbow inflammation, but now it is without another key arm.
Redshirt junior right-hander Cody Scroggins (2-0, 4.54 ERA) will be out 10-14 days with elbow soreness, Van Horn announced Friday, meaning he won’t be available against Mississippi State or Tennessee.
“Scroggins isn’t even on the 27-man roster because he’s out for a couple of weeks,” Van Horn said. “We’re resting him, so we're trying to get through this period where we got Kostyshock back and losing Scroggins for a couple of weeks.”
After giving up six earned runs in two innings in his Game 3 start at Vanderbilt last weekend, Scroggins told coaches that he wouldn’t have been able to go back out for the third even if they weren’t already planning to go to the bullpen.
Luckily for the Razorbacks, there is nothing structurally wrong with Scroggins’ elbow and the treatment is just rest.
Kostyshock has yet to pitch this weekend, but there is a good chance he’ll be needed Saturday because Noland has made it through a full five innings just once in 10 starts this season.
Other pitchers who could potentially see the mound in Game 3 include right-handers Zebulon Vermillion (4-0, 3.32 ERA) and Elijah Trest (0-1, 5.40 ERA). Arkansas could also throw Denton again because he bounces back quickly and closer Matt Cronin (8 saves, 2.08 ERA) is a possibility after throwing 28 pitches Thursday.
~The paid attendance for Friday’s game was 9,573 and the “tickets scanned” number was 7,213.
~Arkansas’ leadoff man reached base in each of the first seven innings of the game, with four doing so with walks, two with singles and one via an error. Five of those runners eventually came around to score.
~Before his ejection, Kjerstad extended his hitting streak to 12 games with a leadoff single in the sixth. Matt Goodheart also has a 12-game hitting streak thanks to his fourth-inning RBI triple and his first-inning walk extended his on-base streak to 17 games.
~Needing seven hits to break the all-time SEC record held by LSU’s Eddy Furniss, Mangum went 1 for 5 with two strikeouts. That gives him a 20-game hitting streak, but marks the seventh straight game he’s had exactly one hit. The two strikeouts - which came against Ramage and Denton - are particularly noteworthy because he came into the game as the fourth-toughest player to strike out in Division I baseball, averaging just one every 17.9 at bats.
~Junior left-hander Jack Eagan was the second reliever out of the bullpen for Mississippi State, allowing one hit and three walks while striking out four in 1 1/3 scoreless innings. He is the cousin of former Arkansas player Clark Eagan.