Franklin's catch sparks Hogs' bats in win over NJIT
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FAYETTEVILLE — It took a few innings, but Arkansas finally woke up and asserted its dominance despite a shaky performance on the mound Friday afternoon.
The Razorbacks hit five home runs to quickly dig out of an early deficit and hung on for a 13-8 win over NJIT in the opening game of the Fayetteville Regional.
Coming in as the No. 1 overall seed and the heavy favorite to win the NCAA Tournament, Arkansas found itself in a 3-0 hole heading into the bottom of the third inning, but rallied for its 13th win after trailing by at least three runs.
“It’s no big deal,” Cayden Wallace said. “Our offense can spark at any time by anybody. … The pitching has been great for us the past while and the offense just had to come up today. The roles could switch tomorrow.”
Braydon Webb got Arkansas on the board in the third inning with a two-run home run that just stayed fair down the left field line. That pulled the Razorbacks within 3-2, but the game didn’t turn until the fourth.
Facing his first batter of the day, Kevin Kopps made what Van Horn described as his worst pitch in a long time when he hung one in an 0-2 count. Although Paul Franzoni hammered it, Christian Franklin robbed him of extra bases and two RBIs by making an incredible diving catch that ended the threat.
“As soon as it happened, sometimes as a coach you're like, 'Dang,’” NJIT head coach Robbie McClellan said. “It was just such a huge momentum play. If we get two runs there and keep the momentum, who knows what happens in the game, but they make a great catch and save two runs.”
As soon as the ball left Franzoni’s bat, head coach Dave Van Horn thought his star center fielder would track it down. However, as the ball kept carrying, he started to think it’d fall.
“He made an incredible play,” Van Horn said. “I mean, he was stretched out as far as he could go. I'll have to watch that again, but he was really extended.”
If that wasn’t enough to swing momentum in Arkansas’ favor, Franklin left no doubt in the bottom of the inning.
Immediately after making that catch, he grabbed his bat and hit Tyler Stafflinger’s 3-2 pitch into the left field bullpen. The leadoff home run tied the game at 3-3.
“He actually fouled off a pitch or two and the pitch he hit out of the park…might have been a changeup down and in,” Van Horn said. “He just went down and got it and kept it fair. It was good swing on a pitch that was pretty well located.”
That seemed to spark the Razorbacks’ offense. After a bases-loaded walk by Webb gave them the lead and Matt Goodheart tacked on a run with a sacrifice fly, Wallace launched a three-run home run to center and Cullen Smith followed with a solo home run into the left field bullpen.
That capped a seven-run fourth inning, but Arkansas wasn’t done supplying souvenirs to the Hog Pen. In the very next inning, Jalen Battles crushed a two-out home run deep into the crown beyond the left field fence.
It was the Razorbacks’ 98th long ball of the season, which ties the single-season UA record set in 2018. Franklin and Wallace each have 13, creating a four-way tie with Robert Moore and Brady Slavens for the team lead. For Smith, it was his fourth home run in the last five games.
“I know if you make mistakes, the ball get little in a hurry,” McClellan said. “They're so talented. It's tough to navigate through their lineup and they just hammer mistakes. We tip our cap to them.”
Arkansas added three more runs later in the game, highlighted by a two-out, two-run single by Jacob Nesbit in the seventh, but the fourth-inning catch by Franklin was identified as the key play of the game by both teams.
“I feel like it definitely changed the game,” Wallace said. “Our offense had been pretty good so far, we just had some bad luck. I just feel that kind of sent a spark and it turned out our offense had a really good day.”
McClellan added, “I think that play was the defining play of the game and kind of switched the momentum in their favor. We weren't really able to get the momentum back even though we fought very hard.”
Early Call to Closers
The fact that Kopps was on the mound when Franklin made that catch was a bit unusual considering it was just the fourth inning.
With the Highlanders threatening to add to their one-run lead, Van Horn decided to bring in the SEC Pitcher of the Year with two outs. It was the earliest Kopps has come out of the bullpen since the Southeastern Missouri game on Feb. 28, when he also entered with two outs in the fourth.
“We needed to slow them down,” Van Horn said. “We needed to stop them then. They didn’t need to score any more runs. At the time, we just felt like it’s time to go.”
Following Franklin’s spectacular catch, Kopps settled in and ended up retiring all seven batters he faced. That includes a perfect fifth and sixth inning, with the latter coming against the top three batters in NJIT’s lineup.
“He's just really nasty,” McClellan said. “He commands the baseball so well and that cutter-slider thing that he throws is pretty unhittable. He went through the SEC and pretty much dominated it, National Player of the Year, so he was just really kind of as advertised.”
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