Andrew Hutchinson has been a multimedia reporter for the Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette since 2014.
Hogs win regional opener
Arkansas outfielders Joe Serrano, left, Tyler Spoon, right, and Andrew Benintendi celebrate Arkansas' win over Liberty in an NCAA college baseball tournament regional game in Charlottesville, Va., Friday, May 30, 2014. Arkansas won 3-2. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)
CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. Last season Arkansas managed only three hits against Bryant in its opening game of the Manhattan Regional and Brian Anderson did not want a repeat performance this year.
Anderson had a pair of RBI hits, including a leadoff home run in the second inning, and the Razorbacks beat Liberty 3-2 to advance to the winner’s bracket of the Charlottesville Regional.
The home run came tied the game after the Flames took 1-0 lead as Arkansas starter Chris Oliver (9-4) struggled with his command.
“It was kind of a momentum shifter for us,” Anderson said. “(By) no means was I trying to hit a home run there, but I just got an elevated fastball, something I could handle, and just put a good swing on it.”
Oliver, who got the nod over usual Friday night starter Trey Killian, gave up a single to start the second inning and followed it with a hit by pitch and walk to load the bases.
After striking out Liberty’s nine-hole batter, the left-hander beamed another Flames batter to force in a run. He responded by striking out Will Shepherd and Ryan Seiz, the Louisville Slugger second-team All-American that came into the game with a .362 batting average.
“Chris didn’t have command of his fastball, but somehow he managed to get out of that second inning with one run,” coach Dave Van Horn said. “That saved us.”
In only five innings of work, Oliver gave up two runs on four hits. He also walked six batters and struck out four.
Trey Lambert (11-3), Liberty’s senior ace, responded to Anderson’s home run by retiring the next six batters he faced, including striking out the side in the second inning.
“I think he showed why he’s won 11 ballgames this year,” Van Horn said.
The Razorbacks finally got to Lambert in the fourth inning, with their first three batters reaching base with singles.
Joe Serrano started the inning with an infield hit and then Benintendi executed a perfect hit-and-run, hitting the ball right where the shortstop left to cover second. The play put runners on the corners.
Anderson’s single to left broke the 1-1 tie and after an intentional walk to Tyler Spoon loaded the bases, Bobby Wernes grounded out to short to score another run and extend Arkansas’ lead to 3-1.
Anderson finished the game 2-for-3 with two RBI and a walk at the plate. Andrew Benintendi also had two hits in his first postseason appearance.
In Oliver’s last inning on the mound, Liberty used a leadoff walk and a double to put a pair of runners in scoring position. The junior limited the damage to one run, however, getting Dalton Britt to hit a sacrifice fly before forcing another two fly outs to end the inning.
The Flames left 11 runners on base, including seven through the first three innings.
“I thought our defense did a tremendous job,” Van Horn said. “They hit a couple balls real hard right at us. You have to be lucky every now and then.”
With the Razorbacks leading 3-2 after five innings, Michael Gunn relieved Oliver and tossed three scoreless innings.
Ashton Perritt hit a one-out infield single in the sixth off of Gunn, but the Razorbacks’ former closer settled in and retired the next eight batters in order. He struck out the side in the eighth, his last inning of work.
“I thought Gunn threw extremely well,” Van Horn said. “They have some good hitters and they took some good swings. For him to come in and get through that lineup one time…that’s what we were hoping.”
Arkansas had several chances to add insurance runs, putting at least one runner in scoring position each of the last three innings, but failed to plate any.
The Razorbacks were 0-for-4 with runners in scoring position in the sixth-eighth innings, including a pair of strikeouts by Fisher and Wernes.
Michael Bernal led off the seventh with a single and moved to second on Clark Eagan’s sacrifice bunt, which ultimately chased Lambert from the game, but he was picked off when he was indecisive on a passed ball and couldn’t get back to second before the catcher’s throw.
“The way (Lambert) pitched with runners in scoring position was outstanding,” Van Horn said. “He kept us from adding to that lead. Whenever you leave a lot of runners out there like that, a lot of times it comes back to bite you in the eighth or ninth.”
Instead of leaving Gunn in the game for a four-inning save, Van Horn opted for left-hander Jacob Stone, who earned two saves against Ole Miss in the SEC Tournament.
The junior hit the leadoff man, Perritt, with a pitch and the next batter hit a sacrifice bunt to advance him to second and bring up Seiz. Stone got the All-American to ground out to short, but Perritt advanced to third on the play.
Seiz went 0-for-4 with a walk and a strikeout, lowering his batting average to .355.
Alex Close, who came into the game with Liberty’s second-highest batting average (.324), grounded out to first to end the game and strand the tying run 90 feet away. It was Stone’s fourth save of the season.
The Razorbacks play Virginia, the host school and No. 3 national seed, Saturday night. First pitch is scheduled for 7 p.m. Central.