Arkansas baseball report:

Murphy wins southpaw pitching duel

By: Tom Murphy
Published: Friday, February 23, 2018
Arkansas pitcher Kacey Murphy reacts after recording an out during an SEC Tournament game against Florida on Saturday, May, 27, 2017, in Hoover, Ala.
Photo by Ben Goff
Arkansas pitcher Kacey Murphy reacts after recording an out during an SEC Tournament game against Florida on Saturday, May, 27, 2017, in Hoover, Ala.

— Kacey Murphy won a classic pitching duel between southpaws in No. 6 Arkansas' 1-0 victory over Arizona late Wednesday at Tony Gwynn Stadium on the campus of San Diego State.

Murphy (1-0), a junior from Rogers, threw 73 pitches, mixing a fastball, curve and change-up, and allowed only one hit to out-duel Arizona sophomore Randy Labaut (0-1), who gave up three hits and one run while throwing 100 pitches over seven innings.

"I thought he was excellent," Arkansas Coach Dave Van Horn said. "His first outing of the year I didn't expect to see that to be honest with you. I thought he would give us three or four innings.

"Man, he was mid-season form, spotting his fastball in and out and flipping a few curveballs here and there and a couple of change ups just to show it to them. Really it was all about spotting up his fastball."

Arizona did not announce it would start Labaut, who pitched twice on the opening weekend, until game day, but Van Horn and his staff felt they would face a tough lefty after struggling against ace southpaw JC Cloney in a 3-0 loss to the Wildcats last year.

"They saved him for us, kind of like we did with Murphy, saved him for them," Van Horn said. "For it to be a 1-0 game, that's very unusual for a mid-week. But you really didn't have two mid-week pitchers going. You had two weekend guys going."

Blaine Knight, who will start Friday's game against Cal Poly in the opener of the Tony Gwynn Legacy tournament, was impressed by Murphy's six-strikeout, one-walk performance.

"I thought Kacey was really, really good," Knight said. "That's what I've seen from Kacey year-in and year-out. He was able to keep them off the board, held them to one hit and allowed us to score a run and get the win."

Arkansas freshman Heston Kjerstad provided the game-winning blow, a solo home run in the fifth inning that got Murphy a win in his season debut.

"He was competing like no other, and mowing down their lineup, guy after guy, just sitting them down," Kjerstad said. "That was impressive to be a part of and to play good defense for a guy like that."

Kjerstad crush

Heston Kjerstad launched the game-deciding shot against Arizona, a 400-foot drive to left-center field in the fifth inning that cut through the heavy night air for a solo home run off Randy Labaut.

"That ball was absolutely crushed," Arkansas Coach Dave Van Horn said. "During batting practice that ball would have gone over the big board in right center. It would have been an upper deck shot. We all knew it was gone and it got out there and fell straight down. It's like hitting into a wind storm."

Kjerstad hit his first collegiate home run on a first-pitch fastball that got too much of the plate.

"Most of the balls, they weren't flying as good," Kjerstad said. "I guess I just got enough backspin and enough behind the one I hit to get it out of the park."

Marine layer

The after-dark effect that keeps baseballs from flying at their normal distances near the Pacific Ocean has a name.

"That's the first time I've ever heard of the 'marine layer.' Somebody had to explain that to me," Arkansas right-hander Blaine Knight said.

"I guess here in California they call it a marine layer, kind of like a mist that gets in the air after the sun sets," said Arkansas outfielder Heston Kjerstad, whose fifth inning home run penetrated the layer just well enough to leave the park. "It makes the grass a little dewy, a little wet and it kept holding a lot of fly balls up and they weren't traveling as well."

A perfect example of the marine layer's impact came on Jared Gates' hard-hit ninth inning shot, which would have been a grand slam with about five more feet of distance to right field.

"Oh my, he crushed it," Coach Dave Van Horn said. "It would have been three quarters of the way up the light pole at Baum Stadium. Even with the wind blowing in it probably would have gotten out. It looked like it just hit a curtain out there and it just dropped.

"It's the strangest thing. That's why there's the phrase 'West Coast' baseball. It's about being able to bunt and manufacture runs, because when they play night games out here the ball just doesn't travel the way it does during the day."

Kjerstand was at second base on Gates' loud fly ball to the fence.

"I thought it was going to get out of the park and we were going to give our pitchers some extra run support," Kjerstad said. "It got hung up and the kid caught it standing at the wall. I thought it was gone."

Knight, who pitches Friday's opener in the Tony Gwynn Legacy tournament at 3 p.m., won't get the benefit of the marine layer.

"I don't expect that to happen when I throw," Knight said. "Is it possible? I guess it could be. This whole West Coast thing is new to me. I think it's something about when the sun gets completely down, the marine layer comes out."

Cronin's eyes

The Arkansas coaching staff left Matt Cronin in to face the heart of Arizona's order in the ninth inning, and the left-hander struck out pinch-hitter Ryan Haug and catcher Cesar Salzar on seven pitches after retiring three-hole hitter Alfonso Rivas on a fly out to right field to open the inning.

Haug batted for clean-up hitter Nick Quintana, who was taken out for a pinch-runner in the seventh inning by Coach Jay Johnson.

"He threw extremely well," Coach Dave Van Horn said. "His fastball was electric. I don't know how it looked on TV, but it was jumping out of his hand.

"We had to face a couple of lefties in the ninth, and that's why we left Cronin in there. He showed no signs of slowing down and he kind of had that look in his eye."

Cronin and right-hander Jake Reindl have posted saves in Arkansas' last two games.

Hot B.P.

The Razorbacks had a great batting practice at Tony Gwynn Stadium on Wednesday prior to their 1-0 victory over Arizona.

"When we were taking B.P. before the game, [Dominic] Fletcher was hitting balls over the huge wall," Arkansas right-hander Blaine Knight said. "[Carson] Shaddy put one out to dead center, and it's 410 feet to dead center. Heston [Kjerstad] was hitting them out.

"It wasn't like we were struggling to hit them out. Once the sun really got down and the wind died down the ball quit carrying."

Lefty bats

Dave Van Horn elected to use six left-handed hitters against Arizona lefty Randy Labaut when he could have added another right-handed bat or two.

"Honestly, we looked at the matchup and everything we figured out on him was left-handers hit him better than right-handers," Van Horn said. "It has to do with his change-up. His change-up is really hard on the right-handed hitters.

"They just don't see it. They see it as a fastball and they swing over it and that's exactly what we did. The lefties, if he made a mistake here or there, the lefties are the ones who got him."

Left-handed hitting Heston Kjerstad broke up Labaut's no-hitter with his fifth inning home run. Lefty swinging Jared Gates had a fifth inning single and right-handed Luke Bonfield added a single in the seventh as the only other hits off Labaut.


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