State of the Hogs: Season trends determine winner in Game 1

By: Clay Henry
Published: Sunday, June 10, 2018
Arkansas pitcher Blaine Knight throws during an NCAA Tournament game against South Carolina on Saturday, June 9, 2018, in Fayetteville.
Photo by Ben Goff
Arkansas pitcher Blaine Knight throws during an NCAA Tournament game against South Carolina on Saturday, June 9, 2018, in Fayetteville.

— The final score was Arkansas 9, South Carolina 3.

It doesn't take much of a look into the box score – for the game and for the season – to see where the Razorbacks beat South Carolina on Saturday night.

It's the clear reason the Hogs are 43-18 and one victory away from advancing to the College World Series for the ninth time. The Gamecocks finished strong with a 17-13 SEC record (one game back of the Hogs), but the walk differential is the main reason they stand 36-25 overall.

It's because of free passes, by walks and hit batters. Arkansas reached base 10 times via those two avenues, while giving up just two walks. Yes, the Hogs also led in hits, 10-6, but it was control issues by the Gamecocks' two top pitchers, starter Adam Hill and top bullpen man Eddy Demurias, that allowed Arkansas to pull away.

It was just like it has been all season for the two teams. The Hogs have won those categories all season. They lead the SEC in fewest walks allowed and are a plus-98 in walks allowed and taken. The Gamecocks are minus-1.

South Carolina has given up 258 walks, fourth-most in the SEC. The Hogs have allowed just 190.

It was an intentional walk in the seventh by Demurias against lefty Dominic Fletcher that proved to be the killer Saturday night. It loaded the bases for Carson Shaddy, the best Arkansas hitter over the last three months.

Shaddy hit .395 in league play with a .716 slugging percentage. Those were the top figures on the league's best hitting team.

Shaddy, the All-SEC second baseman, cleared the bases with a drive off the wall in left-center field. It provided a 7-3 lead and there was never a doubt the rest of the way.

It allowed Arkansas to sit down its closer, Matt Cronin, who was warming up at the time, and ensured Blaine Knight of another win, his 12th against zero defeats.

Demurias entered with a 7-0 record as Carolina's best middle reliever and was handed his first loss.

Shaddy's key at-bat was a buildup from the entire game as he figured out the strike zone for home plate umpire Mark Wagers. It was consistently tight, but fair. Shaddy took a two-strike slider that was just low.

“It was maybe two balls low, a great take,” Arkansas coach Dave Van Horn said.

Shaddy also held back on another pitch that was just outside. Shaddy knew that the slider was the out pitch for the USC hurler. He was waiting on a fastball.

“It was a fastball, down and in,” Shaddy said.

Everyone agreed that walking Fletcher was the percentage play. South Carolina coach Mark Kingston defended it as a “no-brainer” of a decision.

“Shaddy's ground ball ratio is 60 percent,” Kingston said. “We needed a double play.”

Van Horn said, “I'd have done it, too.”

I can't say I'd agree. I know coaches defend coaches.

Fletcher is hot. I guess you can pick your poison there, but Shaddy has wrecked plans all season. He's one of the three or four best players in the SEC right now and that goes for defense, too.

Once a shaky defender, Shaddy has been much better at second for most of this season. He made three terrific plays against the Gamecocks, including a sliding stop to his left in the first against Carlos Cortes, perhaps their best player. Shaddy threw him out laying on his side several feet onto the grass.

“There was another one, a liner that might look easy to everyone else,” Van Horn said. “He caught it and it probably didn't look like much. But it was knuckling. It's hard when it's moving around and going that fast.”

Shaddy was asked if he felt pressure when he saw Fletcher was being walked intentionally.

“I didn't feel pressure, but I heard someone behind me say they didn't respect me,” he said. “That was ringing in my ears when I went to the plate.”

It was the takes that made the difference all night. The Hogs didn't go for the tough pitches just off the plate and down from Hill and Demurias. Working Hill's pitch count to 88 in just four innings was the difference in the game. Demurias was effective for an inning, but when the Hogs saw him for the second time it was a different story.

“We'd seen him in the series here and again in the SEC Tournament,” said Jax Biggers, who delivered the go-ahead single in the sixth. “The more you see a pitcher, then it becomes an advantage.”

Another big key was the way Barrett Loseske pitched for a three-inning save. The Gamecocks didn't get a hit and had only two base runners, on a walk and a dropped fly ball by Heston Kjerstad.

That means the Hogs still have two of their best relievers, Jake Reindl and Cronin, rested in the bullpen. Both threw briefly Saturday night, but never were full hot.

“How big that is will play out over the rest of the regional,” Van Horn said. “We would have used Reindl in certain situations and we for sure were going to use Cronin until Shaddy's double.”

Interestingly, Van Horn had a little criticism for Shaddy's emotional outburst as he was rounding first on his double.

“I was excited, too,” Van Horn said. “But the game is not over. I would want him to save his emotion. I really wouldn't have liked (the emotion) in the second inning. I told him to calm down.”

Shaddy had a similar exchange with his coach in the regional last weekend after a two-run triple during the team's seven-run second inning against Southern Miss.

“I can't help it,” Shaddy. “I will tell you that I was so excited that I didn't even realize that Fletcher scored (with the third run of the play).”

The Hogs will give the ball to lefty Kacey Murphy (8-4, 2.86 ERA) on Sunday. He's a strike-thrower deluxe. He walked only 16 in 88 innings. Cody Morris (8-3, 3.68) is the likely starter for the Gamecocks. He has walked 30 in 78 1/3 innings.

The Gamecocks promised a good fight. LT Tolbert, who homered off of Knight, and Hill said the Gamecocks have battled back from adversity all season. Kingston said he was “100 percent” sure they would again.

“We know we haven't done anything yet,” Shaddy said.

The Hogs are one game away from Omaha, but it won't be the cake walk that it was Saturday night.

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