Clay Henry is the publisher and executive editor of Hawgs Illustrated. He is a voter for the Heisman Trophy and has been inducted into the Arkansas Sportswriters and Sportscasters Hall of Fame.
State of the Hogs: UK sent home feeling like Bucknell
Arkansas' Luke Bonfield (17) hits a home run during a game against Kentucky on Saturday, March 17, 2018, in Fayetteville.
FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas led the SEC in home runs last year with 83. With Chad Spanberger's 20 homers gone, some thought another team might take over the power crown this season.
Maybe not after Arkansas treated Kentucky pitching like it was Bucknell in a three-game sweep. The Hogs clubbed the Wildcats in a pair of runaways Saturday, 14-2 and 16-9.
There were some winks about beating up on the hapless when the Hogs scored 49 runs – 32 in one game – to open the season in a three-game sweep of Bucknell.
It wasn't much different against the No. 4 Wildcats. With the wind blowing out for all three games, the Hogs pounded 13 homers. They hit three on Friday in a 9-4 victory. They hit five in each of the two games Saturday.
The Wildcats, who play in a tiny home park, had given up only 11 homers in their first 17 games. The Hogs beat that by two.
After piling up 19 hits in both ends of the doubleheader Saturday, the Hogs bombed UK pitching at a .418 clip for the weekend. They totaled 12 runs in the first inning of the three games, including seven in the opening inning of the finale.
It was such a pounding that Arkansas players could only laugh when UK centerfielder Ben Aklinski flipped his bat on a two-run homer in the fifth inning of the series finale, then stomped on home plate in front of UA catcher Grant Koch. Koch turned to the UK dugout as Aklinski danced away as if to say, "Really?”
Koch wasn't among the three UA sluggers – and that's what they were on the weekend – invited to the media interviews afterward. Carson Shaddy, who hit two homers in the finale, handled the honors when Aklinski's antics came up.
“They can do what they want,” Shaddy said. “We beat them pretty bad. What they do is not our problem.”
Shortstop Jax Biggers had his first and second homers of the season while going 7 for 9 in the doubleheader.
“I guess we can stomp on home plate, too,” Biggers said.
That's not what the Hogs do. They hustle to the lip of the dugout steps where Hunter “Cowboy” Wilson awaits with a hog hat, now adorned with a sticker for every blast over the wall. Wilson also punctuates that ceremony with a hard slap to the butt, each one with what seems like a little more force.
“He really likes doing that,” said senior Luke Bonfield, who also had two homers on the day. “I think he likes touching our butts.”
Kentucky entered the series with a 30-26 lead over the Hogs in home runs. The Hogs have the lead now, 39-33.
“We smelled blood,” Shaddy said. “We didn't step off (piling up runs).”
Part of it was the UK offense. The Hogs knew the Wildcats own a potent offense, ranked first in the SEC in several categories - including runs scored and batting average - entering the weekend.
“Our players knew we needed to score runs and that no lead was safe,” Arkansas coach Van Horn said. “I will say that there was a light wind blowing out for all three games. That never happens here. It's usually blowing in.
“We did a good job of staying behind the ball. If they pitched us away, we went the other way.”
Biggers pulled both his homers, but there were opposite-field blasts from Heston Kjerstad, Casey Martin and Shaddy (twice).
“That's been my approach since high school, to go the other way if it's outside,” Shaddy said. “I want to take that outside corner away by going opposite.”
The Hogs got good pitching, too. Isaiah Campbell gave the Hogs a superb start in the opener Saturday. He went eight innings, allowing just three hits and one run. His stuff was electric, reminding Van Horn of the Campbell that pitched in San Diego, not the one who was just average in his last start against Kent State.
Van Horn had challenged Campbell earlier in the week, threatening to put him in the bullpen. That's doubtful now.
Asked to provide an opening comment about the doubleheader sweep in the postgame interviews, a tired Van Horn seemed perplexed with where to start when a reporter mentioned Campbell.
“Yeah, it all started with Isaiah,” Van Horn said. “We challenged him all week. He didn't know if he was going to start or not. He took it.
“He gave us a chance to save our bullpen for the day. He got us off to a great start. He slowed (UK) down.
“Last week when he pitched, he was nibbling. He got behind and he'd throw his fast ball 88 (mph). He throws 92. He had one of those at 88 that went to the wall for two runs.”
Van Horn said pitching coach Wes Johnson was upset. The word all week was to bring his heat. He did, sometimes hitting 95 on the gun.
“Isaiah was dominant,” Bonfield said. “It's the Isaiah we know. He set the pace and gave us a bunch of innings and our offense was relentless.”
The Hogs got more innings in the nightcap when Kacey Murphy shook off a stomach bug to take over with two outs in the second with four UK runs in. Murphy threw 99 pitches and allowed only Aklinski's homer for two runs.
“Murphy was throwing up and was just grinding it out,” Bonfield said. “Don't be fooled, that's a good lineup he held down.”
Biggers added, “It sure is. They had a lot of line-drive outs.”
Van Horn had ruled out Murphy after seeing him sick before the game.
“But he came to me and said he could go,” Van Horn said. “We tried to get him out of the game one inning earlier, but he wanted to keep going. And, he was mad when we took him out after the seventh.”
The Hogs went 11-2 in the home stand after their California trip. Now they hit the road for two at Charlotte, three at Florida, one at Memphis and three at Ole Miss.
Van Horn didn't commit to a starter for the first game at Charlotte, but said junior lefty Weston Rogers from Springdale would make the trip.
“He's been hurt, but he had a good bullpen yesterday,” Van Horn said. “He'll pitch in one of those games (in Charlotte). We've got some other guys who didn't pitch this weekend who are ready. We'll give Kacey off until the weekend.”
There is some concern about Blaine Knight's shin. He was hit by a line drive just above the ankle on Friday night.
“It's black and blue,” Van Horn said.
UK limped out of town with worse. They were feeling like Bucknell as they loaded their bus.
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