Matt Jones is the online sports director for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. A double graduate of the University of Arkansas, he is a member of the Football Writers Association of America and National Collegiate Baseball Writers Association, and voter for the Heisman Trophy.
Razorbacks claim SEC title despite loss to Vandy
Arkansas first baseman Brady Slavens runs toward home plate during a game against Vanderbilt on Saturday, May 20, 2023, in Nashville, Tenn.
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — The Arkansas baseball team clinched a championship Saturday at Hawkins Field, but the celebration was subdued.
That’s because the second-ranked Razorbacks lost 7-6 to sixth-ranked Vanderbilt in their regular-season finale. The Commodores won the final two games of the series, including 10-8 on Friday when Arkansas blew a six-run lead in the eighth inning.
The Razorbacks (39-15, 20-10 SEC) missed an opportunity to win the SEC outright both days. The Razorbacks split the SEC championship with Florida after both teams finished the conference season with 20 wins.
It is the second SEC title in three seasons for Arkansas. The Razorbacks won their sixth regular-season conference championship, and their fourth as a member of the SEC.
“I think we don’t really realize what we’ve done right now with this loss being so present on our mind,” Arkansas outfielder Jace Bohrofen said. “We’ll definitely take time to enjoy it, for sure.”
LSU’s 9-5 loss to Georgia while the Arkansas-Vanderbilt game was being played assured the Razorbacks would earn at least a share of the SEC overall title, plus the SEC West division title outright.
Florida won 5-2 at Kentucky on Saturday. The Gators entered the day one game behind Arkansas and one-half game behind LSU in the SEC standings.
“I’m just really excited to be SEC champs,” Arkansas coach Dave Van Horn said. “It’s so hard to do.
“It’s kind of mixed emotions right now. I'm frustrated we lost the game. We felt like we could have won it.”
Because of tiebreakers, the Gators will be the No. 1 seed at the SEC Tournament that begins Tuesday in Hoover, Ala.
Arkansas will be the No. 2 seed at the tournament and will play its first game Wednesday at approximately 1 p.m. The opponent will be determined by the outcome of a single-elimination game Tuesday between seventh-seeded Tennessee and 10th-seeded Texas A&M.
The Razorbacks swept the Volunteers and Aggies in Fayetteville in April.
Arkansas’ team was preparing to make the approximately 190-mile bus ride south to Hoover as it left Vanderbilt’s home stadium around 6 p.m.
Fighting to be a top-eight national seed in the upcoming NCAA Tournament, Vanderbilt (37-17, 19-11) scored three runs in the sixth inning to take a 7-6 lead. Arkansas relief pitchers Parker Coil and Gage Wood each balked with a runner at third base, and Enrique Bradfield hit a one-out infield single to score Jonathan Vastine.
Bradfield stole second and third base after Wood replaced Coil, then scored the go-ahead run when Wood balked on a pick-off throw to first base.
The Razorbacks had balked seven times in 464 2/3 innings prior to Saturday’s sixth.
“He is that type of player and has been that type of player ever since he stepped on campus,” Vanderbilt coach Tim Corbin said of Bradfield, a junior whose 129 stolen bases rank third all-time in the SEC.
All three runs in the sixth were charged to Coil, who allowed three hits and faced four batters. Coil did not factor into the decision, but allowed the go-ahead home run to Troy LaNeve during the eighth inning Friday.
The Razorbacks had multiple chances to even the score in the finale after putting lead-off runners aboard in the seventh and eighth innings. Peyton Holt struck out to strand runners at first and second base in the seventh inning, and Jared Wegner grounded out to strand two runners in the eighth.
Caleb Cali singled with one out in the ninth before Brady Slavens hit into a game-ending double play against Vanderbilt right-hander Nick Maldonado, who earned his second save in as many games and eighth overall.
Arkansas led on two occasions. Two runs scored in the second inning after the shortstop Vastine threw away a potential inning-ending double-play ball — the sixth error of the series for the Commodores, who committed 12 in their first 27 SEC games.
Vanderbilt took a 3-2 lead in the bottom of the second when LaNeve hit a three-run home run against Arkansas starter Hunter Hollan. LaNeve, the designated hitter, had not homered prior Friday.
Hollan was hit hard six days after throwing a complete game against South Carolina. The left-hander allowed 4 runs on 8 hits and struck out 4. His 2 2/3 innings and 55 pitches thrown were both season lows.
“His stuff wasn’t bad,” Van Horn said. “We weren’t planning on pitching him very long today, if possible….We might not even have pitched him today if we would have won yesterday.”
Arkansas regained the lead, 6-4, with a four-run fifth inning. Kendall Diggs, Slavens and Holt all had RBI hits, and Cali was credited with an RBI on a groundout that scored Diggs.
The fifth-inning rally began moments after news of LSU’s loss began to spread throughout the announced 3,802 in attendance.
It looked as if Arkansas had momentum as right-hander Will McEntire cruised through the middle innings. He inherited base runners on the corners in the third, then was efficient as he pitched scoreless fourth and fifth innings.
McEntire allowed 1 hit and 1 walk, struck out 2 and threw 19 of 32 pitches for strikes in his second outing of the series.
“Once we got to the fourth inning today, we found out that Georgia won and we had won the West and the SEC championship,” Van Horn said. “I think that was about the time McEntire was rolling along pretty good. We scored a few runs, took the lead by two and we thought we were going to be safe and get him out.
“I think if we would have left him in, he probably could have gone another couple innings, but we just didn’t want to chance it. We thought, ‘Well, let’s get through this [sixth] inning with these young guys that want to do it, saying they want the ball. It didn’t go very good, obviously.”
Later, Van Horn added, “I think if we would have known that LSU would have beat Georgia, we definitely would have pitched differently going into that sixth inning.”
This year’s championship team joins past SEC champions from Arkansas in 1999, 2004 and 2021. The Razorbacks also won Southwest Conference championships in 1989 and 1990.
Van Horn has led the team to the last three conference titles. The program’s two SWC championships and first SEC title were won under former coach Norm DeBriyn.
Arkansas clinched its eighth SEC West title, four of which have come since 2018. Van Horn, who has coached the Razorbacks since 2003, has won seven division championships.
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