FAYETTEVILLE – Though stranding more passengers than a New York-New Jersey traffic jam, the Arkansas Razorbacks’ hitters unquestionably grabbed top Late Show billing for their Academy Award-type heroics Tuesday night and Wednesday night into Thursday morning at the SEC Tournament in Hoover, Ala.
However, their heroics wouldn’t have been possible without some premier pitching carrying them into Thursday’s late-night winner’s bracket game with LSU that was scheduled to begin long after this column was written.
Michael Bernal’s ninth-inning RBI double scoring Rick Nomura with the 2-1 game-winner over Tennessee in Tuesday night’s play-in game will be remembered long after it’s forgotten that Arkansas stranded 16.
Arkansas stranded 10 in Wednesday’s 9:30 p.m. start against Florida that ended at 1:30 a.m. Trailing 6-4 starting Wednesday’s ninth, the Hogs led off with SEC Player of the Year Andrew Benintendi, 0 for 5 with strikeouts and stranding eight runners Tuesday against Tennessee, blasting a home run for his first hit of the tournament off an 0 for 7 start.
Nomura drew a one-out walk. Bobby Wernes, fouling off pitch after two-strike pitch, deposited the 11th-pitch for a two-run home run and a 7-6 victory.
You can’t beat those hitters for Academy Award-winning dramatics, but at least nominate pitchers Trey Killian, Zach Jackson, Dominic Taccolini, Lance Phillips and Jackson Lowery for best performances in a supporting role.
Relieving Killian after Tennessee tied it 1-1 in Tuesday’s eighth, Jackson pitched a scoreless remaining 11/3 innings to be the winning pitcher of record for Bernal’s run-scoring double in the bottom of the ninth.
Wednesday night, or rather Thursday morning, Jackson — with some dramatics of his own, uncorking a wild pitch after a single for the Gators to have the tying run just 90-feet away at third — struck out the final Gator. It was the sixth save for Arkansas’ 5-0 SEC first-team reliever.
Jackson was not the Lone Ranger effective reliever against the Gators. With freshman starter Keaton McKinney, Arkansas hottest pitcher late-season but bothered by a previously undisclosed hip injury and only lasting into the second inning down 3-0, and middle reliever Josh Alberius, three runs in two-thirds of an inning, ineffective for the first time this season, the Razorbacks need plenty of bullpen to stay in the game. They got it. Taccolini pitched three scoreless innings replacing McKinney.
Phillips, replacing Alberius floundering in the fifth, finished that frame’s final out and pitched two more scoreless complete with Lowery throwing a shutout eighth to be the game-winner on the Benintendi and Wernes home runs.
Nobody pitched better for longer than Killian, the hard-luck junior Norfork native and Mountain Home graduate with yet another outstanding effort belying his 2-4 record.
During Arkansas’ SEC opening series against Vanderbilt, Killian threw seven perfect innings but got no decision with Vandy eventually beating the bullpen, 1-0.
Against Tennessee through 72/3 innings, Killian threw a four-hitter, struck out five and walked one. A replay showed that under college rules, the Tennessee runner sliding at shortstop Bernal instead of the base should have been called out which would have completed a double play and ended the eighth inning. Instead, Tennessee catcher Benito Santiago got to bat and tied the game 1-1 with a RBI double.
Off a struggling start in his last outing May 14 against Georgia, Killian gladly took the SEC Tournament no-decision with Arkansas winning and his return to vintage form that in last year’s SEC Tournament at Hoover included a 4-0 victory over Texas A&M.
“I was just happy that it was almost like the old Trey Killian was back like the pitcher you saw last year,” Killian was quoted during Tuesday’s postgame, crediting pitching coach Dave Jorn. “Coach Jorn got me in the bullpen this week and kind of challenged me. I didn’t feel like I had that fire I had last year and earlier this year. Tonight, I was just trying to bring that out.”
Coach Dave Van Horn acknowledged wishing he could have left Killian through Tuesday’s finish, but said Killian has bigger fish to fry in next week’s to be assigned NCAA Regionals.
“I could have left him out there,” Van Horn was quoted postgame. “But I told him, ‘You have done all you can do. Let Zach come in and get us through this inning and get you ready for the Regional.”