FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas coach Dave Van Horn said he was as relaxed as he’d ever been entering this weekend’s super regional against Missouri State.
He had reason to be, given how the Razorbacks had improbably recovered from a 14-14 start to the season and were two wins away from the College World Series.
Boxscore: Arkansas 3, Missouri State 2
Led by a three-run first inning and a dominating relief appearance from closer Zach Jackson, Arkansas capped its remarkable turnaround with a 3-2 victory over Missouri State on Sunday — sending the Razorbacks to their fourth CWS appearance in the last 13 seasons.
It’s the eighth College World Series in school history for Arkansas (40-23), its first since 2012, and it improves the Razorbacks to 26-9 this season since falling to 14-14 following a loss to the Bears (49-12) on March 31.
“I’m very proud of this team for hanging in there all year,” Van Horn said. “… We were 14-14 in early April, and we’ve got 40 wins. These guys know, and I know, it’s really hard to get to Omaha. It’s not easy, and these guys persevered and did it.”
Arkansas won the first game of the series 18-4 before falling 3-1 in the second Saturday.
It quickly took the lead on Sunday, scoring three times in the top of the first inning. That offense proved enough for starting pitcher James Teague (7-4) and a pair of relievers, with Jackson throwing a scoreless 3 2-3 innings of relief to earn his ninth save of the year.
“It’s been an incredible team effort these last two months or so, and it’s been a lot of fun,” Jackson said. “Now we’re going to Omaha.”
Arkansas hosted the series against the nationally seeded Bears despite entering as a No. 2 seed, because Missouri State’s Hammons Field was already taken by the Double-A Springfield Cardinals this weekend.
The Bears were attempting to reach their second College World Series in school history, but they were unable to capitalize on their eight hits on Sunday — leaving 10 runners on base.
Much of their late-game frustration was a result of the pitching of Jackson, who struck out six of the 12 batters he faced while allowing only one hit.
“He’s a big-leaguer,” Missouri State coach Keith Guttin said about Jackson. “He’s got a breaking ball that very few people on Earth can hit.”
Arkansas drew more than 35,000 fans for the three-game series, with Sunday’s crowd of 11,694 erupting in cheers following Jackson’s strikeout of Tate Matheny with a slider to end the game.
The win secures Van Horn’s fourth College World Series appearance in his 13th season as the head coach at his alma mater. It’s his sixth trip to Omaha overall after a pair of visits while the head coach at Nebraska, and it’s one of the most unexpected following a 1-5 start to Southeastern Conference play.
However, Arkansas didn’t lose an SEC series after that — including taking two of three at then No. 1 Texas A&M — and capped its remarkable turnaround with Sunday’s Omaha-clinching win.
Arkansas scored all of its runs in the first inning on a trio of singles, a walk and RBI flyout off Missouri State starter Jordan Knutson (6-2). Bobby Wernes started the rally with a single, Andrew Benintendi walked and Spoon singled through the left side of the infield to put the Razorbacks up 1-0.
Rick Nomura’s flyout scored Benintendi, and Brett McAfee capped the scoring with an RBI single to right to score Spoon and put Arkansas up 3-0.
Missouri State scored its first run following a two-out error in the third inning, with Justin Paulsen’s single to left scoring Jake Burger from second base.
The Bears added a second run in the sixth on an RBI single by Dylan Becker, but Jackson struck out Joey Hawkins and forced Matheny to fly out to right to end the inning — with Missouri State leaving a pair of runners on base.
“(Jackson’s) a stellar pitcher, and he showed it today by getting out of tough jams,” Becker said. “Not just him, but everyone on their staff this weekend. We kept getting guys on base, but they found ways to get out of it.”
· Arkansas is one of seven teams in the country to advance to the College World Series three times in the last seven years.
· The Razorbacks have advanced to the College World Series in four of their six Super Regional appearances.
· Arkansas has advanced to Omaha in both Super Regionals at Baum Stadium.
· The Razorbacks have reached the 40-win plateau for the sixth time in the last seven seasons.
· Head coach Dave Van Horn makes his sixth College World Series appearance overall, the most by any head coach in the SEC.