FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas outfielder Tyler Spoon knew the baseball was leaving the ballpark when he watched it sail off Joe Serrano’s bat Friday night.
Then the redshirt freshman admitted he had another thought.
“It was weird,” Spoon said. “Because it was Joe.”
Arkansas beat San Diego State 4-3 in front of an announced crowd of 3,375 in Baum Stadium on Friday behind some unexpected power from an unlikely source.
Serrano sent the second pitch he saw from reliever Justin Hepner over the left-field wall, collecting his first home run as a Razorback. The two-out hit helped Arkansas (9-5) grab its second straight win against the Aztecs (7-7) in the four-game series, which will conclude with a doubleheader that begins at 11:35 a.m. today.
It was a surprise to his teammates, who have grown to know Serrano as a singles hitter. It stunned the Razorbacks’ coaching staff. And it even shocked Serrano, who has 33 singles among his 36 career hits at Arkansas.
“As soon as I hit it, it was amazing,” said Serrano, who went 2-for-4 with an RBI and two runs score. “Rounding third base, (coach Brian) Walker was laughing at me because I don’t hit home runs and it was weird.
“I don’t even hit home runs in (batting practice). So it was just a great feeling.”
It helped Arkansas avoid its first extra innings game of the season and grab a win despite trailing 2-0 and 3-2. The Razorbacks – who struggled offensively throughout its winless trip to Arizona – turned in key hits at big times Friday night.
Serrano’s game-winner was the obvious one. But Arkansas tied the game in the seventh inning, when second baseman Jacob Mahan led off with a single and eventually moved to third on a passed ball. He scored when Spoon hit a two-strike pitch up the middle, collecting his team-leading 16th RBI of the season.
“Some guys can hit,” Arkansas coach Dave Van Horn said. “Then when you throw a little confidence in with it … He wants to be up there when the game is on the line and he’s shown that by having a little knack to drive in runs.”
Arkansas finished with eight hits Friday. It was enough to help the Hogs overcome an erratic performance on the mound from some veteran pitchers.
It began with starter Ryne Stanek, who cruised through the first inning of work by retiring three batters on nine pitches. But that was the easy part of his fourth start.
San Diego State took the lead in the second inning on a two-run home run by left fielder Matt Munoz, who drove a pitch over the right field wall. It was the second home run allowed by Arkansas’ pitching staff this season and first since the season opener, when Stanek was tagged for an early home run against Western Illinois.
It seemed to bother Stanek, who then walked the next three batters. He finally got out of the jam by getting second baseman Tim Zier to pop out to end the inning.
“He got out of some jams,” Van Horn said. “He kind of created them, but then he got out of them. He made some huge pitches in some tough counts to get out some pretty good guys to keep the game close. That’s what we were talking about in the dugout. We’re down two. Let’s just find a way to keep the game close and chip away here and there and see if we can beat them late. That’s exactly what happened.”
Arkansas did tie the game in the third inning, but couldn’t hold on after Stanek allowed another run in the fifth. San Diego State broke the 2-2 tie with an RBI double from catcher Brad Haynal. It ended Stanek’s afternoon, allowing three runs on six hits with five walks and five strikeouts in 4 1/3 innings.
San Diego State had a chance to add to its lead when reliever Trent Daniel replaced Stanek. Catcher Jake Romanski hit a one-out single up the middle with Haynal on second base. But Haynal was thrown out at home by center fielder Jacob Morris, who replaced injured senior Matt Vinson in the lineup.
The Aztecs also loaded the bases with one out off Daniel and reliever Colby Suggs in the seventh inning. Van Horn turned to sophomore Jalen Beeks, who struck out two straight pinch hitters to end the threat and keep Arkansas in striking distance.
“It was not good,” Van Horn said of the pitching performance, which included 12 strikeouts and nine walks. “But then Beeks settled it down. …
“He’s just got a good mentality about him. I told him we loaded the bases for him so we could bring him in just trying to loosen him up a little bit. He did the job.”
Spoon tied the game in the bottom half of the seventh and Beeks (2-0) stayed on the mound and held San Diego State scoreless the next two innings. It set up Serrano’s home run off Hepner (0-1), who replaced starter Philip Walby in the seventh inning.
Van Horn said Serrano has worked with hitting coach Todd Butler this week after a disappointing performance in Arizona. The sophomore said he specifically had been struggling with off-speed pitches lately and wanted to improve.
“When I stride I need to keep my head over my back hip,” Serrano said. “My head has been going forward with my knee and that’s what I tried to do in that last at bat. I tried to stay back leg heavy and then rotate and grip and rip.”
It worked well in the ninth inning. Serrano said he was looking for a fastball from Hepner after the first pitch was a ball. He connected and first base coach Jacob Julius was screaming at him to run as the ball sailed over the fence.
Serrano isn’t a home run hitter after all. But he got one in the ninth inning Friday night and was mobbed by teammates after he touched home plate.
“He used every bit of it to get the ball out of the park against that wind,” said Van Horn, who added he was glad the game ended before heading to extra innings with a doubleheader set for today. “That was a nice swing.”