MANHATTAN, Kan. — Arkansas has prided itself on the strength of its pitching staff, believing the depth of the group would help the Razorbacks compete for a national championship when the 2013 season began.
Pitching problems led to Arkansas’ early elimination on Sunday, though.
Arkansas’ bullpen couldn’t help the Razorbacks hold an early lead, culminating in a 4-3 season-ending loss to Kansas State in the Manhattan (Kan.) Regional on Sunday night. The Razorbacks built a three-run lead in the first inning, but couldn’t get add more while the Arkansas bullpen combined to give up four runs the rest of the way.
The most critical came when reliever Jalen Beeks uncorked two wild pitches that led to the game-tying and go-ahead runs in the seventh inning. Arkansas never recovered from the mistakes and watched the Wildcats advance to a Super Regional.
“We’re disappointed,” Arkansas coach Dave Van Horn said. “We played extremely hard all day. We’ve been here for a long time. I’ve told our players they need to keep their head up. We got off to a bad start on Friday and they could’ve checked it in …
“Thinking about trying to win four games in a row can be a little bit overwhelming.”
Arkansas actually entered the regional final with momentum after beating Bryant 12-3 in an elimination game earlier Sunday. But the Razorbacks — who avenged the earlier 4-1 loss to the Bulldogs — couldn’t work their way through their third straight elimination game even though the start was exactly what it needed.
Joe Serrano, Dominic Ficociello and Brian Anderson led off the game with hits off Kansas State starter Blake McFadden. Anderson’s single – which was his first of the regional – drove in two runs. Outfielder Matt Vinson added the fourth hit of the inning, an RBI single, two batters later to give the Hogs a 3-0 lead.
“Once you get down 3-0 in the first, you are very concerned about whether you are going to be able to get back into it and if you are going to be able to hold them at three,” Kansas State coach Brad Hill said. “But I should have learned by now after 61 or 62 games to not count these guys out ever. They have just done a tremendous job all year of just playing the game and continuing to do what you do.”
Kansas State – which entered the NCAA Tournament with the nation’s second-best batting average (.323) – didn’t panic. The Wildcats, who had scored 27 runs in their first two Manhattan Regional games, chased Wright in the third inning and finally broke through to score two runs in the fourth off reliever Trent Daniel.
Arkansas did enough on the mound to maintain the lead until the seventh inning, when reliever Michael Gunn (1-1) walked two batters to start the inning. Beeks — who allowed three runs in Friday’s loss — came out of the bullpen to replace him.
A sacrifice bunt from Shane Conlon moved the runners to second and third with one out. Arkansas then tried to walk Jared King intentionally to set up a double play. But Beeks’ second toss landed short of the plate and Ross Kivett scored from third.
“I haven’t had one,” Van Horn said about the botched wild pitch. “Well now I have. …
“I’ve heard about them in big-game situations. You see one every now and then. In the big leagues it happens. It caught us all off guard. Jalen, I don’t know what happened. He just lost control of the baseball. It was probably a one and a thousand thing.”
But Beeks soon threw another pitch that squirted by catcher Jean Ramirez — who was playing in place of injured starter Jake Wise — to score Tanner Witt from third base to give Kansas State a 4-3 lead.
Kansas State didn’t have a base hit in its game-winning inning and the Wildcats only collected seven hits in the game. But Arkansas issued seven walks to go along with three wild pitches and it was enough to wrap up the regional.
“Sometimes you have just got to be lucky,” Hill said. “We were a little lucky (Sunday). It is what it is, but again at the same time, you have to have a reason to have intentional walks and it is because you put guys on base.
“We really put ourselves in position for something to happen like that. We were fortunate. It worked out in our favor and we will take it.”
Arkansas, meanwhile, couldn’t score another run thanks largely to reliever Gerardo Esquivel (2-2), who allowed one hit over 4 1/3 innings after replacing McFadden
Van Horn credited Hill for the quick hook in the second inning. The Kansas State bullpen combined to hold the Razorbacks to three hits over the final 7 1/3 innings.
“We were (hitting) balls left and right, right on the money, and they just weren’t dropping,” said Serrano, who went 2-for-5. “You can’t ask for us to hit the ball harder than we do. Sometimes it rolls your way, sometimes it doesn’t.”
The Wildcats (44-17) advanced an NCAA Super Regional for the first time in school history. Kansas State will travel to play Oregon State in the Corvalis Super Regional.
Arkansas, meanwhile, fell well short of its preseason goal of reaching the College World Series for the second straight season. The Razorbacks have not advanced to a Super Regional after losing an NCAA Regional opener under Van Horn.
Arkansas — which was ranked No. 1 in preseason polls — fell short of the 40-win mark for the first time since 2009 in a season that never lived up to expectations.
“I’m disappointed we’re not going to the College World Series because that was our goal,” Van Horn said. “When you set out, that’s your goal and you think you have a chance to get there realistically and I did. It’s disappointing.
“But I’m not disappointed with the effort.”