FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas believed it had turned the corner offensively last week, scoring 24 runs on 39 hits against one of the Southeastern Conference’s best pitching staffs.
But the Razorbacks’ success at the plate hit a snag in a 3-2 loss in 10 innings against Auburn on Thursday night. And the struggles dropped Arkansas below .500 in conference play.
Auburn starter Jon Luke Jacobs and reliever Derek Varnadore handcuffed the Razorbacks (34-16, 12-13 in SEC) in the series opener, limiting them to four hits in front of an announced crowd of 5,235 in Baum Stadium. The Auburn (27-22, 11-14 in SEC) duo struck out the Razorbacks nine times, while the Tigers won the game with designated hitter Justin Bryant’s game-winning single in the top of the 10th.
“It was basically starting pitching, Arkansas coach Dave Van Horn said of a loss that dropped Arkansas to 2-7 in SEC series openers.
“We knew (Jacobs) was good. … We had some guys that took strike three, got rung up a lot on backwards Ks. It’s a little disappointing. But, realistically, he pitched really well and we didn’t handle it very well.”
Jacobs did most of the damage in his best start of the season, limiting the Razorbacks to two runs on three hits in eight innings. He struck out eight batters — five of them looking — and was in control throughout the night.
“He was just attacking with the fastball,” Arkansas third baseman Matt Reynolds said. “He just kept us off balance all night.”
Arkansas didn’t get its first hit until the fourth inning Thursday, when Reynolds clubbed a solo home run to tie the game 1-1.
It was Arkansas’ first home run since April 24 and helped Reynolds — who finished 2-for-4 — reach base for the 33rd straight game.
The Razorbacks got another run off Jacobs in the sixth, when catcher Jake Wise collected a double on a ball misplayed in the outfield by the Tigers. He scored on a sacrifice fly from Jacob Mahan, which gave the Hogs a 2-1 lead.
Arkansas had a chance to add another run in the seventh, when Matt Reynolds led off with a double and reached third with one out. Arkansas failed to execute a suicide squeeze bunt with Derrick Bleeker at the plate, though, resulting in Reynolds being tagged out in a rundown.
“It was a tough pitch to bunt,” Reynolds said of Bleeker’s miss. “It was a slider in the dirt. He did all he could.”
But the missed opportunity proved costly.
Auburn tied the game in the eighth inning when first baseman Patrick Savage doubled off Arkansas reliever Brandon Moore to score second baseman Creede Simpson from second base. Then, after a scoreless ninth, Auburn took the lead off Arkansas closer Barrett Astin (2-5).
Outfielder Jay Gonzalez, who had doubled to open the game, hit another to lead off the 10th. Astin recovered to strike out Simpson, then intentionally walked Ryan Tella, and struck out Savage. But Bryant — who went 3-for-5 — chopped a single up the middle just out of the reach of second baseman Bo Bigham and shortstop Tim Carver to score Gonzalez.
Varnadore (3-7) surrendered a single to outfielder Brian Anderson in the bottom half of the inning. But after Anderson reached second on a wild pitch, Varnadore struck out Bleeker and got Bigham to fly out to end the game.
“It is disappointing because we’ve left a lot of opportunities out on the field,” Van Horn said. “It’s usually one bad pitch or a bad play. We need to start getting the big hits. We need to start making the pitch.”
The disappointing end overshadowed a solid effort from DJ Baxendale, who worked on four days rest after throwing 110 pitches Sunday.
The junior bounced back from the rocky start to record a quality start. Baxendale allowed one run on four hits and also struck out a career-high nine batters in 5 2/3 innings.
“Auburn did a good job of battling with two strikes,” said Baxendale, who threw 96 pitches. “That’s one of the main reasons why my pitch count got up there. But my arm felt fine.”
Said Van Horn: “He gave us everything he had. He gave us a chance to win.”
But it wasn’t enough to help the Razorbacks end their series opening frustration.
Arkansas’ nine strikeouts Thursday were more than its previous three games combined against South Carolina (seven). The four hits was the Razorbacks’ worst effort since a two-hit performance against Ole Miss on April 21.
Arkansas will try to climb out of an SEC series hole once again at 6:35 p.m. tonight. The Hogs will start left-hander Randall Fant (2-2, 4.04 ERA) while lefty Daniel Koger (3-4, 2.74 ERA) will be on the mound for Auburn.
“It’s about us driving in a run or making a play,” Van Horn said. “Sometimes we’ve come through. It just seems like lately it hasn’t been enough to get us a win. We’re waiting for that big win. I think it’s out there.
“I think the whole team is waiting for it.”