FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas’ bullpen has been a dependable group most of the season, making sure leads are safe in the late innings.
So what has taken place in two games against Texas A&M is unusual.
But Arkansas’ immediate response at the plate has been impressive.
The Razorbacks lost their lead in the eighth inning, recovered and beat the Aggies 7-3 in front of an announced crowd of 6,673 in Baum Stadium on Saturday night. One night after squandering the lead and answering with the game-winning run in the ninth inning, Arkansas (32-20, 13-13 in Southeastern Conference) broke open another tie game with a four-run effort in the eighth to secure a critical series win.
“A little déjà vu, huh?” shortstop Michael Bernal said. “(Friday) probably was a little cooler getting to walk them off, but (Saturday) was pretty much a repeat.”
There were plenty of similarities, beginning with a lead (3-0 on Saturday) being trimmed by the Aggies with Arkansas’ starting pitcher (Chris Oliver) still on the mound. When the Razorbacks went to the bullpen clinging to a one-run lead, Texas A&M (30-21, 12-14 in SEC) managed to tie the game and threatened to go on top.
This time, Arkansas reliever Zack Jackson struggled in the eighth inning after allowing consecutive singles. A passed ball and wild pitch allowed second baseman Ryne Birk to score and tie the game. Jackson walked the next batter he faced before Arkansas coach Dave Van Horn went back to the bullpen for Jacob Stone, who managed to get the final out and strand two runners to keep the game tied.
“We did a great job of keeping them from putting up a crooked number,” Van Horn said.
Bernal, who led off Friday’s ninth inning with a single and scored the game-winning run, collected another base hit to begin Arkansas’ eighth-inning rally Saturday. He also moved to second base after another sacrifice bunt by Clark Eagan. But Bernal scored the game-winning run with some help from the Aggies on Saturday.
Andrew Benintendi’s sharp shot in the hole at second base was fielded by Birk, who tried to make a play at first base for the final out. But his throw missed the mark, which allowed Bernal to score to give the Razorbacks a 4-3 lead.
“I hit it right off the end,” Benintendi said. “I think he was playing far to his right. So I hit it in a good spot. But I think I knew that I was going to be safe, but I was surprised when he threw it away. So I mean, we’ll take it.”
Arkansas didn’t just settle for one run this time, though. Brian Anderson followed with a single to center field off Texas A&M reliever Matt Kent (2-1), which scored Benintendi. The Aggies made a pitching change, but first baseman Eric Fisher clubbed his team-leading eighth home run over the fence to extend the lead to 7-3.
“Fisher’s at bat was just outstanding,” Van Horn said. “Fouled off pitches, took some pitches and then got a fastball out over the plate, elevated it and just crushed it.
“Momentum was ours and it was a good win for our team.”
Stone (4-0) returned for the ninth inning and capped the victory, which moved Arkansas back to .500 in SEC play with four conference games remaining.
“I’m just real proud of our guys for not panicking,” Van Horn said.
Arkansas also took a 2-0 lead in an SEC weekend series for the first time this season and have a chance to sweep the Aggies with a win in Sunday’s finale.
The series victory came at an important time with the Razorbacks still fighting to secure a spot in the SEC Tournament and an NCAA Regional.
Bernal said Arkansas understood the big picture when it opened the series with a 3-2 win Friday night. They also knew how important Saturday was with the Razorbacks uncertain about their starting pitching plans for Sunday’s finale.
“We were feeling a little bit of pressure because we had some guys hurt,” Bernal said. “We weren’t certain about the rotation and what was going to happen and everything. But we did a good job of handling that pressure and just playing the game really hard. … We know what’s at stake right now. I think it’s given us a nice bit of fuel to get out there and play hard and get after it every day.”
Arkansas freshman Dominic Taccolini (2-0, 4.15 ERA) will earn his first start in Sunday’s finale, while Texas A&M will send right-hander Parker Ray (4-3, 5.57 ER) to the mound. The Razorbacks are trying to collect their first three-game SEC sweep since early last season, when Arkansas won three straight at South Carolina.
“It’s definitely an exciting opportunity we have in front of us,” Anderson said. “But just because we won the first two we’re not going to take the third one for granted.”