FAYETTEVILLE — The team with the best earned-run average in the Southeastern Conference probably figured to have the advantage over the league’s last-place hitting bunch.
So much for the status quo.
Arkansas played its best and most complete game of the season against No. 2 South Carolina, winning 7-0 on Saturday, and took the weekend series two games to one. The victory pulls the Razorbacks to .500 in SEC play, two games behind Western Division leader Alabama, the only other SEC foe Arkansas has beaten in conference play.
Coincidentally, South Carolina, too was a division leader until falling at Baum Stadium. But Arkansas’ hits came both in bunches and scatter-shot. So did the runs. And behind eight innings of shutout pitching Chris Oliver, Arkansas looked better than its conference mark would suggest.
“We played one of our best games of the year, total game,” Arkansas coach Dave Van Horn said. “Offense, clutch hitting. We made some nice bunts, made all the plays in the field. I am really proud of the team. We win the series and (are) kind of getting back in the race a little bit.”
Oliver was brilliant. He pitched backward in the early innings, keeping South Carolina hitters off-balance with a tight curveball. And when he needed the flames, he worked off a mid-90s fastball late. It led to a career night for the sophomore. He set bests for longest start and strikeouts, 10, and gave up just four hits and two walks.
Most times South Carolina hitters looked lost at the plate.
“I think when I have my curveball, I feel comfortable with it throwing it behind in the count,” Oliver said. “Like tonight, I think we threw tonight when I was 2-0, 3-1, any count really. Makes a big difference. Keeps hitters off the fastball.”
Gamecocks starting pitcher Will Crowe entered with the eighth-best ERA in the conference at 1.37. It was boosted by almost a whole run thanks to lasting just 1 2/3 innings and the surrender of five Arkansas runs in the second. All of those came with two outs.
A lengthy at-bat from Tyler Spoon ended with him sending a jam shot down the third-base line he ultimately legged into an infield single. That loaded the bases for Andrew Benintendi, who coaxed a walk and scored the game’s first run. Joe Serrano tacked on three more when his looper fell in behind South Carolina first baseman Kyle Martin and in front of right fielder Connor Bright. Bright fumbled the pick up, which allowed Spoon to score from first base and Serrano to take second. Brian Anderson then doubled to the right-centerfield gap to plate Serrano.
That was all Arkansas needed. The shutout was Arkansas’ seventh of the year. Over the weekend the Razorbacks allowed total of three runs in three games to the team with the No. 1 RPI in college baseball and ranked No. 1 overall in some polls.
“When you are home and behind the 8-ball and played our worst game at Mississippi State, I told them we needed to win this series,” Van Horn said. “We needed to beat somebody who is as good as anybody in the country so we can gain a little confidence and feel we can beat anybody.”
South Carolina didn’t have a baserunner beyond second base until the ninth inning. And up until that point, only one such runner had even reached second base. No Gamecocks player reached more than once and the No. 5-9 hitters went 1-for-16.
Arkansas countered that with four hits and four walks from the bottom part of its lineup. The Razorbacks loaded the bases again in the fifth inning, this time with no outs after singles from Anderson and Eric Fisher and a walk from Clark Eagan. Jake Wise’s suicide-squeeze scored Anderson from third, but it was bookended by a strikeout and foul out as reliever Reed Scott limited the damage of his own making.
The Gamecocks used five pitchers in all, four of whom entered with ERAs below 2.00 and three below 1.00. But Arkansas better all weekend. The only blight was Trey Killian’s lost gem in the first game of Friday’s doubleheader. South Carolina coach Chad Holbrook wasn’t pleased with his team’s effort through the weekend.
“We didn’t put up much of a fight and that’s tough to take,” he said. “Getting beat on the road happens in this league, but you’ve got to fight a little bit harder and be tougher than we were tonight. I wanted to see a little more fight in my team and that’s disappointing.”
Wise held opposing feelings about his team. He suggested it was perhaps just the sort of spark Arkansas needed.
“We try to take every series the same way, but maybe we don’t. Maybe we come out with a little fire because they’re always up there (in rankings),” Wise said. “Ever since I’ve been here, four years, they’ve always been in the top 10 every year I can remember. Maybe we just need to take that same mentality every weekend.”
Arkansas will finish its seven-game homestand with a pair of midweek games against No. 25 UNLV on Tuesday and Wednesday.