FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas coach Dave Van Horn said earlier this month the Razorbacks desperately needed production from the bottom half of the lineup.
There have been several signs of improvement the past two weeks.
The latest came in a 7-2 win against Stephen F. Austin on Tuesday night.
Arkansas (23-15), which played its first unranked opponent in roughly two weeks, turned in another confidence-building performance at the plate in front of an announced crowd of 2,036 in Baum Stadium. The bottom half of the order accounted for eight of Arkansas’ 12 hits, most of which came off starter Halden Maynard (0-2).
“I feel like offensively up and down the lineup it’s starting to get a little bit better, a little more consistent,” Van Horn said. “I know that we’re not facing SEC weekend pitching, but he still had a good arm, a pretty good breaking ball.
“I thought we did a good job when pitches were in the zone that were hittable.”
Shortstop Michael Bernal, who batted ninth Tuesday, enjoyed the biggest night by going 3-for-4 with a double and three RBIs. But Blake Baxendale (2 for 4), Eric Fisher, Bobby Wernes and Jake Wise combined for four RBIs and four runs scored.
Baxendale — who had a grand slam and five RBIs in Arkansas’ 10-4 win at LSU on Sunday — drove in Arkansas’ first run with a two-out single in the first inning.
Bernal came through in the second with a two-run double, which made it 3-0.
“Any time you can see the bottom of the order get some action, it’s kind of a big deal for a team and kind of gets everybody rolling,” Bernal said. “They don’t feel all that pressure at the top of the line up. Any time you can take that pressure off the top of the line up and get some runs from the bottom of the line up, I think it’s good for a team. I think we did that well (Tuesday).”
The early success was needed with starting pitcher Alex Phillips struggling.
The freshman, who threw six scoreless innings against UNLV last Wednesday, walked the bases loaded in the first inning. He worked his way out of the jam, but was lifted in the third after allowing back-to-back singles to open the inning.
Both runners eventually scored to cut Arkansas’ lead to 3-2. But three Arkansas relievers — Jacob Stone, Colin Poche (3-0) and Michael Gunn — combined to shut out Stephen F. Austin (15-21) over the final seven innings.
“Alex just didn’t throw strikes,” Van Horn said. “Last week he couldn’t hardly throw the ball out of the strike zone. I think he was a little nervous. Stephen F. Austin is basically from his hometown. I’m sure that had a little bit to do with it.”
But Arkansas broke the game open in the fifth when Bernal led off with a single and advanced to third after a wild pitch and passed ball. He scored on Andrew Benintendi’s RBI single to make it 4-2. Then a sacrifice fly by Joe Serrano drove in Tyler Spoon and a throwing error scored Benintendi from third to make it 6-2.
Arkansas added one more run in the eighth when Bernal singled to drive in Baxendale, who opened the inning with his fourth double of the season.
“I felt really good at the plate,” said Bernal, who equaled his season high with three hits and three RBIs. “I was real calm and relaxed in my swing and I felt like that was helping me see the ball better. That’s something that me and the coaches have been working on. I think I did a pretty good job of leaving those tips from the coaches and even called my brother back home who played some ball.”
Eight Razorbacks had at least one hit Tuesday. Second baseman Brian Anderson was the only player to go without one, finishing 0-for-4 to snap his 13-game hit streak.
But Anderson said the Razorbacks will carry plenty of confidence throughout the lineup into its three-game series against 18th-ranked Vanderbilt (28-10, 7-8 in SEC), which begins Friday at 6:35 p.m. in Baum Stadium.
“I think we’re starting to get the train rolling on offense,” Anderson said. “Guys had hits all up and down the lineup today and that’s a good sign.”