CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. — Arkansas entered the NCAA Tournament confident it was prepared for strong pitching after navigating through some of the nation’s top arms in the Southeastern Conference.
It will be hard for the Razorbacks to face many better than Virginia’s Nathan Kirby.
Virginia’s ace, who was the Atlantic Coast Conference’s co-pitcher of the year, dominated Arkansas in a 3-0 win at Davenport Field on Saturday night. The left-hander allowed one hit and struck out nine in eight shutout innings, moving Virginia one win away from a spot in a Super Regional for the second straight season.
He also pushed the Razorbacks (39-24) — who were shut out for just the second time this season — to the brink of elimination.
Arkansas will play Bucknell, which beat Liberty 5-2 earlier Saturday, in an elimination game today at noon. The winner advances to play Virginia (46-13) at 7 p.m., but must beat the Cavaliers twice to advance to a Super Regional next week.
“Nathan Kirby did an outstanding job,” Arkansas coach Dave Van Horn said. “He threw a lot of strikes and pitched out of a jam there. …
“He pitched a great game and we didn’t have an answer for it.”
Kirby (9-1), who is regarded as one of the nation’s top pitchers, has one no-hitter on his resume this season and came close to a second Saturday night.
The only hit the sophomore allowed came with Virginia leading 3-0 in the fifth inning, when Arkansas first baseman Eric Fisher lined a double down the first base line. Kirby then made a mistake after fielding a grounder off Tyler Spoon’s bat, missing the throw to first base for what should’ve been an easy out.
Arkansas had two runners on with no outs, but still couldn’t break through to trim Virginia’s lead. Kirby worked his way through the bottom of the Arkansas order to keep the Razorbacks scoreless. Arkansas never threatened again.
“Nathan Kirby again showed how great of a pitcher he is,” Virginia coach Brian O’Connor said. “He’s just been calm and has had a presence about him all year long and certainly he showed his ability (Saturday). He was outstanding.”
Kirby retired 12 straight before turning the game over to Virginia closer Nick Howard in the ninth inning. He finished with a flourish, too, striking out the final five Razorbacks he faced. Kirby received a standing ovation from the crowd after striking out the side in the eighth inning.
“He did a good job throwing strikes and first time through the lineup really pounding the zone with his fastball,” Fisher said. “The second time through the lineup he did a good job of starting us off with off-speed and just mixing things up. …
“He just kept us on our toes and did a good job pounding the zone.”
Virginia also helped Kirby pitch with a lead all night after getting off to a hot start at the plate against Arkansas sophomore Trey Killian (4-9).
In fact, the Cavaliers got all the production they needed in the first inning when first baseman Mike Papi smashed a pitch over the right field wall. Papi’s 11th home run of the season gave the Cavaliers a 2-0 lead and was part of a three-hit first inning.
“That was supposed to be a fastball inside and that was my mistake. I didn’t get it in there,” Killian said. “They’ve got a good lineup. When you make a mistake they’re going to capitalize on it. Papi’s a good hitter. He put a good swing on it and unfortunately it went over the fence.”
Virginia added another its third run in the third inning third baseman Kenny Towns’ two-out single off Killian. The Arkansas starter didn’t last much longer because of a blister that formed on his index finger. He left the game after 3 1/3 innings because of the blister, turning the game over to Arkansas freshman Dominic Taccolini.
Killian allowed three runs on seven hits during his shortened start. He and Arkansas starter Chris Oliver — who struggled in the 3-2 win against Liberty on Friday night — combined to pitch just 8 1/3 innings in the Charlottesville Regional.
“It’s just being aggressive,” Papi said. “We just tried to put pressure on the other pitcher. When you get on your heels you feel suffocated and it’s hard to throw pitches. We want the pitcher on the mound to make mistakes.”
Taccolini managed to keep Arkansas in the game with an impressive relief stint, holding the Cavaliers scoreless over the final 5 2/3 innings. But the Razorbacks couldn’t crack Kirby or break through Howard in the ninth inning.
Designated hitter Clark Eagan did lead off the ninth with an infield single, which was Arkansas’ second and final hit of the game. But outfielder Joe Serrano grounded into a double play and Howard got Andrew Benintendi to ground out to end the game.
It was the first time Arkansas was shut out since a 1-0 loss at Florida on March 15.
“That was one of the most complete ballgames we’ve played all year,” O’Connor said.
Virginia’s impressive performance also put Arkansas in a difficult position. The Razorbacks must win three straight games to advance to a Super Regional and the first priority comes at noon today, when the Razorbacks play Bucknell.
Van Horn said Arkansas will start a freshman against the Bison, who are coached by former Razorback pitcher Scott Heather. But he hadn’t decided late Saturday whether Arkansas will send Zach Jackson to the mound or James Teague.
Either way, both pitchers are hoping to get an opportunity to help the Razorbacks keep their season alive. If Arkansas beats Bucknell and Virginia tomorrow, they would have to play a deciding game against the Cavaliers on Monday night.
“We’ve been here before in past years,” Van Horn said. “We were here last year at K-State. The challenge is the quick turnaround. The team that won the game earlier has a little advantage with rest and feeling good about themselves. We have to get over a loss and a tough game. We have to be mature enough to do that.”