The No. 6 Arkansas Razorbacks topped the No. 4 Ole Miss Rebels, 6-4, Thursday at Oxford, Miss. in the opening game of the three-game series thanks to a three-inning save by Matt Cronin, who fanned five of the nine Rebel batters he faced.
The save kept starting pitcher Blaine Knight’s record spotless at 5-0 on the season. He struck out seven batters while going six innings for the Hogs, leaving Arkansas with a 6-4 lead when he called it a night.
Carson Shaddy led the Razorbacks’ offensive attack with a 3-for-4, 2 RBI night. Shortstop Jax Biggers, right fielder Eric Cole, third baseman Casey Martin, and first baseman Jordan McFarland had two hits apiece as the Hogs’ belted out 14.
The Razorbacks took a 4-0 lead through the top of the second inning, but the Rebels evened the game up with a run in the bottom of the second and three more in the third.
Arkansas reestablished the lead with McFarland’s solo home run in the sixth. It was McFarland’s third homer of the season and the Razorbacks’ SEC-leading 49th of the year.
Martin drove in Shaddy for an insurance run before the Rebels got out of the inning. From there Cronin slammed the door on Ole Miss.
The Razorbacks (19-7, 5-2) edged a game ahead of Ole Miss (23-4, 4-3) in the tight-nit SEC Western Division race. The Rebels are currently tied for second in the division with LSU (17-10, 4-3), which walloped Mississippi State (13-14, 1-6), 10-1 Thursday night. The Hogs are just 1 1/2 games ahead of fourth-place Auburn (21-5, 3-3), which opens a series with Missouri (18-6, 3-3) tonight.
The second and perhaps pivotal game of the Ole Miss series starts at 6:30 p.m.. The game will be streamed on the SEC Network Plus, but there will be no traditional telecast.
Why is the game pivotal for the Hogs?
The Razorbacks are without their usual second-game starter Isaiah Campbell (3-3, 3.33 ERA),whom Arkansas coach Dave Van Horn said felt irritation in his right elbow following last weekend’s series at Florida.
Campbell, who was out all but one game last season with an elbow injury, had pitched well for the Hogs this season until last Saturday at Florida where he had control issues. Campbell’s walks along with a couple of errors let the Gators build a quick, insurmountable lead in a 17-2 loss.
Van Horn said he was unaware of any elbow problems with Campbell going into his Florida start. Arkansas left Campbell home for the Ole Miss trip to get treatment on his elbow.
So, left-handed Evan Lee (1-1, 5.19 ERA) is on the mound for tonight’s game with Kacey Murphy (3-1, 2.28 ERA) pitching for the Hogs in Saturday 1:30 p.m. finale.
Van Horn did not want to move Murphy up to tonight’s game because it would have given him a short week of rest after pitching so well in a 5-4 loss to the Gators on Sunday. The Rebels and Razorbacks are playing the series Thursday-Saturday because of the Easter holiday.
Developing a solid second-day starter in lieu of Campbell is critical for the Razorbacks, whose bullpen has struggled throwing strikes at times this season. Lee gets a big opportunity tonight, and maybe he can capitalize on it.
If Campbell’s elbow is a minor issue that just needed some rest as Van Horn indicated earlier in the week, this bit of adversity could work in the Hogs’ favor down the line. Should Lee pitch well for the Hogs in this situation, it would only bolster the Hogs’ confidence should they reach their goal of making the College World Series.
Yes, it probably is too early to be thinking about the postseason, but this Razorback team has that type of potential. The Hogs are armed and ready with a dynamic batting lineup, one through nine, but pitching and defense have been and always will be the keys to success in CWS play.
The Razorbacks are by no means struggling in those areas, but if you are looking for a chink in their armor, the bullpen and defense are the more tender areas.
If Lee can pitch solidly for the Hogs tonight, it could be a very good sign for the Razorbacks going forward.