FAYETTEVILLE - Arkansas finished the often rain delayed SEC Tournament in Hoover, Alabama, frustrated as usual against LSU but a better baseball team nonetheless.
That’s the most important aspect for coach Dave Van Horn and his Razorbacks, who are now preparing to host what will be the Fayetteville Regional as part of the 64-team tournament, eventually sending eight teams to play for the national championship at the College World Series in Omaha.
LSU, defeating Arkansas in last year’s championship game of the SEC Tournament and a two out of three times victor over the SEC West co-champions Razorbacks, the co-champions with Ole Miss that played LSU in Sunday’s championship game in Hoover, edged Arkansas, 2-1 in Saturday’s semifinal.
Arkansas scored first on Jared Gates’ solo home run off LSU victoriously brilliant starter Zack Hess.
LSU topped it 2-1 on Zach Watson’s 2-run home run in the sixth off five innings brilliant Arkansas starter Isaiah Campbell.
“They hit a 2-run homer and we hit a solo,” Van Horn said during Saturday’s postgame in Hoover. “They didn’t make any mistakes today and neither did we except maybe one pitch and they made a mistake with maybe one pitch. But they get to play for the championship.”
That hurts but not for long.
In a normal double-elimination tournament setting, the Razorbacks, unbeaten at Hoover walloping South Carolina, 13-8 and nationally No. 1 reigning national champion and 2018 SEC regular-season champion Florida, would have had another crack at LSU.
After winning its play-in game as a non-seeded qualifier over Mississippi State, LSU lost its loser’s bracket game 4-3 to Florida and then, came back to beat South Carolina, 6-4 in 12 innings and then walloped Florida, 11-0 over a fog-delayed Friday night finished Saturday morning.
However, with the all-important regionals looming, none of the SEC coaches want their teams exhausted and pitching spent into regionals from playing extra loser’s brackets games Saturday before Sunday’s championship.
Hence the Saturday semifinals are single elimination, which also eliminated Texas A&M off Saturday’s loss to Ole Miss, though the Aggies also had won all their previous games in Hoover.
While winning it all in Hoover would have been nice, the most important thing for Arkansas (39-18) was improving its stock before regionals.
Flogging Florida, from Blaine Knight’s start to closer Matt Cronin’s finish and the “storybook” grand slam by reserve slap-hitting infielder and Spiro, Oklahoma native Hunter Wilson, certainly enhanced Arkansas’ regionals stock.
So did No.3 starter Campbell pitching like an ace, following Kacey Murphy and Bryant’s Knight in the SEC Tournament rotation backed by a bullpen of Cronin, Jake Reindl, Barrett Loseke and Kole Ramage.
“I thought Isaiah was really good and had his changeup working good,” Campbell said. “His overall record (4-6) is deceiving because he’s had good stuff and we haven’t scored for him much.
The bullpen got some action and I feel really good about it. They held down some good teams, Florida and LSU for the last three or four innings. And then first game we had that big lead and kind of let it slip and then, Loseke came in and got it stopped. Back when Cronin went out with mono we asked a couple of guys to step up and Reindl and Loseke did and Kole Ramage pitched really well (during the final regular-season series) against Georgia.”
Freshman stars Casey Martin, the third baseman from Lonoke, and SEC Freshman of the Year left fielder Heston Kjerstad both excelled in their first collegiate postseason exposure.
Shortstop Jax Biggers, returned to the lineup against Florida, proved he has healed from a broken finger.
“I’m excited about where we are at going into the regional,” Van Horn said Saturday in Hoover. “We seem to be getting healthy and I’m looking forward to this weekend.”