Needing just one more win to secure a spot in the College World Series, top-ranked Arkansas fell victim to North Carolina State starting pitcher Sam Highfill, who mowed down hitter after hitter to save the Wolfpack’s season. The Razorbacks mustered only two hits against him Saturday afternoon, falling 6-5 as the Wolfpack forced a series-deciding game.
The Hogs struggled at the plate until the end of Highfill’s day in the seventh inning, when they scored three runs, two of which were unearned, on three hits.
“Highfill threw a great game, (he) just kept us off the bases,” Arkansas head coach Dave Van Horn said in the postgame press conference. “We never pieced anything together, and the game just flew along.”
Junior designated hitter Charlie Welch recorded the only other Arkansas hit of the game in the second inning, a two-run blast to left field for his third home run in as many games.
Senior left-handed pitcher Lael Lockhart gave the Hogs two solid innings, but after two infield singles and a sacrifice bunt, Van Horn elected to turn the game over to his well rested bullpen. Junior righty Ryan Costeiu was the first to jog in from left field, inducing a groundout, which cut the lead in half, and notching a strikeout to end the threat.
Costeiu returned to work the fourth inning, but it was apparent that he had already maximized his effectiveness. He gave up a leadoff single, and three of the next four hitters took him deep to left field, vaulting the Wolfpack into a 5-2 lead.
Junior lefty Caden Monke relieved Costeiu and settled things down, but Arkansas had no life at the plate. After Welch’s home run, Highfill sat down 16 Razorbacks in a row.
“The change of arm slot, going from over-the-top to the sidearm, you don’t really see that too often,” Welch said. “He was creating some bad swings.”
After junior righty Connor Noland allowed the sixth Wolfpack run in the sixth inning, the Hogs finally broke through against Highfill. Junior first baseman Brady Slavens launched his first homer since his ankle injury at the Southeastern Conference Tournament, cutting the margin to 6-3. Welch drew a walk, and the Wolfpack turned to lefty Evan Justice to contain the rally.
Senior third baseman Cullen Smith singled with two outs, bringing senior catcher Casey Opitz to bat. Opitz hit a bouncer to shortstop Jose Torres, whose errant throw to first allowed Opitz to reach safely and Welch to score. Junior shortstop Jalen Battles singled up the middle, closing the gap to 6-5.
With the game in reach, the Hogs called on senior right-hander Kevin Kopps to work the late innings. He was his typically dominant self, recording six outs on 24 pitches, but the Razorbacks could not get even with the Wolfpack, so he did not get a chance to close it out in the ninth.
Justice sat down all six Arkansas hitters he saw in the eighth and ninth innings, sealing the win and earning another game for North Carolina State.
“You’ve got to give Justice credit,” Van Horn said. “He didn’t give us much (in) those last couple innings.’
The Razorbacks and Wolfpack will square off one final time at 5 p.m. Sunday. The contest will be broadcast on ESPN2, and the winner will move on to face No. 9 Stanford at the College World Series in Omaha, Nebraska.
North Carolina State will start righty Matt Willadsen on the mound, and Van Horn said the Razorbacks will do “what we’ve been doing on a lot of Sundays— mixing it up and trying to get to Kevin (Kopps).”
Arkansas is facing elimination for the second time in as many weeks, but the Hogs have yet to lose a series this season.
“We’ve been doing this all year,” Welch said. “It’s all about winning the series— two games. We know what we’ve got to do. Nothing changes just because it’s super regionals.”