The No. 7 Arkansas Razorback baseball team (1-0, 0-0) won its 18th-straight home opener over the Eastern Illinois Panthers (0-1, 0-0), 5-1, on Friday for Opening Day.
Starting pitcher Connor Noland got the start on the mound for the Hogs and delivered with 6.2 innings pitched on 86 pitches and allowed two hits and a walk. He faced 22 batters and struck out a career-high 11 batters. He gave up one unearned run and got the win.
For the Panthers, right-hander Will Klein pitched decently against the high-ranked Hogs. He went 5.2 innings on 95 pitches and struck out seven of the 25 batters he faced. Klein gave up six hits, three walks and four runs (three earned) and was the losing pitcher.
The Razorbacks got on the board early in the bottom of the first inning with a base hit single from junior right fielder Heston Kjerstad to drive in left fielder Braydon Webb from second to take a 1-0 lead.
The game settled at a one-run game until the bottom of the fifth inning with two outs when sophomore center fielder Christan Franklin and Kjerstad hit back-to-back home runs. On a 1-0 pitch, Franklin hit a two-run home run into the left field, which brought in Webb from second, to give the Hogs a 3-0 lead. Kjerstad followed up with a solo home run into the right field bullpen to expand the lead, 4-0, on a 3-1 pitch.
“There’s a couple of adjustments I’ve made,” Franklin said. “I’ve shortened up my swing, trying to get a little more connected. I think last year, I struggled with velocity, because my bat would be behind me. It wouldn’t whip out in front.”
Franklin worked a lot over the past several months in critiquing his swing. He averaged .274, hit six home runs and drove in 34 runs last season
“I’ve worked this summer really hard on being able to stay connected and get the bat head out,” Franklin said. “This fall and spring, I’ve worked on hitting plus velocity to get better.”
Eastern Illinois would finally scratch a run in the beginning of the seventh inning with two outs, with Panthers center fielder Grant Emme on second. When designated hitter Matt Mackey was up to bat, shortstop Casey Martin committed an error as a ground ball went right under his glove and went into left-center field. Emme scored on the error to help the Panthers cut the deficit, 4-1.
Mackey was the last batter Noland faced as junior right-hander Marshall Denton came in relief and made catcher Ryan Knernschield fly out to left-center field on a 0-1 pitch to end the inning.
The Hogs responded after the seventh inning stretch. With two outs, Kjerstad would hit another solo home run off of junior right-handed reliever Blayke Cutts. The ball traveled into deep left field on a 1-2 pitch to make it a four-run lead once again, 5-1.
“I was just trying to put the ball in play and sneak it through and get a run on the board for our pitchers,” Kjerstad said. “They always work hard and I was just trying to give them a little run support. Then the first homer, I was just hunting a heater because he (Klein) was just being aggressive with it.”
“The second one, (Cutts) threw me an away-slider and I just put a good swing on the ball and just stayed through it to the opposite field.”
This is the fifth time in Kjerstad’s career that he’s hit multiple home runs in a game.
Denton pitched the eighth inning and right-hander Kevin Kopps came into the game at the top of the ninth to shut down the contest and give the Hogs the opening day win.
“Nothing really surprises me when (Kjerstad) steps in the box,” coach Dave Van Horn said. “You think about the first run of the game and the (Klein is) throwing 95-97 mph. Number one prospect in their league.”
With the win, Van Horn is now 10 wins away from his 700th career win as head coach for the Hogs. He has never lost on Opening Day with the Razorbacks.
The Arkansas Razorback baseball team will host the Eastern Illinois Panthers on Saturday at 2 p.m. and Sunday at 1 p.m. Sophomore Patrick Wicklander will get the start on the mound on Saturday and freshman Blake Adams is expected to start Sunday.