Elation swept over Baum-Walker Stadium as Arkansas junior Charlie Welch lined a 3-2 pitch over the right fielder’s head, walking off the No. 9 Florida Gators, 4-3, and securing the Southeastern Conference regular season title Friday night. Welch’s pinch hit completed the Razorbacks’ second comeback in as many days, and ensured their 10th victory in 10 SEC series.
“It was an unreal opportunity that Coach (Dave) Van Horn gave me,” Welch said in the postgame press conference. “He’s been plugging me in some big spots lately. He just looked at me and said, ‘Are you ready?’ and I said, ‘Yeah, let’s go.’”
The Hogs had to play catch-up once again, after falling behind 2-0 in the first inning. Junior righty Caleb Bolden surrendered three hits in the frame, including a two-out, two-run single by first baseman Kendrick Calilao. Right fielder Sterlin Thompson tagged Bolden with a solo home run to lead off the second, but he retired nine of the next 10 hitters to keep the game under control.
Junior center fielder Christian Franklin launched his 12th home run of the season to put Arkansas on the scoreboard, and the Hogs added another run with three free passes and a sacrifice fly by junior shortstop Jalen Battles.
The score remained 3-2 until the eighth inning, as the Razorbacks fell behind in count after count against Florida lefty Hunter Barco. He got the Gators through the sixth, and junior lefty Caden Monke carried Arkansas through the eighth, retiring seven of the 10 hitters he faced on strikes.
The Gators called on righty Jack Leftwich to finish the game in the seventh, and he was in command until he faced Robert Moore with two outs in the eighth. The sophomore second baseman tattooed Leftwich’s 2-2 pitch, leveling the score at three and sending the crowd into a frenzy.
“I think it kind of shocked him when he hit it,” Van Horn said. “He clubbed it. We knew right when it left the bat and the game was tied...Big time swing from a guy who wants to be in the middle of it.”
Senior right-hander Kevin Kopps took the mound for the second consecutive game, striking out the side in the ninth and setting up the Hogs for some walk-off magic. Senior catcher Casey Opitz wasted no time, driving an 0-1 pitch to the left-center field gap, where Florida’s Jud Fabian misplayed it, allowing Opitz to advance to third.
After Battles popped up, Welch strode to the plate with one pinch hit to his name in the series already. The Gators brought left fielder Jacob Young in as a fifth infielder, but there was nothing he could do when Welch sent the ball to the warning track.
The Razorbacks’ regular-season conference crown is their first since 2004, Van Horn’s second year with the program. They are the first SEC team to win all their conference series since the 2013 Vanderbilt Commodores, who had future major leaguers including shortstop Dansby Swanson and right-handed pitcher Walker Buehler.
“Obviously it’s very hard to do,” Van Horn said. “You don’t expect it. You just expect that maybe one weekend is not going to go your way...What an accomplishment by this team.”
Arkansas will wrap up the regular season at 2 p.m. Sunday against Florida, though the game will have no impact on the standings for the Razorbacks. Freshman righty Jaxon Wiggins will start for the Hogs, while the Gators will send righty Franco Aleman to the mound. The contest can be streamed on the SEC Network+.