Friday’s NCAA Baseball Tournament opener was a fireworks show for the No. 1 Razorbacks, who swatted five home runs en route to a 13-8 victory over the New Jersey Tech Highlanders at Baum-Walker Stadium. Arkansas advanced to the winners’ bracket of the regional for the fourth time in the last four full seasons.
“That was a marathon,” Arkansas head coach Dave Van Horn said. “Give credit to our team for hanging in there. It was not going our way early. But on the other hand, you’ve got to give the other team credit. They were scrappy, they were hard to strike out and whenever we made a mistake they hit it.”
The contest began with a rough outing from junior right-hander Caleb Bolden. The Highlanders tagged him for two runs in the first two innings, collecting two hits and two walks in the process. Junior righty Connor Noland relieved Bolden with one out in the second, but he surrendered a run in the third and did not make it out of the inning.
Junior righty Ryan Costeiu kept the NJIT advantage to 3-0, and the Razorback bats showed life in the bottom half. After junior shortstop Jalen Battles was hit by a pitch to lead off the frame, senior left fielder Braydon Webb hooked a 3-2 pitch inside the left field pole for a two-run homer.
With Costeiu beginning to struggle in the fourth, Van Horn called on senior righty and Collegiate Baseball National Player of the Year Kevin Kopps to keep the game under control. Junior center fielder Christian Franklin laid out to make an inning-ending grab, then stepped up to the plate and mashed a game-tying home run into the NJIT bullpen.
“I’ll have to watch that again,” Van Horn said of the diving catch. “And wouldn’t you know it, he comes up and hits a home run the next inning, too. It was a big moment in the game, for sure.”
Arkansas put the pressure on NJIT starter Tyler Stafflinger with a single, a hit batter and a walk at the bottom of the order, prompting the Highlanders to pull him. The new pitcher, lefty Jake Rappaport, walked Webb with the bases loaded to put the Hogs in front and allowed a sacrifice fly to senior right fielder Matt Goodheart. Freshman third baseman Cayden Wallace cracked the game open with a three-run bomb to left.
With the Hogs up 8-3, senior first baseman Cullen Smith went back-to-back with an opposite-field homer, extending the lead to six runs, and Battles put the Hogs in double digits with a solo shot of his own in the fifth.
“They threw a lot of strikes, and it took a little while for us to get going,” Wallace said. “(We) just stuck to our approach that Coach (Nate) Thompson gave us, and we did a really good job as an offense.”
Kopps worked a perfect 2 1/3 innings, getting Arkansas through the sixth, but Van Horn elected not to have him throw more than 24 pitches with at least two games left to play over the weekend. Freshman righty Heston Tole surrendered two runs in the seventh, and junior Jacob Nesbit, who pinch ran for Goodheart in the sixth, delivered a single with two outs to get the two runs back.
Junior lefty Caden Monke and senior righty Kole Ramage surrendered a combined three runs in the eighth to let the Highlanders back within slam range, but the Razorbacks countered with a run on a wild pitch to bring the score to 13-8.
Ramage tossed a scoreless ninth, locking up the Arkansas win and assuring the Hogs at least 24 hours before their next game.
Arkansas is slated to take on the Nebraska Cornhuskers at 8 p.m. Saturday. The Razorbacks will start junior left-hander Patrick Wicklander against Nebraska righty Chance Hroch, and the game can be streamed on ESPN3.