Late Bloomers Help Arkansas SurgeColumns
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OMAHA, Neb. — It’s amazing how much can change over the course of a season.
As Arkansas closed out fall workouts several months ago, head coach Dave Van Horn couldn’t have been more optimistic about guys like Dominic Fletcher and Jared Gates, especially Fletcher. Fletcher, he said, put together a fall that reminded him of the jump Andrew Benintendi — now a big leaguer — made from his freshman to sophomore campaign.
That’s good company to be in. But while Fletcher had high hopes as the spring began, he struggled immensely at the plate the first half of the season, to the point where he was occasionally lifted from games because his approach was so iffy and pull happy.
Fletcher reached a turning point halfway through the season, and since has been a different hitter oozing with confidence. Meanwhile, Gates, another player who struggled earlier this season, has followed a similar path with a flare for the dramatic the past month and throughout the Hogs’ postseason run.
While both Arkansas sluggers have had their fair share of struggles this season, the duo, as they’ve done so many times down the stretch, put together impressive offensive performances in a 7-4 win over Texas Tech to help their team get a win away from reaching the CWS Finals.
“I thought on our side, Kacey Murphy got us off to a great start. He worked his way out of a jam in the first and then had a couple of pretty good innings. That’s a really good offense,” Arkansas coach Dave Van Horn said. “I feel a little fortunate to get out of there [with a win]. At this time of year, we always talk about that you have to be a little lucky, and in the first inning, we had two players run into each other [for Tech].
“Again, you gotta have some things go your way,” Van Horn continued. “We had a couple of things go our way and then we swung the bats pretty well after that and got a couple of big hits with two outs. We also hit a couple of home runs to keep adding to that lead and just did a pretty good job up and down our lineup.”
It’s not every day, especially on this stage, where you feel like the first inning decides the entire game. But that’s what happened with the Hogs and Red Raiders.
In the first, the Hogs set the stage in a big way, or so it seemed, with Eric Cole leading off the game with a single, followed by a double from two-hole hitter Casey Martin. Davis Martin, who tends to be a sinker ball specialist for the Red Raiders, appeared to be scuffling, but settled down with a strikeout of Heston Kjerstad on a 93 mph heater, while he punched out Luke Bonfield on an 81 mph slider.
Davis Martin was almost out of the inning. Almost.
Fletcher hit a very playable ball into right-center field, but the ball dropped for a two-run double after right fielder Gabe Holt and center fielder Cody Farhat miscommunicated and collided. The Hogs suddenly had a 2-0 lead, and against this team, working from behind typically is a death wish. The proved to be the case yet again.
“First of all, I take full responsibility for that. I mean, we made a change at Game 48, and we put a guy at second base that had played right field and a guy that had played second base [Holt] into right field,” Texas Tech coach Tim Tadlock said. “And really, that hadn’t bit us up to this point. Both of them had played really well.
“I think they were both trying to make a play as far as I don’t think Gabe heard Cody. I think if he does, he lets him catch it,” Tadlock continued. “But again, that’s on me. Really, that’s a deal where maybe we need to do some more outfield communication. That’s something that you can do and it’s something that’s fundamental. When you break down from a fundamental standpoint, that’s on the coaches.”
While the Razorbacks capitalized on the Tech fielding mistake in the first inning, the Hogs made big pitches in the bottom of the first.
Tech’s Holt reached base to begin the bottom frame with a single, while two-hole hitter Brian Klein reached on a throwing error by Arkansas starting pitcher and lefthander Kacey Murphy. The Red Raiders looked ready to respond, but Murphy wiggled out of trouble with a pair of fly outs and a strikeout.
That seemed to set the stage for the afternoon.
On the Texas Tech side of things, its hard-hitting offense, which was so competitive against Brady Singer and Florida a few days ago, struggled to get into a groove before it was simply too late. Murphy peppered Texas Tech’s lineup with strikes with a fastball up to 90-91 mph, while he showed three pitches. The lefty struck out seven and allowed two runs on two hits in 4.2 innings.
He gave way to righthander Barrett Loseke in the fifth inning, who proceeded to continue his mastery of the Red Raiders. In a midweek bout against the Red Raiders earlier this season, the hard-throwing righty struck out 10 and didn’t walk anyone in 4.2 hitless innings.
He wasn’t quite that good on Wednesday, but he wasn’t far off, either. Loseke struck out Grant Little and Zach Rheams on 93 and 92 mph fastballs, respectively, in a 1-2-3 sixth inning, while he allowed a single and struck out the side in the seventh, capping off the frame with a punch out of Tech leadoff hitter Gabe Holt on a 93 mph heater. He bumped 94 with the fastball.
“The biggest thing is that he throws a lot of fastballs. We weren’t picking it up well. He has a quick motion from a lower arm slot. It gave us trouble in that midweek game, and it gave us trouble a little bit today,” Texas Tech’s Brian Klein said. “But we’re looking forward to possibly being able to see him again, and maybe we can make some adjustments.”
Arkansas’ pitching staff wasn’t the only unit getting the job done.
The Hogs had a gradual attack from an offensive standpoint. They didn’t overwhelm the Red Raiders, but they got big hits in opportune situations. For instance, an inning after the Tech miscue in right field, Gates stuck his bat out and smacked a changeup from Davis Martin over the wall and the bullpen in right field to extend Arkansas’ lead to 3-0.
Martin fought back against the Hogs’ potent offense by striking out the side in the third, but things got dicey yet again in the fourth.
Fletcher led off the fourth with a towering home run on a 92 mph fastball from Martin, while Jax Biggers added another run with an RBI single. Suddenly, the Hogs had a 5-0 lead over Tech. And a 5-0 lead for this Arkansas team with its ability to score in bunches is difficult to overcome.
So much has been said about the fab freshmen for the Hogs in Casey Martin and Heston Kjerstad, but Fletcher and Gates continue to rise to the occasion. Fletcher was hitting around .180 at the midseason mark, while Gates started to begin the season, had a hamstring issue and never really found his way in the lineup a consistent basis until the last month of the season.
Both have gone through tough times. And both have been clutch on the biggest stage, with Fletcher going 4-for-4 with a home run and double on Wednesday, while Gates hit a solo home run. Gates is hitting .600 in two games here in Omaha thus far, while Fletcher is hitting .400.
Van Horn summed up both sluggers quite well.
“He was our starting first baseman and he was hitting the ball extremely well. But then he pulled a hamstring [after a trip to California] and he’s in an out of the lineup. We start platooning over there and it’s just not going good for him,” Van Horn said about Gates. “But he started swinging the bat really well in batting practice I’d say in mid-April. Once we got to the SEC tournament, that’s when I talked to him. I said man — you don’t have to worry about checking the lineup every day. I’m going to play you the rest of the year. And he just kind of kept going. He’s done well. I think he lengthens our lineup with a threat of driving a run in or hitting a home run, and he’s just been a tough out against right and left handed pitching.”
“In the fall, we didn’t get him out. And I thought, man, this kid has that Benintendi type of ump because Andrew from one year to the next was incredible. And he had come off a good summer. We didn’t get him out all fall, really,” Van Horn said about Fletcher. “What I saw from the beginning to the end of the spring is he was trying to hit a ball 500 feet. He was just pulling off and trying to do too much.
“Then he slowly climbs out of it, a little here, a little there and down the stretch, the last 45 days, he’s been pretty good,” Van Horn continued. “Now, he’ll have a game where it doesn’t look good and he’ll have a game like today and he’ll hit three balls on screws. When you asked him if he’s ever hit the ball that far, I’ve seen him hit many balls that far, just maybe not fair.. He’s relaxed and he realizes he doesn’t have to do it all by himself. He doesn’t have to hit 20 home runs as a sophomore. Just hit. He’s gone from .190 to where he’s at now.”
Whether it’s Fletcher and Gates, or someone else, the Hogs continue to get contributions from everyone up and down the lineup, while several pitchers have stepped up when called upon, such as Loseke in the middle innings against one of the nation’s premier offenses.
Much has changed as the season has progressed for some Hogs.
What hasn’t changed is the team’s relentlessness and overall approach.
That’s why they’re three wins away from the program’s first national title.