BY DUDLEY E. DAWSON
Rested, relaxed, its reserves revved up and rolling.
That would seem to describe an Arkansas baseball team that downed UNLV 5-2 on Wednesday at Baum-Walker Stadium to complete a two-game mid-week sweep of the Rebels.
The Razorbacks (15-2), who downed the Rebels 13-7 on Tuesday night, will thus be riding a 10-game win streak into this weekend’s SEC opening series with Auburn (13-3-1).
“They know how to win,” Arkansas head coach Dave Van Horn said of his players. “They show up every day. I mention that a lot. They just play. I don’t think they get too uptight about who we’re playing. They just show up and get after it.
“We’re confident. We know we’re going to face a team that’s really good and we’ll talk about that tomorrow.”
UNLV coach Stan Stolte, whose team lost a pair of road games to Arkansas’ fellow 2023 College World Series participant Oklahoma back on March 7 and 8, was impressed with the Razorbacks.
“Arkansas is really good, really good,” Stolte said. “So is Oklahoma. But if you make a mistake on Arkansas, you usually pay for it.
“They are good hitters and get their pitch and they can put the barrel to it pretty good.”
That’s what happened on Tuesday in the fifth inning when Jared Wegner’s team-leading eighth home run plated John Bolton to put Arkansas up 3-0 and give him a Razorback-best 29 RBIs.
But Monday’s game was more about a pair of freshman pitchers and a veteran one having his best outing of the season.
Arkansas starting pitcher Ben Bybee tossed five strong innings to pick up his first college win while fellow freshman Gage Wood worked out of inherited jam in his only inning.
Veteran Zack Morris shrugged off his early season struggles and finished off the final three innings to get his first save of the season.
“It definitely boosts the confidence, especially after not really getting any action the past two weeks,” Morris said. “I feel like that’s something that I was due for with the luck that I had the previous outings. I felt like… I guess turning a new leaf in a way to move forward with this pitching staff.”
Perhaps Morris’ fortunes begin to change when Jacob Sharp’s blast looked destined to tie the the game in the seventh, but Wegner caught it with his back to the left field fence.
“We kind of thought that it would get up in the wind and push out of here, but it just wasn’t meant to be,” Stolte said. “That could have changed the game a little bit there.”
Bybee looked better than in his previous start – a two-inning stint against Grambling on Feb. 21 in the Razorbacks’ hone opener.
He allowed two runs in the opening inning of a game that Arkansas had to rally for 6-1 and 7-6 deficits to win 9-7.
Bybee pitched five scoreless frames against UNLV and allowed six hits while fanning three and walking one before leaving in the sixth with two on and nobody out.
“Yeah I think the biggest thing was just kind of getting the nerves out of the way and kind of getting that first start under the buckle,” Bybee said. “I felt just a lot more comfortable coming in today, just felt like I just had more of kind of a plan coming into this game.
“…Obviously let that Grambling start sit a little bit, kind of itching, kind of wanting to get back out there and prove myself, and I thought I did that, and yeah, just excited to see where this goes.”
Van Horn was impressed with 42 of Bybee’s 63 pitches being for strikes and just the one free pass.
“I like the way he threw strikes for the most part,” Van Horn said. “He had one hitter where he threw three straight balls in a row or maybe four. But he battled back. For the most part he made them swing. Threw some good change-ups to some lefties. Got a few swings and misses there.
“I thought he spotted his fastball well to both sides of the plate. There was a couple of times we asked him to throw the fastball in and he did it. Got a strike or a strikeout and a jam shot there too.”
Van Horn suggested that Bybee could be on the way to earning himself a bigger role within the Razorback pitching staff.
“He was throwing to his glove-side well, dropping that breaking ball in there pretty regularly it looked like to me,” Van Horn said. “You’d think if he could take that then take another step, take another step, then he may be right in the middle of it.”
Wood appeared for the second time in as many nights.
“He’s come in a couple of times when the game was over and he’s done really well,” Van Horn said. “And he’s come in maybe a couple times when there was a little bit going on and it didn’t go so good for him.
“Last night I thought he did a great job and today, that was huge. That was a big leverage inning right there where he comes in with a runner on second and third and nobody out, we have a three-run lead. As a coach, you’re over there just thinking, ‘Man, if he can get out of this just giving up one, that’s a great job.’
“…Hopefully he gained a lot of confidence there and can take that confidence with him going forward.”
Van Horn was happy to see Morris put together three solid innings, which would have been three scoreless ones if not for right fielder Kendall Diggs’ two-out, two-run error in the seventh that cut Arkansas’ lead to 3-2.
Morris stranded the tying run at third when he got a grounder that third baseman Harold Coll made a nice play on.
“I think it was big,” Van Horn said of keeping the lead. “We had kind of a slicing line drive into the wind and an experienced outfielder. Ball hits off his glove. He should’ve had it. He’ll tell you that. He gets out of that and it’s 3-0.
“Now it’s 3-2 with the tying run in scoring position. And Harold Coll makes a nice diving play, got up and threw him out.”
Diggs atoned with a run-scoring double in the eighth and Coll had an RBI single that plated pinch-runner Mason Neville for a 5-2 lead.
“We came in and I don’t think we did much (in the seventh inning), but we did in the bottom of the eighth,” Van Horn said. “It was nice to get that three-run lead back. I mean, it could have been tied up real easily. I’d have to say that was a big part of the game.”
Both teams had seven hits in the contest.
UNLV freshman pitcher Jordan Hanson (0-1) kept Arkansas in check early, allowing just an unearned run in the opening inning through the first four innings before Wegner’s blast.
“We have have big, high hopes for him,” Stolte said. “He is a freshman and has good size and good leverage. We think he has got a chance to be pretty good. He was tough. He wasn’t scared and that s what we wanted to see.”
Photo by John D. James