BY DUDLEY E. DAWSON
The most important play or plays of a baseball game might not always be the ones that come at the end of a contest.
They could happen in the first inning as it arguably happened Saturday might in No. 5 Arkansas’ 6-3 win over No. 16 Tennessee before 11,076 fans at Baum-Walker Stadium.
The early heroics allowed SEC Western Division-leading Arkansas to claim the series with its win, but now looks for a sweep in a matchup where Tennessee has won a series since 1996.
“Well it feels good, but it’s like I told the team, let’s not just be all happy about this,” Arkansa head coach Dave Van Horn said. “I didn’t even mention that we had won the series ‘cause it is what it is and they know what we have, but it’s about we have another game tomorrow, and we need to do everything we can to try to win that thing.”
For the second night in a row, Vols lead off hitter Jared Dickey hit the third pitch of game over the right field fence and the head of a leaping Kendall Diggs to put visitors up 1-0.
Tennessee failed to add any additional runs that inning against Arkansas starter Will McEntire.
That brought up Razorback lead off hitter Tavern Josenberger, who stepped into the batter’s box against Vols ace Chase Dollander (4-4).
Josenberger would see a whopping 11 pitches, the last one sending him to first base via a walk.
He stole second and was there and out later when Razorback Jace Bohrofen hit his fourth home run in as many games and his 10th of the season to put Arkansas up 2-1 – a lead it would not relinquish.
“I thought that was big,” Bohrofen said. “Got myself in a good count. Tavian had a heck of an at-bat to start off the game. I think that just kind of speaks to the grittiness of our offense.”
It was a thing of beauty to Van Horn, whose team was facing a pitcher that is projected to be the college arm taken in this summer’s MLB Draft.
“On the offensive side, you face a guy like Dollander, I mean he’s got electric stuff,” Van Horn said. “But we got his pitch count up, and that was kind of one of our goals.
“It started off with the very first hitter of the game. I think Josenberger saw maybe 11 or 12 pitches, something like that. Fouled off some 96 mile an hour fastballs, maybe a little more. Just really got us off to a good start there.
“And then obviously Bohrofen got in a good hitters count, 3-1, got him a fastball and hit it a a long way and we had the lead and we never let it up.”
Tennessee head coach Tony Vitello – whose Vols fell to 23-12 overall and 5-9 in SEC action – thought the Hollander battles with Josenberger and Bohrofen were heavyweight ones.
“The first inning, you’re got two of the better competitors in the league going at it and the guy ends up drawing a walk,” Vitello said. “And then arguably the best left-handed hitter – or one of them as I don’t know how you line them up and no disrespect to anybody, but that guy is pretty good.
“So it was a clash of titans in the first inning that didn’t go his (Dollander’s) way, but the rest of the time, he was fantastic. We could have made a play behind him and we didn’t. So maybe things roll a little smoother for him after that.”
Hollander would allow just one other hit – Ben McLaughlin’s RBI single in the fifth that chased home Caleb Cali, whose drive the gap to open the inning.
It happened on Dollander’s last pitch on a night where he fanned eight.
McLaughlin was in the line up as the designated hitter due to the thumb injury suffered earlier this week by Jared Wegner, Arkansas’ leading home run hitter (12) and run producer (44 RBIs).
Wegner, who was a ninth-inning defensive replacement in Friday night’s 5-2 win, could be out awhile per Van Horn.
“Yeah, I think what we’re probably going to do is we’re having a hand doctor look at it again,” Van Horn said. “I don’t know if we’re going to play him for a while. I think we’re going to let that thing heal. Until it heals. 3-4 weeks.”
For the second straight night, Arkansas had its starting produce a quality start and go six innings with McEntire (5-1) allowing two runs, five hits, fanning six and walking one.
The Razorbacks have dealt with injuries and falling behind early, but have still thrived and lead the West by a game over No. 1 LSU (29-6, 9-5).
“I’m just going to say that I think this team thrives on adversity,” McEntire said. “We’ve been through it all year and I think we’re doing a good job of hanging in.”
Wood echoed that sentiment.
It also needed just one reliever again to handle the the final three frames with Gage Wood picking up his third save while allowing just one hit, fanning six, walking two and allowing one run that came in the ninth inning on a wild pitch.
Wood is relishing his role as a closer.
“I love coming out of the pen, getting that feeling in your heart that it’s beating fast and adrenaline is running through your veins and the crowd is on their feet,” Wood said. “ I love that kind of situation now.
“At first it wasn’t my best thing. Like I had to really adapt to it. But now that I feel like I’ve gotten my feet wet and been in so many situations, I like it more than starting almost.”
Tennessee’s Blake Burke homered off McEntire in the sixth to cut it to 3-2 the Vols loaded the bases against Razorback reliever Gage Wood.
The Vols failed to score and then imploded in Arkansas’ three-run seventh inning in which the Razorbacks took a 6-2 advantage.
Tennessee reliever Camden Sewell hit three Arkansas batters in John Bolton, Peyton Stovall and Brady Slavens, committed a run-scoring error on a pick off play and gave up RBI singles to Diggs and Caleb Cali.
“Well, they picked four or five times,” Van Horn said. “Then the (pitching) coach (Frank Anderson) went out and visited the mound. And then he picked at least one more time.
“That was all a setup to try to run that play to pick at third, where the pitcher steps off the rubber, arm-fakes to first and then spins and throws. It’s a really hard play.
“Now if he makes a good throw, he’s probably out. It’s risky. Sometimes you do that when you’re behind a run, you’re trying to keep it there in the worst way.”
Vitello said he was just trying to do something to spark his team – noting that when ‘you try hard, you die hard’ at times.
“Cam’s been our guy in the past, he’s been our guy this year, led us to victory on the road last time were were on road,” Vitello said. “I don’t think that can brag about hammering him all over the park, but he certainly shot himself in the foot a little bit with the hit by pitch deal.
“We try something there because when it is not going well, you can’t just sit still. You want to try stuff.
“I think we have probably been guilty of just not executing in general. That’s pretty obvious if you are watching in person or on TV. But also a little guilty of – because we are not executing – trying a little too hard and when you try hard, you die hard.”
The two teams will finish off the three-game series on Sunday at 2 p.m.
Arkansas has not announced a starter while Tennessee is set to throw Drew Beam (4-1, 2.52) with former starter Chase Burns (2-3, 6.10) available in relief.
“Beam will pitch tomorrow and Burns is obviously available out of the pen,” Vitello said. “Our intention was to use him (Burns) maybe twice this weekend, but now we are whittled down to once.”
Burns was 8-2 with a 2.91 ERA last season as a freshman, but has not been as sharp this year.
That moved Vitello to reference Arkansas pitcher and 2021 Golden Spikes winner Kevin Kopps, who he helped recruit to Arkansas when he was a Razorback assistant.
“It has been a quirky deal and it has led me to have a conversation where there is not as lot of guys…I mean we are standing on a field where Kevin Kopps put together one of the greatest years ever,” Vitello said.
“He (Kopps) didn’t do that three straight years. I love the guy, but he didn’t do it three straight years. There are very few guys that have put together three straight years in college – whether it be hitting or pitching.
“He (Burns) was great last year. I think he is going to be really good next year, probably great. But he still has got a chance to make it a good year this year – if not great. It has just been kind of quirky how it has gone.
“I think a little reset is good for everybody, in his case in particular. We know he will have good stuff and he will have a fresh arm and you always know he is going to compete.”