BY DUDLEY E. DAWSON
An Arkansas baseball team that did some improbable things on its way to winning a share of regular season SEC Championship started off its postseason in the same manner.
Kendall Diggs’ 11th-inning walk-off homer capped off an SEC Tournament game which saw the Razorbacks rally from an early four-run deficit to down Texas A&M 6-5 Wednesday afternoon in Hoover, Ala.
“Exciting way to end the game,” Arkansas head coach Dave Van Horn said. “Walk-off homer is about as good as it gets, and just proud of the guys for hanging in there.”
The win pushed Arkansas (40-15) into a Thursday 4:30 p.m. winners’ bracket match up with LSU (43-13), who downed South Carolina 10-3 in Wednesday’s first game.
Razorback pitching ace Hagen Smith (8-1, 2.56 ERA) is slated to start for Arkansas.
“I think our team as a whole, we’re just playing for each other,” Diggs said. “We all want to win. It’s a really selfless group of guys, so I’m just doing whatever I can to help the team win.”
Diggs, a second-team All-SEC selection, launched his xx blast of season as ambushed Aggies reliever on a 2-1 count as the leadoff hitter in the bottom of the 11th.
“Yeah, for me, going up there, I didn’t want to jump on something that really wasn’t over the plate,” Diggs said. “Wanted to make him come to me, and he did with that first pitch fastball. Next two were really good pitches, probably maybe a ball down, so 2-1 count.
“I knew he was going to challenge me with something, just trying to get the head out, and it was good.”
Jared Wegner’s go-ahead grand slam in the seventh was another key blow in a contest that saw Arkansas veteran relievers Zack Morris and Will McEntire (7-3) covered nine innings.
“Yeah, just a really good job by our pitching staff today to eat up a lot of innings there,” Van Horn said. “A lot of those guys are bullpen-type guys, and maybe gets us a chance to get back on track with our pitching.
“Zack Morris was the story, five-plus innings, I think 80-something pitches, and gave up a run. Just a super job by Zack.
“Then Will coming in and just throwing nothing but strikes, he gave up one home run. They hit a couple balls hard, obviously, but he also got them out front a lot, and we had some quick innings.
Morris noted he had all of his pitches working against the Aggies.
“I’d say a little bit of everything, all four of my pitches were working, especially the fastball, the split and the curveball were all good early in the game, and I kind of found my slider towards the end,” Morris said.
“So I thought I mixed really well today. I made a few mistakes and they kind of paid — those pitches paid. I just felt like all of them I started to find the groove with each of the four.”
Texas A&M head coach Jim Schlossnagle wasn’t surprised with the late heroics against his Aggies (33-24), who have now lost all four games it has played against the Razorbacks this season
“Arkansas, I’ve always — I said this here the other day, and I’ll continue to say it, I think Coach Van Horn, if he’s not the best coach in the country, he’s in the top one or two. They just play outstanding baseball. They don’t screw the game up.
“…So they just played very sound baseball. They’re balanced through the order. They can beat you in a lot of ways, and the job they’ve done this year with the injuries they’ve had and just the next-man-up kind of mentality, that’s exactly what we’re trying to get going in College Station.”
Texas A&M jumped out to a 3-0 lead in the third inning after loading the bases with nobody out against Arkansas starting pitch Cody Adcock.
Van Horn summoned Morris from the bullpen and he gave up a run-scoring groundout and Trevor Werner’s two-run single that plated the inherited runners before ending the half inning with a pair of strikeouts.
Morris would also allow Ryan Targac’s fourth-inning home, but that was it while he was going a season-high five innings and throwing a season-high 85 pitches (61 strikes).
McEntire handle the final four innings, giving up Austin Bost’s ninth-inning home run to tie it 5-5, but allowing just two hits, fanning three and walking while throwing 60 pitches (36 strikes).
Arkansas put a pair of runners on in each of the first quartet innings, but stranded seven of them with Tavian Josneberger’s sacrifice fly finally scoring Harold Coll in the fourth inning to cut his team’s deficit to 4-1.
It stayed that way until after the seventh-inning stretch when Parker Rowland walked and Kendall Diggs reached on a one-out catcher’s interference that ended the night for Texas A&M reliever Shane Sdao.
Sdao pitched four innings of relief after Texas A&M starter Nathan Detmer was pulled after only getting nine outs.
Brandyn Garcia came to pitch and walked Jace Bohrofen load the bases setting the stage for Wegner, who had been 1 of 11 at the plate and been hit three times since coming back from injury.
Garcia then tried to get a fast ball past Wegner, but instead it resulted in his 13th home run of the season and surged Arkansas ahead 5-4.
“With my grand slam, the previous two at-bats I was kind of late on a lot of fastballs, and they were attacking me with fastballs,” Wegner said, “and they brought in Garcia who has velo, and (I) was kind of hunting a fastball middle in and got it off on that first pitch.”
Van Horn thought his team as a bit rusty
“Offensively we struggled a little bit,” Van Horn said. “Looked a little rusty to me. We haven’t played in a while. Practices have been very average because of the weather. Haven’t been on a real baseball field, honestly, until today when we walked in here.
And I felt like we started taking better at-bats the second half.
“I was hoping we could put together an inning. We were down four runs…and we had a catcher’s interference, a walk in there, and then Jared got him a fastball in, and I’m sure he was hunting it after his previous at-bat, and he got it and he didn’t miss it.”
Arkansas failed on chances to win in both the ninth and 10th innings before Diggs took matters into his own hands.
“Like I said, it’s just doing more what I can for the team,” Diggs said. “It’s also like you’re put in a situation, like it’s now or never. I think subconsciously you might lock in a little bit more in those moments or you know what you need to do and what you want to do. I’ve been blessed to be put in those situations, and I take any of our guys in those situations, as well.”
Photo courtesy of he University of Arkansas