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STILLWATER, Okla. — Jalen Battles tied the bow on an Oklahoma State implosion by hitting a grand slam completely out of O’Brate Stadium on Saturday night.
Free passes had already brought home four runs to give it the lead in the eighth, but the shortstop’s big swing put Arkansas firmly in control of a wild game it eventually won 20-12 over the host and No. 7 overall seed Cowboys.
It was a dramatic comeback for the Razorbacks, who had to overcome two separate five-run deficits in order to get in the driver’s seat of the Stillwater Regional. It was also a significant victory because teams that start 2-0 in regionals have advanced to the super regionals 80 percent of the time over the last five NCAA Tournaments.
“Anything can happen, man, if you believe and those guys, they knew they couldn’t do it by themselves,” head coach Dave Van Horn said. “Guys were standing in there and getting hit by pitches and taking borderline pitches early and not getting themselves out. It took a lot of things to happen for us to make a comeback and then pull away like that.”
Trailing by two entering the eighth inning, the Razorbacks quickly loaded the bases. Peyton Stovall started it with a single and then Zack Gregory and Braydon Webb were hit by pitches.
At that point, Oklahoma State turned to its closer, bringing in Nolan McLean from third base to face the heart of Arkansas’ lineup. It started off well for him, as he struck out Brady Slavens, but it quickly unraveled.
“He was trying to bail us out of a tough jam that he inherited,” Oklahoma State head coach Josh Holliday said, “and sometimes when we were trying to make a perfect pitch, you end up holding the ball a click longer and trying to get the ball in a location that it just gets away from you a little bit.”
Only six of McLean’s next 19 pitches found the strike zone. He issued back-to-back walks to Cayden Wallace and Michael Turner to tie it up and then plunked Chris Lanzilli, which gave Arkansas its first lead since the second inning.
When Robert Moore also walked to make it 12-10, he let out a lot of emotion and celebrated it almost like a home run.
“The reality is the only way you really come back in games where you’re down five, six runs is you take your walks, you don’t make errors and someone pops a couple balls,” Moore said. “When we weren’t chasing his pitches and we were taking our walks — and then we eventually took the lead because of that, especially against their dude — it gave us a chance.”
That set the stage for what Moore described as his “favorite moment as a Razorback.”
Holliday moved McLean back to third base and brought in Trevor Martin to face Battles. Much like he did last year at Louisiana Tech and in the SEC Tournament, he delivered, sending the first pitch he saw into the parking lot beyond left field.
“I was looking for a fastball first pitch, and I mean, once I hit it, I kind of blacked out,” Battles said. “It felt good off the bat… It was right down the middle. I didn’t miss it.”
The scoring wasn’t over, because the grand slam made it 16-10 and Arkansas won 20-12, but it essentially ended the game, as it sucked the life out of Oklahoma State.
Here are several other key takeaways from the win…
McEntire Closes it Out
It was not a banner night for Arkansas’ pitching staff, including its usually stout bullpen, but Will McEntire provided the final four outs to finish it off.
The Razorbacks turned to him when a two-out, two-run single by Brett Brown cut the Cowboys’ deficit to four in the eighth inning.
McEntire got David Mendham to fly out to center to end that inning and then threw a perfect ninth — the only 1-2-3 inning by Arkansas pitching all night.
“One reason we wanted to get the ball to him is because he’s proven that he’s just going to be around the plate with everything — fastball, cutter, slider, whatever you want to call it,” Van Horn said. “That’s what he did, came in and got that last out in the eighth — it was hit pretty good — and then he came out and just really threw the ball well there in the ninth.”
What made Van Horn particularly proud of McEntire was the fact that it was the first time he’s been asked to pitch in that scenario, coming out of the bullpen in the middle of an inning. In his previous eight appearances, he either started the game or a fresh inning.
On top of that, McEntire has seemingly on standby all game. He actually got up and threw warm-up pitches during the first inning before sitting back down and waiting until the eighth to get in the game.
“He was locked in and he wasn’t going to use anything like, ‘Hey, I was up in the pen in the first,’” Van Horn said. “He didn’t care. He just wanted the ball. He knew what he wanted to do to help the team.”
Seventh-Inning Turning Point
Most of the attention will be on the big eighth inning, but the game started to turn the inning before. In fact, Van Horn pointed to the seventh as the “big inning” in his opening comments to the media.
On the verge of going down in order, the Razorbacks got a two-out home run by Turner, Lanzilli followed with a double and Moore hit a two-run homer. In the blink of an eye, Arkansas was back within 10-8.
Arkansas had managed to get within two runs earlier in the game, only for Oklahoma State to answer with a three-run inning to push its lead back to five. With that in mind, Van Horn had a short leash on reliever Zebulon Vermillion.
When Jake Thompson led off the inning with a double, he made the call to closer Brady Tygart. It wasn’t exactly smooth, as he walked a couple of guys to load the bases, but the freshman put up a zero by getting Chase Adkison to ground out.
“He got us through it because they scored three, we scored three and we had to have an inning where they didn’t score,” Van Horn said. “We told him to be ready within 4-5 pitches if something happened and something happened.”
Short Start by Smith
Pitching a day after ace Connor Noland returned to form, freshman Hagen Smith did not enjoy similar results for Arkansas.
Making his first start in three weeks, the left-hander failed to get through the second inning. He faced the Oklahoma State lineup once and — excluding the one who laid down a sacrifice bunt — walked half of the nine batters he faced.
Smith was ultimately charged with two earned runs on one hit, which was a bunt single, and four walks in what was tied for the second shortest weekend start by an Arkansas pitcher this season at 1 1/3 innings.
It was a tough day on the bump for Smith almost from the beginning, as he got ahead of Roc Riggio 0-2 to start the first inning, only to throw four straight balls and issue a leadoff walk. He eventually came around to score with the help of a wild pitch and error. Smith needed 38 pitches to get
Another leadoff walk in the inning, this time on five pitches, also resulted in a run and he fell behind 2-0 to the next batter before he laid down a successful sacrifice bunt. That was the final batter he faced.
Over his last four outings, which include two out of the bullpen, Smith has given up 12 earned runs on eight hits and 10 walks in 6 1/3 innings. That’s caused his ERA to balloon from 3.79 to 5.03.
~Oklahoma State held ace Justin Campbell, a second-team All-American by Collegiate Baseball, for Day 2 of the regional, but it didn’t pay off because Arkansas tagged him for five earned runs on seven hits and one walk. The right-hander had only four strikeouts in five innings despite having 133 in 94 1/3 innings coming in.
~With seven home runs Saturday, Arkansas now has 95 as a team this season. That is third in school history, trailing only the 2021 (109) and 2018 (98) teams. It broke a tie with the 2019 team (88) and moved past the 2010 team (92) during the game.
~The only player to homer twice was Moore and he hit them to both fields. Batting from the left side, he pulled his solo shot in the second inning and then went opposite field with his two-run shot in the seventh.
~Between the nightcap and the earlier elimination game between Grand Canyon and Missouri State, there were 16 total home runs hit at O’Brate Stadium on Saturday.
~During the eighth-inning madness, Gregory was hit by a pitch for the ninth time in his last 12 appearances. He’s now been plunked 16 times, which is tied for eighth on the UA single-season list.
~For the first time since April 5 against UCA, every player in Arkansas’ lineup notched at least one hit.
With the win, Arkansas is in the driver’s seat of the Stillwater Regional and needs to win just one more game to advances to the super regionals. The Razorbacks will face the winner of the Oklahoma State-Missouri State elimination game, which would need to beat them twice to knock them out.
“Obviously it’s the best position to be in of the three teams that are left, but we still have to finish it up,” Van Horn said. “Our guys, they get it. They know that we haven’t done anything. They still know some heartbreak from last year. They know what it’s all about. You’ve gotta finish.”
That elimination game is scheduled for noon CT Sunday, with the winner turning around and playing Arkansas at 6 p.m.