FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas coach Dave Van Horn said it wouldn’t be easy for the Razorbacks to maintain their spot at the top of preseason polls throughout 2013.
He was right. Arkansas will likely tumble after its opening weekend.
Western Illinois avoided a season-opening sweep Sunday, beating the Razorbacks 7-5 in front of an announced crowd of 5,833 in Baum Stadium. The Leathernecks (1-2) put pressure on Arkansas (2-1) by scoring two runs in the first inning off starter Trent Daniel and never looked back, handing the Hogs their first loss.
It also helped Western Illinois coach Ryan Brownlee earn the first win of his career.
“After the last two days, I would’ve said this is a long shot,” Brownlee said.
But it happened because Arkansas struggled on the mound, defensively and at the plate after rolling to 9-1 and 7-2 wins Friday and Saturday, respectively.
Daniel (0-1), who earned the fifth start of his career, helped set the sour tone early by allowing five Western Illinois players to reach base in the first inning. The Leathernecks got on the scoreboard when first baseman Steve Kedroski hit a two-run single to give Western Illinois its first lead of the series.
Arkansas tied the game in the bottom of the inning thanks to RBI hits by right fielder Tyler Spoon (3-for-4, 2 RBIs, 2 runs) and shortstop Brian Anderson (2-for-5, 3 RBIs). But Western Illinois moved back on top after Daniel allowed two more singles — which scored another run — in the second.
“Trent didn't have good stuff,” Van Horn said. “He wasn't locating very well, just had an average breaking ball and gave up a couple of two-strike hits that really hurt, especially in the first inning.”
Said Daniel: “I’ll take the loss completely. … I just didn’t make pitches.”
But Arkansas had an even bigger problem in the fourth inning, though, with a new infield that featured Anderson at shortstop, Willie Schwanke at third base and Jean Ramirez catching. The Razorbacks committed three errors in the fourth inning — Anderson, Ramirez and outfielder Matt Vinson — that led to three runs.
Vinson committed the first error, hitting Erik Maki with the ball as he tried to throw him out at the plate. Then Anderson booted a sharp grounder off Dan Dispensa’s bat at shortstop, which allowed the second run to score. Dispensa later added the third run when Ramirez tried to throw him out as he was stealing third base.
“Boy it kind of backfired,” Van Horn said of the changes. “Like I told them, you can't play the same guys every day. You’ve got to be able to have some guys step it up and be able to play at this level. Hopefully they learned a lot, some of these young guys, and when they get the chance to play again they'll do a much better job.”
Van Horn said his team didn’t panic after falling into another hole, though, but the Razorbacks had trouble breaking through for a big inning.
Arkansas collected seven hits off Western Illinois starter Mason Pingel (1-0), but only turned them into three runs during his five-inning stint. Arkansas did pull closer in the seventh inning when Anderson hit a two-run double, but the Razorbacks failed to break through in the eighth and ninth innings.
The game ended when Anderson — with a runner on second — line out to left field.
“The biggest issue for us, I think, … On the offensive side, we got our hits, but we chased a lot of balls out of the zone (Sunday),” Van Horn said. “And we hadn't done that the first two days at all. We battled, had our chance in the eighth and ninth to get back in the game. We had runners on, we just didn't get a big hit.”
Van Horn called the series finale a disappointing loss, but the Razorbacks won’t have much time to dwell on it. Arkansas will be back on the field Tuesday at 3:05 p.m. to begin a two-game series against New Orleans.
Van Horn said freshman Colin Poche, who was suspended for the opening series, will likely start Tuesday’s game. Freshman Trey Killian could start Wednesday.
Arkansas reliever Brandon Moore said the Razorbacks plan to bounce back after learning an important lesson in their first loss.
“We can’t relax,” said Moore, who allowed one run on one hit in 5 2/3 innings in relief of Daniel. “I think we got too comfortable. That’s basically it.
“We got too comfortable and relaxed and it didn’t work out in our favor.”