MANHATTAN, Kan. — Arkansas has predicated most of its offense around manufacturing runs this season, trying to score just enough to turn things over to its talented pitching staff and eke out wins in tight games.
But the small ball approach hurt the Razorbacks when it mattered most during their NCAA Tournament opener against Bryant on Friday night.
Arkansas wasted opportunities in the sixth and seventh innings thanks to failed bunts and the Bulldogs made them pay during a 4-1 win in the Manhattan (Kan.) Regional. Bryant scored three runs in the eighth inning and shut down the Arkansas offense the rest of the way to win the program’s first NCAA Tournament game.
It sends Bryant (45-16-1) into a winner’s bracket game against Kansas State (42-17) at 7 p.m. tonight. Kansas State beat Wichita State 20-11 earlier Friday.
The Razorbacks (37-21) will play an elimination game against the Shockers (39-27) at 2 p.m. Arkansas must win four games in three days to avoid elimination.
“We just didn’t do a very good job at all in a lot of phases of the game,” Arkansas coach Dave Van Horn said. “Especially sacrifice bunting.
“We just didn’t deserve to win the game and we didn’t.”
Arkansas had a handful of opportunities to take control of Friday’s game, but never came up with key hits or big at bats. It began in the fifth, when the Razorbacks managed to load the bases with no outs on Bryant starter Peter Kelich.
Arkansas did break through to score the first run on catcher Jake Wise’s bases loaded walk, but that was it. Jordan Farris and Matt Vinson struck out, while Joe Serrano grounded into a fielder’s choice to end the threat.
“You get in those situations you try to slow it down as much as possible,” Kelich said about the jam. “Go pitch for pitch and not worry about the outcome.
“I would rather not walk in that one run, but I’ll take that.”
Especially after Bryant tied the game with an unearned run in the sixth.
The Razorbacks followed with two more blunders at the plate.
Tyler Spoon singled off reliever Trevor Lacosse to lead off the bottom of the inning and Brian Anderson followed with a walk. Bryant went back to the bullpen for reliever Salvatore Lisanti, who had more success in a tight spot.
Arkansas helped him. Ficociello, who flew out to deep center field his first at bat and doubled to the wall in his second, tried to bunt the runners over with no outs. But Ficociello popped a high pitch back to Bryant catcher Jonathan Scott, who then threw Spoon out at second. The double play killed Arkansas’ momentum.
“Obviously it was a pitch about chin high,” Ficociello said. “Never a pitch we’re taught to bunt or even think about bunting. … That was, in my opinion, the turning point in the game. It destroyed our chances that inning as far as I’m concerned.”
Van Horn was asked about bunting Ficociello and pointed to Arkansas’ struggles with driving in runners in scoring position.
“It’s kind of the situation with the way it goes with this offense right now,” Van Horn said. “It’s tough. It’s a tough call. He hits into a double play, then I should’ve bunted him. The bottom line is just get the bunt down and go from there.”
A similar mistake happened again in the seventh, when Brett McAfee was hit by a pitch to lead off the inning. Wise popped out trying to bunt McAfee to second.
The inning eventually ended when Farris struck out and McAfee was caught stealing. Then, Bryant pounced on Arkansas in the eighth inning.
The Bulldogs got an RBI single from third baseman Kevin Brown to take a 2-1 lead, then scored two more on an RBI triple from John Mullen and single from Carl Anderson. Bryant got all three runs off Arkansas reliever Jalen Beeks (6-2), who had replaced starter Barrett Astin to begin the inning.
It was all Bryant needed to win. The Razorbacks never threatened in the eighth or ninth. Lisanti (2-2) didn’t allow a hit in four innings of relief.
“I’m just really pleased with our guys,” Bryant coach Steve Owens said. “They played a great game. They played errorless. They got 11 hits against really elite pitching.”
Meanwhile, Arkansas finished with three hits. The weak effort came one game after the Razorbacks managed only one against LSU in the SEC Tournament semifinals.
The struggles also overshadowed another strong start from Astin. The junior allowed one run on seven hits, struck out seven and walked none in seven innings. But the Razorbacks failed to score more than three runs in his ninth straight start.
“It’s pretty frustrating as a pitcher going out there on Friday nights,” Astin said. “But that’s something I don’t worry about. I can only do my job and then let the hitters do their job. That’s the way I took it all year and if we win we win. If we lose we lose.”
It’s the second time in three seasons the Razorbacks have lost their NCAA Tournament opener. Arkansas suffered a 3-0 loss to Charlotte in the 2011 Tempe (Ariz.) Regional, but won its next two games to reach the regional final.
Arkansas could not advance, though. The Razorbacks — who will send All-American Ryne Stanek to the mound today to face Wichita State — hope that isn’t the case again as it stands in an unexpected position after its opening game.
“I know the guys on this team, including myself, we know we can do it,” Ficociello said. “Now it’s just a matter of willing ourselves to do it and not hoping.
“We’ve got a bunch of strong-hearted guys on this team that don’t want our season to be cut short. We’re going to have to battle, but I think we can do it.”