FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas has played some of its best baseball in dire situations this season, avoiding sweeps three times in Southeastern Conference play.
So the Razorbacks were in an unusual spot Sunday after claiming a series victory over Texas A&M with two straight wins. They had a chance to sweep an opponent for the first time this season, but found out how hard it is to complete the feat.
Arkansas fell agonizingly short of its third straight win against 20th-ranked Texas A&M, suffering a 6-5 loss in front of an announced crowd of 5,126 in Baum Stadium.
Logan Nottebrok opened the 10th inning with a home run off Arkansas closer Michael Gunn to give the Aggies (31-21, 13-14 in SEC) the lead for the third time in the game. The Razorbacks managed to load the bases with no outs in the bottom of the inning, but Texas A&M reliever A.J. Minter came out of the bullpen to retire three straight to help the Aggies salvage one win and spoil Arkansas’ final home game.
“It’s frustrating,” said Arkansas first baseman Eric Fisher, who flew out to center field to end the game. “It just shows you how hard it is to sweep.”
Arkansas nearly did everything necessary to accomplish it Sunday.
The Razorbacks (32-21, 13-14 in SEC) trailed 3-0 early, but battled back to take the lead after scoring two runs in the sixth and another in the seventh. Arkansas reliever Jacob Stone played a big role in the recovery, coming out of the bullpen to settle a staff that worked through shaky efforts from three pitchers through 4 2/3 innings.
Stone — who pitched 4 1/3 innings in relief — was one strike away from securing the series sweep when he allowed single to Cole Lankford. Then he allowed another base hit to Nick Banks. The ball bounced in front of left fielder Joe Serrano and skipped to the wall and the error allowed two runs to score to make it 5-4.
“Joe tries to come in and rake the ball,” Arkansas coach Dave Van Horn said. “He wasn’t going to catch it in the air to try to make a throw to the plate, which he probably wasn’t going to throw him out. It was not a good move. The ball got by him and all of sudden instead of a tie game we are down a run.”
Arkansas – which scored late to win Friday and Saturday – found a way to put together another rally. Andrew Benintendi opened the ninth by reaching first on Texas A&M second baseman Ryne Birk’s error. He eventually scored on Bobby Wernes’ one-out RBI ground out to push the game into extra innings.
But Arkansas quickly fell behind again when Gunn (3-2) replaced Stone on the mound for the 10th. Nottebrok hit the left-hander’s second pitch — a change-up left out over the plate — over the left-field fence to give the Aggies a 6-5 lead.
“Coming up, I said to myself, I just want to hit it hard somewhere and don’t worry about where it goes,” said Nottebrok, who went 3-for-4 with. “Luckily, he gave me a cookie and I was able to get the barrel on it and drive it out of here.”
Arkansas still worked itself into position to win again in the bottom of the inning when Michael Bernal, Clark Eagan and Serrano reached off Andrew Vinson (3-2).
Texas A&M coach Rob Childress went to the bullpen to get Minter to face the heart of the Arkansas order with no room for error.
“I told him, ‘Heck of a mess I created for you, huh? Why don’t you see if you can’t get out of it,’” Childress said. “And Lo and behold he did.”
Minter struck out Benintendi and Anderson for the first two outs. Then he battled with Fisher during a seven pitch at-bat, finally getting him to hit a fly ball.
“He did a great job,” Fisher said. “I faced that guy Friday, too, and he’s got a really good fastball and he locates it well on both sides of the plate. That was just a great job by him to go out there and just pound the zone and do his part.”
Arkansas stranded a season-high 15 base runners in the loss, which was its 12 by one run this season.
It was a disappointing end, but the Razorbacks did take an important step in securing a spot in the SEC Tournament and an NCAA Regional with the series victory. They did so with several injury issues entering the weekend as well.
Van Horn was impressed with his team’s performance in a series where catcher Jake Wise (concussion) was sidelined for the opener, starting pitcher Jalen Beeks (sore left elbow) missed his scheduled start, and designated hitter Blake Baxendale (hamstring) couldn’t play. Arkansas got a lift from new leadoff hitter Eagen (4-for-8 with a home run, double and 2 RBIs), catcher Alex Gosser (first career start Friday) and pitcher Dominic Taccolini (first start in Sunday’s finale).
Van Horn hopes the success continues when the Razorbacks play their finale series of the regular season at Missouri beginning Thursday. Arkansas needs one win against the Tigers (20-30, 6-21 in SEC) to secure a spot in the SEC Tournament. Two wins also would help the Razorbacks finish .500 in conference play.
“Hey, they played hard and gave it everything they had,” Van Horn said after Sunday’s disappointing series finale. “I’m just proud of the guys for going out and winning the series against a good team.”