CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. — Arkansas second baseman Brian Anderson and pitcher Chris Oliver said the Razorbacks have all watched the highlights dozens of times.
Former Razorback Bret Eibner’s game-tying home run in the ninth inning against Virginia is practically required viewing. So is the game-winning 12th inning, which helped Arkansas advance. None of the current were Razorbacks were there, but everyone knows about it because it came on baseball grand stage in Omaha.
“It gives you chills,” Oliver said. “To be part of something like that, I bet that was insane.”
The current group of Razorbacks will get the chance to make their own memories against the Cavaliers after slipping past Liberty 3-2 at Davenport Field on Friday night. Arkansas didn’t put together a pristine performance in its NCAA Tournament opener, but did just enough to claw into the winner’s bracket and get the opportunity to play No. 1 seed Virginia tonight at 7.
It will be the first time the programs have met since the 2009 College World Series, when Eibner and the Razorbacks eliminated the Cavaliers with a dramatic win. No one is facing elimination tonight, but Arkansas (39-23) does have a chance to take surprising control of the regional by upsetting Virginia (45-13) on its home field.
The Razorbacks looked like they was going to have a hard time getting there Friday.
“We knew we had our hands full and believe me, we did not look past Liberty one bit and lost that ballgame,” Arkansas coach Dave Van Horn said. “We could’ve gotten whipped, actually, the way it went. We feel very fortunate to win it.”
Van Horn decided to start Oliver ahead of Trey Killian in the rotation for matchup reasons and the move nearly backfired when the junior had trouble locating his fastball. He walked batters, hit others and surrendered a handful of hits throughout his adventurous five-inning stint Friday night.
The biggest jam came in the second inning when Liberty had the bases loaded with no outs. The Flames scored the first run of the game when Oliver hit leadoff hitter Ashton Perritt, but it was the only run to cross the plate in the inning.
“He hit a couple of us, walked a couple of us,” Liberty shortstop Dalton Britt said. “We had the bases loaded and good hitters coming up, we just couldn’t get that timely hit. If we had done that, we really would’ve busted it open.”
It got even better in the bottom of the inning when Brian Anderson, who went 1-for-11 in the Manhattan (Kan.) Regional last season, led off with a solo home run off Liberty starter Trey Lambert. The junior’s seventh home run tied the game and wrestled some of the momentum away from the Flames after taking the early lead.
“We just slowed them down mentally in that dugout by hitting that home run,” Van Horn said. “They were rolling. They probably felt like at the time even though they only scored one they were going to get after us pretty good and they could’ve.”
Instead, Oliver continued to work out of jams. Then, Anderson helped Arkansas take the lead with his second hit — an RBI single — as part of a two-run fourth inning.
Anderson finished 2-for-3 with 2 RBIs to lead Arkansas’ offense, which put together a better performance than last season’s three-hit effort in the regional-opening loss to Bryant. The Razorbacks finished with seven hits off Lambert (11-3), who pitched his team to a regional win against Clemson last season.
“We scored three runs,” Oliver said. “You can’t ask for much more.”
Oliver allowed 2 runs on 4 hits, walked 6, struck out 4 and hit 2 batters in his five-inning stint. He threw 109 pitches, 57 for strikes, but managed to frustrate the Flames by throwing off-speed pitches for strikes and wiggle out of tight spots.
Arkansas’ bullpen took over from there with the Razorbacks clinging to a 3-2 lead. Michael Gunn threw three scoreless innings to help them stay on top, then Jacob Stone kept Liberty scoreless in the ninth by stranding the game-tying run at third.
Liberty left 11 runners on base Friday night.
“That’s pretty tough when you’re trying to score a run and you’ve got two relievers who have an ERA under 1.00,” Liberty coach Jim Toman said. “Those guys can pitch.”
Arkansas will get a chance to impress once again at Davenport Field, although it comes against a much bigger challenge.
Virginia — which is hosting a regional for the fifth straight season — cruised during a 10-1 win against fourth-seed Bucknell on Friday afternoon. The Cavaliers didn’t need their ace, Nathan Kirby (8-1, 1.48 ERA), in the victory.
The ACC’s co-pitcher of the year — who stuck out 18 batters in a no-hitter against Pitt earlier this season — will be on the mound for the Cavaliers tonight. Arkansas, meanwhile, will counter with Killian (4-8, 2.18 ERA).
“We’re going to have to pitch, play defense and get timely hitting,” Anderson said. “That’s kind of the way our season has gone. Excellent starting pitching, the bullpen has been outstanding. So it’s up to the bats to get those timely hits and play defense behind them. That’s going to be the key for us.”
Van Horn said Virginia’s pitching staff, which entered the tournament ranked seventh in the nation in ERA (2.36) is “incredible.” He added the Cavaliers — who received the NCAA Tournament’s No. 3 national seed when the field was announced Monday — have pro prospects up and down their lineup as well.
But Van Horn said the Razorbacks wanted the chance to take on Virginia when the Charlottesville Regional field was finalized earlier this week. It has arrived five years after Arkansas won the only other meeting between the teams in dramatic fashion.
“I’ve definitely seen the video,” Anderson said of the 2009 CWS win. “Hopefully we’ll bring some of that momentum with us and make some more magic.”
CHARLOTTESVILLE (VA.) REGIONAL SCHEDULE
Game 1: No. 1 Virginia 10, No. 4 Bucknell 1
Game 2: No. 2 Arkansas 3, No. 3 Liberty 2
Game 3: Bucknell vs. Liberty, 1 p.m.
Game 4: Virginia vs. Arkansas, 7 p.m.
Game 5: Game 3 winner vs. Game 4 loser, 1 p.m.
Game 6: Game 4 winner vs. Game 5 winner, 7 p.m.
Game 7 (if necessary): - Game 4 winner vs. Game 6 winner, 6 p.m.