CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. — Arkansas made the late decision to start Chris Oliver in place of Trey Killian for the Charlottesville Regional opener against Liberty.
The Razorbacks couldn’t get the performance they expected from Oliver on Friday night. But Oliver’s adventurous night on the mound didn’t keep Arkansas from moving into the winner’s bracket to face top-seed Virginia tonight.
Oliver, who struggled to with his fastball, found ways to work out of several jams and strand runners during Arkansas’ 3-2 win at Davenport Field. The right-hander walked six batters, hit two more and allowed two runs during a five-inning stint, but earned Arkansas coach Dave Van Horn’s admiration by getting through it.
“Chris didn’t have command of his fastball, but somehow he managed to get through that second inning with one run and that saved us,” Van Horn said. “He had just enough to get us through five innings.”
Oliver’s trouble started early, when he walked two batters with two outs in the first inning. He got the final out to get through the inning unscathed, but the troubles didn’t go away as Liberty took a 1-0 lead in the second inning.
Oliver (9-4) allowed a leadoff single, hit a batter and walked another to load the bases. He struck out Jake Kimble for the first out, then hit Ashton Perritt with the next pitch to push the game’s first run across the plate. Van Horn said he was “real close” to pulling Oliver, but the pitcher minimized the damage and stayed in the game by striking out Will Shepherd and Ryan Seiz to end the inning.
“We knew he was mid-90s,” Liberty’s Dalton Britt said of Oliver’s fastball. “But in the beginning he just couldn’t locate it. … I think that took us a little by surprise.
“Then again, we’ve got to make the adjustment.”
Oliver managed to survive by leaning on his off-speed pitches, throwing them for strikes all night. The Flames had base runners in every inning Oliver pitched Friday, but only managed to get runs across in the second and fifth innings.
Arkansas went to the bullpen for the sixth inning, ending Oliver’s night after 109 pitches (57 for strikes). The five-inning stint was Oliver’s shortest since April 26, when he allowed seven runs on five hits in three innings against Auburn.
“Command of the fastball was kind of like the LSU series,” Oliver said, referring to an outing in which he walked a career-high seven batters. “I had the off speed. Didn’t have any trouble. The fastball is something I’ve got to get control of.”
Still, Oliver earned the win for the fourth time in his past five starts.
“You can say he was effectively wild,” Liberty coach Jim Toman said. “Give him credit for fighting when he didn’t have his best stuff and his best command.”
Arkansas catcher Alex Gosser has played well in six starts since having his redshirt pulled late in the season.
But Arkansas coach Dave Van Horn went back to his veteran catcher for the Charlottesville Regional opener against Liberty on Friday night.
Jake Wise, who was sidelined for the SEC Tournament because of a hand injury, returned to his spot behind the plate after missing five straight starts. The senior earned his 50th start of the season and batted eighth in Arkansas’ lineup.
Gosser was an intriguing option because of his offensive success, hitting .273 with 2 RBIs in his limited starts this season. Wise has struggled at the plate in hitting .155, but the All-SEC Defensive team performer turned in a big play when he made a sliding catch on a foul ball to start the sixth.
Time for Kirby
Arkansas will face another staff ace in Virginia’s Nathan Kirby, who was the ACC’s co-pitcher of the year and is one of 21 semifinalists for the Golden Spikes Award.
Kirby has allowed three runs or less in each of his 14 starts this season. It included a no-hitter against Pittsburgh on April 4. Kirby struck out 18 hitters and allowed only two base runners in recording Virginia’s fifth no-hitter in the past 50 years.
Van Horn has only viewed video of Kirby on the mound, but has become familiar with him recently. The left-hander has been selected to play for the 2014 U.S. Collegiate National Team, which will be coached by Van Horn.
“I turned it off pretty quick,” Van Horn said of the video. “He’s pretty good.”
Bucknell faced a daunting task in trying to beat Virginia in the Charlottesville Regional opener Friday afternoon. The Bison made it even more difficult by committing four errors, including three that led to runs in the first three innings.
Nine of the 10 runs allowed by Bucknell were unearned Friday.
“I think we gave up about eight or nine unearned runs and you can’t give a team like Virginia extra outs,” Bucknell coach Scott Heather said. “Especially when maybe they’re scuffling at the plate a little bit early.
“The disappointing part of it is none of them were very difficult plays. They were all plays we made all year. I think nerves got the better of us early.”
Virginia is hosting an NCAA Regional for the fifth straight season and eighth time in the past 11 years. The Cavaliers improved to 7-1 in regional openers they’ve hosted with the 10-1 win against Bucknell.
Virginia has had mixed results as a regional host, though. The Cavaliers lost regionals as the No. 1 seed in 2004, 2006, 2007 and 2012. Virginia has won three times as the host in 2010, 2011 and 2013.
The Cavaliers improved to 30-3 at Davenport Field with Friday’s win.
Heather, who played at Arkansas in 1997 and 1998, said he was pulling for the Razorbacks before they played Liberty on Friday night.
Heather is in his second season as Bucknell’s coach after an eight-year run as the program’s pitching coach. He also was an assistant at UA-Ft. Smith from 1999-2004.
Heather has never crossed paths with the Razorbacks during his coaching career at Bucknell. But he has been back in the state several times since leaving UAFS because his wife, the former Emily Gross, is from Ft. Smith.
“It’s been a while since I’ve seen them play,” Heather said. “I certainly had a great experience there in Fayetteville and love the Hogs and hopefully they do well.”