FAYETTEVILLE — Behind starting pitcher Chris Oliver, Arkansas beat No. 11 Vanderbilt, 3-1, Sunday to win the SEC series at Baum Stadium.
Arkansas won the first game on Friday, 6-2, then lost Saturday, 2-1. But as usual, the Razorbacks took the final game of the series. Arkansas (25-16, 9-9) is now 5-1 in the final game of its six SEC series so far this season.
“We have talked about Sunday games since the fall, talking about the season and the grind and the way it works how important Sunday is no matter what the situation is,” Arkansas head coach Dave Van Horn said. “And they have done a good job. Hopefully they will keep doing it.”
Oliver cruised early against Vandy (29-12, 8-10). He didn’t give up a hit until the fourth inning. In the sixth, he took a line drive off his right thigh as the Commodores put runners at first and second with one out. But the junior right-hander from Farmington got Vanderbilt’s Xavier Turner to hit into an inning-ending double play as short stop Michael Bernal roamed far to his right to snag the ball.
“That was big for us. Our pitchers were able to get us ground balls pretty much whenever they want, I feel like. Michael (Bernal at short stop) was able to pick that ball clean and he gave me a perfect feed,” Arkansas second baseman Brian Anderson said. “So all i had to do was make the exchange and get it over to (first baseman Eric) Fisher as soon as I could. That was huge for us … That’s all we’re trying to do is just help out the pitchers, because they’ve done a great job for us. The least we can do is make some plays for them.”
While Oliver — who has now beaten three consecutive ranked opponents — was shutting down Vanderbilt early, Arkansas manufactured a lead.
Van Buren’s Tyler Spoon and Andrew Benintendi opened the bottom of the first with singles and moved up on a wild pitch. Joe Serrano hit a chopper to Vandy’s third baseman, who threw Spoon out at home.
Brian Anderson then took a fast ball off the helmet to load the bases before Blake Baxendale struck out. Eric Fisher worked a walk out of Vanderbilt starter Tyler Ferguson which forced Benintendi home for a 1-0 lead. But a grounder from Bobby Wernes left the bases full of Razorbacks.
In the fifth, Bernal was hit by a pitch to open the inning and Spoon followed with a walk. After Benintendi’s sacrifice bunt moved them around, Bernal scampered home when a pitch skipped past Vanderbilt catcher Jason Delay for a 2-0 Arkansas lead. After Serrano grounded out, Anderson roped a single that plated Spoon for a 3-0 lead.
“It was a little nerve-wracking when we left those runners on in the first inning because I know how good Tyler Ferguson is,” Van Horn said. “… We got out of there with a run and we rode that run for five or six innings and and then in the fifth we punched in a couple. And that inning started off with a hit by pitch and then a walk and they have a passed ball and then Brian got a big two-out hit. We did just enough.”
Oliver’s only mistake came in the seventh as Bryan Reynolds led off the inning with a home run to left which cut the Arkansas lead to 3-1. Oliver drew two ground outs after that, but then surrendered consecutive singles before handing the ball to reliever Zach Jackson. He got pinch hitter Karl Ellison to hit a looping foul ball near the wall down the first-base line. Anderson tracked it down with an over-the-shoulder catch to end the inning.
With two outs in the eighth, Van Horn went to closer Michael Gunn — who promptly walked the first two batters he faced to load the bases. But he escaped the inning when Nolan Rogers lined out to right.
“It’s really important for them to come in and throw strikes. A lot of times they’re coming into big situations,” Arkansas catcher Jake Wise said. “Zach Jackson came in, Gunn came into a big situation. I think they get ahead of hitters well, and then they use all their pitches. Zach has three quality pitches. So does Gunn. I think that’s the biggest thing. Some times bullpen guys only have two pitches. I think all of ours have three quality pitches that they can throw for strikes in any count. It’s hard the first time you see someone and they throw you three different pitches.”
Arkansas hosts Northwestern State for two nonconference games on Tuesday and Wednesday.