FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas coach Dave Van Horn urged his midweek pitchers to shake off their struggles when its midweek series against UNLV began Tuesday.
Colin Poche and three relievers couldn’t produce in Tuesday night’s loss.
But Alex Phillips made sure the Razorbacks didn’t lose again Wednesday.
Phillips turned in his best performance of the season, helping Arkansas beat 20th-ranked UNLV 9-2 in front of an announced crowd of 2,874 in Baum Stadium. The right-hander equaled his career-best by pitching six innings and limited the Runnin’ Rebels to one hit and one walk on 82 pitches as Arkansas split the series.
“Alex Phillips came out and kind of pitched the way he did in the fall,” Van Horn said. “Just spotting his fastball on both sides of the plate. A few change-ups to the lefties every now and then. And throwing a breaking ball around the plate for a strike.
“He gave us six good innings against a good hitting team.”
It was a big change from series opener, when the Razorbacks (21-13, 6-6 in SEC) battled through a rocky pitching performance. Arkansas allowed nine hits, walked seven and allowed four unearned runs in the 10-6 loss. Van Horn said after the game it felt like the Runnin’ Rebels (23-10) had players on the bases throughout the night.
That wasn’t the case Wednesday. Phillips (3-0) retired six straight to start the game, issued a leadoff walk in the third, but picked the runner off the base. He faced the minimum through four innings and didn’t allow a hit until the fifth, when UNLV left fielder Joey Swanner singled with two outs.
Those were the only base runners he allowed in his six-inning stint.
“Fastball command was a big, big difference,” said Phillips, who had pitched three innings or less in four of his five starts entering Wednesday’s game. “I was really locating it down low (Wednesday) and keeping the hitters off balance with a curve ball that I was getting over for strikes. I would say command of the fast ball was the big key though between this and other starts I had.”
Phillips also had the luxury of pitching with the lead most of the night as well.
Arkansas pounced on UNLV starter Cody Roper, who had allowed seven runs in eight innings entering Wednesday’s game. Center fielder Tyler Spoon gave the Razorbacks a 1-0 lead when he was hit by a pitch to lead off the game, then scored a few batters later on Brian Anderson’s sacrifice fly.
Spoon did even more damage in the second inning after Michael Bernal singled in a run to make it 2-0. With two men on, Spoon swung at a first-pitch fastball from Roper (1-1) and hit it over the left field fence to give Arkansas a 5-0 lead.
It was Spoon’s third home run, tying him with Anderson for the team lead.
The home run also was Arkansas’ third in the midweek series.
“I think that’s why we have been hitting well the last week or so. We have been more aggressive,” Spoon said. “I got a fast ball down the middle and took advantage of it.”
The Razorbacks had four hits in the four-run inning. They added two more runs in the third and fourth to end Roper’s night. He allowed 7 runs on 8 hits.
“He was throwing a lot of fastballs and he was getting it up in the zone a little bit, belt high, sometimes a little bit higher,” Van Horn said. “He was trying to get ahead of us with that pitch, and we jus said, ‘Hey, let’s go hit it.’ They did a good job.”
The Razorbacks lost their chance to notch another shutout when UNLV’s T.J. White hit a solo home run and Swanner added an RBI double off reliever Jacob Stone in the seventh inning. But Arkansas responded in the bottom of the inning, regaining a seven-run lead when Andrew Benintendi hit a two-run double.
Benintendi, Bernal, Clark Eagan and Jake Wise each had two hits Wednesday. The Razorbacks finished with 12 hits during their fourth win against a ranked team.
Arkansas can collect more this weekend, when it travels to play No. 16 LSU (25-8-1, 6-5-1) in Baton Rouge, La. The series begins Friday at 7 p.m.
“It was a good bounce-back win for us getting ready to get on the road (today),” Van Horn said. “We needed a win against a good team and we got it.”