FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas coach Dave Van Horn gathered his team before Friday’s series opener against Vanderbilt and delivered an important message.
Help starting pitcher Trey Killian. Score runs. Play defense. Make sure the hard-luck right-hander, who was 1-6 this season, gets to enjoy a win in Baum Stadium.
“He laid everything out on the line about four or five weeks in a row and pitched into the sixth, seventh, eighth (inning),” Van Horn said. “Sometimes finished the game and saved our bullpen for the weekend and we didn’t get him a win.”
Killian was finally rewarded during Arkansas’ 6-2 win against the 18th-ranked Commodores (28-11, 7-9 in Southeastern Conference) in front of an announced crowd of 6,157 in Baum Stadium. The sophomore turned in another solid start and — finally — received plenty of support from teammates.
First baseman Eric Fisher and designated hitter Blake Baxendale led an offense that jumped on Vanderbilt starter Tyler Beede (5-5) in the first inning and finished with 10 hits. The Razorbacks also made key defensive plays to end threats throughout and Arkansas’ bullpen was sound, securing the first game of the weekend series.
It led to Killian’s first win since March 22 when Arkansas beat Alabama 2-1.
“Obviously, I want to win games. But it’s baseball,” Killian said. “It’s not always going to happen for you. Unfortunately, I had a little streak of games where it wasn’t happening for me. But I couldn’t be more happy about (Friday). Our hitters, they’ve been battling for me all year and I’m just happy for those guys.”
Arkansas (24-15, 8-8 in SEC) rarely had success at the plate with Killian on the mound this season, combining to score 11 runs in his six starts. The lack of support overshadowed impressive performances. Killian (2-6) had three complete games this season and had held opponents to three runs or less five times.
But Arkansas put Killian in an unusual – but welcomed – position early Friday night.
Baxendale drove in Arkansas’ first run on a ground ball with the bases loaded. Vanderbilt got a force out at second base, but couldn’t turn a double play. So right fielder Andrew Benintendi scored from third to give the Razorbacks a 1-0 lead.
Fisher made it 4-0 one pitch later, swinging at a changeup from Beede. The ball went over the right-field wall for his team-leading sixth home run of the season.
“What I see is a confident hitter, a guy that is smiling a lot more than a few weeks ago,” Van Horn said about Fisher’s recent power surge. “He’s really helping the team driving in runs in the middle of the batting order and playing great defense.”
Fisher homered in his fourth straight SEC game, extending a streak that began in last week’s opener at LSU. It also continued a power surge for Arkansas’ offense. The Razorbacks hit nine home runs in their first 32 games, but have added eight more in the past seven. Fisher is responsible for half of them.
The four-run lead became the largest Killian has worked with this season.
“He’s thrown three complete games and we haven’t really gotten runs for him,” Fisher said. “So going out there and scoring four runs at the beginning really helped him out and gave him some more confidence to go out there and just fired him up.”
The lead was cut in half in the third inning, though, after Killian surrendered two hits. The second single also included an error by outfielder Joe Serrano, which allowed the runners to move to second and third. Then, shortstop Michael Bernal committed a throwing error that allowed both runs to score to make it 4-2.
But once again, the Razorbacks made up for their mistakes in the bottom half of the inning. Baxendale, who had 6 RBIs in the previous three games, hit a two-out bloop single to right field to drive in Benintendi to make it 5-2.
Fisher drove in another run in the fifth with a sacrifice fly. He finished 1-for-3 with 4 RBIs against Beede, who was a first-round pick in the 2011 Major League Baseball Draft. But Beede’s SEC struggles continued Friday, falling to 1-5 in conference starts.
Arkansas tagged him for 10 hits, which was the most Beede had allowed in his Vanderbilt career. He surrendered nine hits in a loss to Texas A&M last week.
Fisher and Baxendale combined to go 3-for-7 with 6 RBIs.
“They’ve been a threat,” Van Horn said. “For those guys in the 5 and 6 hole to come up with some big hits and produce some RBIs, it’s been really big for us.
“That’s one reason we’re scoring runs now.”
And, for once, Killian finally got to enjoy the support as well.
Van Horn said the starter didn’t have his best stuff Friday night, but still led Arkansas to just its second win in an SEC series opener this season. He allowed six hits, struck out three and walked one in 6 2/3 innings.
Killian left the game after Vanderbilt loaded the bases with two outs in the seventh inning. But reliever Zach Jackson ended the threat by striking out Jason Delay. He and closer Michael Gunn held the Commodores scoreless the final 1 2/3 innings.
“I’m never happy when I get pulled out of the game you know?” Killian said. “That’s just the competitor in us. I feel like any pitcher on the mound is going to think they can get the job done for the rest of the game. But obviously that’s not going to be the case. You’ve got pitch count. You’ve got fatigue. You’ve got stuff like that. Coach Van Horn knows what he’s doing, obviously. Luckily we’ve got guys like Zach Jackson.”
Arkansas wanted to make sure Killian knew his efforts were appreciated, too.
Players shook Killian’s hand and offered their congratulations after the victory and the Razorbacks can win the three-game series tonight at 6:05 p.m.
“I know he was all smiles after the game,” Van Horn said. “The team kind of patted him on the back. We commented about it in our huddle. I think he really appreciated it. Like I said, he’s gone out there and gotten through some tough innings, pitched big time. He’s lost 1-0, 2-1. There’s some tough games that he’s pitched. …
“He’s kind of saved us. Glad to see him get a win by his name.”