OMAHA, NE- The Arkansas Razorbacks offense brings to mind the mid-90s Colorado Rockies in a specific way.
You may remember those teams being known colloquially as the Blake Street Bombers because of their ability to launch balls through the thin Denver air and on to Blake Street, located just outside of Coors Field. The joke during those days was that their offensive core, made up of Larry Walker, Andres Galarraga, Vinny Castilla, and Dante Bichette, were in scoring position when they stepped into the batter’s box, given the likelihood of them running into a ball and hitting it out of the park.
And that’s probably what it feels like to face the Arkansas offense. From Eric Cole and Casey Martin at the top of the lineup, to Heston Kjerstad, Luke Bonfield, Dominic Fletcher, and Carson Shaddy in the middle of the order, all the way down to a guy like Grant Koch toward the bottom, there are threats everywhere you look.
If you’re a pitcher, that means that you have to be sharp in every at-bat, you can’t really work around anyone, and you feel the constant pressure that comes with knowing that one pitch could change the complexion of the game.
In the bottom of the fifth inning of the Razorbacks’ CWS opener against Texas, they flashed some of that power, and the complexion of the game changed.
To that point of the game, Texas starting pitcher Nolan Kingham exactly been mowing hitters down, but he battled his way through. He’d allowed just one run, on a Heston Kjerstad RBI single in the bottom of the first, but Arkansas had put a runner on base in every inning. Each time, though, Kingham found a way out of trouble. In the first, after the run scored, he got Bonfield to ground out, and then after an infield single from Fletcher, induced a fly out from Shaddy to escape the threat.
In the second, he worked around a leadoff single from Jared Gates. The third inning brought with it a Kjerstad double with one out, but a Bonfield strikeout and a Fletcher pop out ended the inning. In the fourth, Gates singled again, but Kingham stranded him.
In the fifth, he nearly pulled it off again. Kingham got Cole to fly out to kick things off. Casey Martin walked, but things still looked under control, as he got Kjerstad to ground into a fielder’s choice, putting him theoretically one pitch away from wiggling out of trouble. Instead, just a couple of pitchers later, he left a fastball in a dangerous location, and Bonfield rode it out to left-center to turn a 2-1 deficit into a 3-2 Arkansas lead.
For one single pitch in that inning, Kingham wasn’t as sharp as he needed to be, Bonfield pounced on it, and it completely changed the game. That’s what that type of power can do. The Texas righty finished the game with five innings pitched, having given up nine hits and five runs with one walk and four strikeouts.
“Arkansas is a great hitting team,” Kingham said. “They found a lot of barrels today. And I left a few mistakes up and they hammered it. I mean, it’s baseball.”
Maybe it’s the benefit of hindsight that makes it feel this way, but the air seemed to go out of the Texas balloon after the home run. Or maybe it just emboldened Arkansas to the point that the dam just broke.
“We did a good job of swinging the bats early,” Arkansas head coach Dave Van Horn said. “I thought Kingham did a really nice job of getting out of some jams. We just couldn’t get, really, that big hit, you know? Heston got one in the first, which you look up, we’ve got six hits and one run and (you) start to get a little nervous as a coach because you feel like you’re leaving some opportunities out there…And like I told the team after the game, the big swing of the day was Luke Bonfield. We went from down 2-1 to up 3-2 and it happened with two outs. That was the swing we were looking for to get us going a little bit.”
Arkansas kept the pressure on as the game moved to the sixth, scoring two runs on bases-loaded walks to Jax Biggers and Cole to make it 5-2, and you had to figure Texas caught a break when the game went into a weather delay, even as the bases remained loaded with no outs. Perhaps as the rain cooled off the temperatures, it would also cool off the Arkansas bats.
But that was not the case. The Razorbacks came out after the nearly three-hour delay and blitzed a series of Longhorn pitchers on the way to an 11-5 win.
Chase Shugart started on the mound for UT after the delay, but he quickly exited after a Martin RBI single, a Kjerstad two-RBI single, and a hit by pitch on Bonfield. Kamron Fields entered after the Bonfield hit by pitch, but he didn’t make it through the inning either. Fletcher greeted him with a two-RBI single and Shaddy followed with an RBI single of his own. After getting two outs, he walked Biggers and that was it for him. Finally, and mercifully for Texas, Andy McGuire came on to pitch and got Cole to ground out to end the frame.
Within a matter of minutes, the physical, mature Arkansas offense had taken a relatively close 5-2 game and blown it wide open to 11-2. And even though they didn’t pile on with home runs, it showed you, once again, what a quick-strike offense like theirs can do to you if you’re not sharp.
“You just can’t afford to pitch behind against Arkansas,” said Texas head coach David Pierce. “And that’s what happened when we got unraveled. Either we pitched behind or we tried to get one and threw white-on-white instead of a quality pitch.”
For Arkansas, whether in that big eight-run sixth inning or in their other scoring innings, the variety in who came through for them was as impressive as the run total. Just about everyone was in on it.
Kjerstad and Gates had three-hit days, and Martin, Fletcher, and Shaddy had two-hit games. The only starter without a hit was Biggers, and he chipped in with two walks. It didn’t matter if it was a first-timer in Omaha like freshmen Martin and Kjerstad or guys who have been here before like Bonfield, the entire offense seemed locked in after a certain point. And when that’s happening, these guys can feel it.
“We have such a balanced lineup,” Bonfield said. “And we all know what we’re doing at the plate. We all have a certain approach. And once Casey Martin hit that lead-off hit after the rain delay, everything just kind of snowballed on them, and we got a ton more momentum. We just never let up on the gas.”
In a tale of two outings, Blaine Knight had a similar day to that of Kingham, but managed to survive it.
He worked around a runner in the second, surrendered a run in the third on a Tate Shaw triple and an RBI groundout from Ryan Reynolds, and then got hung with another run in his final inning, the fifth, after a David Hamilton sac fly. In the end, he gave up four hits and two runs with one walk and four strikeouts.
Admittedly, it wasn’t his best stuff or his best outing, but he did more than enough, particularly within the context of a game where the offense allowed the team to run away with the win.
“Stuff-wise, it was okay,” Knight said. “Fastball command was average for me. I had the big breaker working a little bit. Slider was working and change-up a little bit as well. And did enough to keep them off the board enough for us to come back and get a win.”
And that’s precisely what makes Arkansas such a dangerous team. If the offense gets rolling like they did today, particularly immediately after the rain delay, the rest doesn’t have to be perfect. It just has to be good enough, and with this team, they’ve been more than just good enough in that respect more often than not.