During Arkansas’ run through the regular season, the biggest question mark was first base.
Dave Van Horn really had a revolving door working there.
Here lately, though, he’s settled on senior Jared Gates. Oh, Hunter Wilson came in and had a big grand slam in the SEC Tournament, but Gates has been the man there for the last few weeks.
And it’s worked.
“We had a talk a while back and just told him he was playing, to relax a little bit and he just shook his head and we told him you’re the guy,” Van Horn said after Gates had a two-run homer for Arkansas on Saturday night. “He sure has responded.”
In two NCAA games, Gates has been steady in the field. Saturday night he even had a diving grab of a hot foul line shot late.
Then there was his two-run homer that jump-started a seven-run second inning for the Hogs.
“I just feel good up there right now,” Gates said after Saturday night’s game. “I had a rough season so far, but I don’t know how to explain it. I’m just seeing the ball really well and getting good swings on it. I just have a lot of confidence in myself right now and I’m just going to keep it going.”
He has provided some stability, which was the hunch Van Horn played by putting him there and apparently made the decision to stick with him, come hell or high water.
“Gates is a good defender and at the time, we weren’t getting much production out of the first baseman I was putting over there so I felt like I would go with the experienced guy,” Van Horn said. “He seems to make a lot of plays.”
It’s probably not a coincidence Gates’ insertion into the lineup goes hand-in-hand with some defensive improvement, but Van Horn isn’t putting that out there just yet.
“We played pretty good defense down the stretch in Hoover,” he said Saturday night. “We had one game where it didn’t go well and the last maybe 10 (games) where we made four errors in a game, but other than that, it’s been no errors or one. It hasn’t been costly errors. It’s always nice to see an outfielder make a dive and catch.”
That, combined with the hitting, could also be a big part of the pitching improvements. With Murphy came out for the bottom of the second, he had a seven-run cushion.
“It’s huge,” Murphy said. “It lets you relax a little bit. When you come out and they bloop one to the outfield or something, you’ve got plenty of run support to get out of it.”
That second inning, which saw the Hogs send 11 batters to the plate. But it was almost like a rain delay, Murphy said later.
“It was kind of a human rain delay to start the second,” he said. “I came out a little stiff and had to get back going.”
He did, simply dominating the Golden Eagles for eight complete innings.
“It really started on the mound with Casey Murphy’s performance … 70 strikes out of 100 pitches is pretty impressive,” Van Horn said. “Southern Miss has a lineup as good as anyone in the country. They are big and physical and if you make a mistake, they can hit it a long way.”
They did when Caleb Bolden came on to start the ninth. He promptly gave up a long homer and two more hits. He gave way to Bryce Bonnin, who some forgot was even on the roster.
Even that’s not bad because now for Sunday night’s game, Van Horn will have his top relievers ready behind starter Isaiah Campbell.
That’s thanks to Friday starter Blaine Knight and Murphy’s shut-down performance against Southern Miss.
“He saved our bullpen and gave us a chance to have our guys ready to go for the rest of the tournament,” Van Horn said.
That makes whoever wins Sunday’s first matchup between Dallas Baptist and Southern Miss face a tall mountain to climb to force a final game Monday night.
“We’ve been in this situation before,” Southern Miss coach Scott Berry said. “Last Saturday, a week ago, when Charlotte hit us for a loss that night we had to come back play the next day and certainly had to win two the next day with the second being a championship, but tomorrow we need to win two to get to Monday. But we’ll have to take the first game against Dallas Baptist before we can look ahead.”
In Dallas Baptist’s win over Oral Roberts, they had to go to the bullpen and they had to Friday against Southern Miss.
Arkansas doesn’t have that problem.
Thanks to Knight and Murphy in large part.
But some thanks to Gates for apparently stabilizing the Hogs’ defense.