HOOVER, Ala. HOOVER, Ala. — Blaine Knight won another duel against an opposing ace, his teammates played dazzling defense behind him and Casey Martin and Hunter Wilson homered to send the No. 7 Arkansas Razorbacks to an 8-2 victory over No. 3 Florida on Friday at the SEC Tournament.
The Razorbacks (39-17) advanced to the semifinals of its bracket at the Hoover Met where they are scheduled to play Saturday afternoon against Florida or LSU. A game between the Gators and Tigers was postponed after a fog delay just before midnight Friday. The game will resume at 10 a.m. Saturday with LSU leading 10-0 in the bottom of the sixth inning.
Knight (10-0) beat Florida co-ace Jackson Kowar (9-4) by allowing a single run — on SEC Player of the Year Jonathan India’s solo home run in the sixth inning — on 4 hits and 99 pitches through 6 innings.
Matt Cronin worked out of trouble in the eighth inning then struck out the side in the ninth to pick up his 11th save.
Martin hit his third home run of the tournament to stake Knight to a 2-0 lead in the second inning, then Wilson, a late substitute as a pinch runner, provided the capper, a grand slam in the ninth inning to put the game away.
“We’ve had our struggles on the road, then coming here and being able to knock off Florida after what happened down in Gainesville, I think this team can be special for sure,” Wilson said during postgame interviews with Knight nodding his head vigorously a chair away.
“We’re on a roll right now,” Knight said. “Might as well keep it up.”
Arkansas evened up it season series with the Gators at 2-2 and seemingly nailed down a spot among the top eight seeds for next week’s NCAA regionals.
“I feel real comfortable about it,” Arkansas Coach Dave Van Horn said. “I knew if we got a couple of wins here we’d probably be good.”
Florida Coach Kevin O’Sullivan originally listed freshman Jack Leftwich as his starter, but after long delays Thursday pushed the game back into Friday morning, he went with Kowar, who was the winning pitcher in Florida’s 17-2 victory over the Hogs in a series victory on March 23-25.
Asked his logic behind the move, O’Sullivan said, “Jackson’s pretty good and we’re playing Arkansas. That’s a pretty easy decision.”
Van Horn, whose team committed five errors in a 13-8 victory over South Carolina on a slick field in the late hours of Wednesday night into Thursday morning, praised both teams for an error-free game that featured two double plays for both teams and sterling defense by his club.
“Blaine, he’s one of those guys that when he pitches we usually play pretty good behind him. It’s like our defense is on their toes,” Van Horn said.
Center fielder Dominic Fletcher made the defensive play of the game in the third inning with two runners aboard and one out after catcher Jonah Girand’s leadoff double and a walk by leadoff hitter Deacon Liput.
Fletcher got a good break on Nelson Maldonado’s sinking line drive to straightaway center field and dove to make the catch just off the grass. Girand broke back to second, tagged and chugged for third, but Fletcher gunned him out easily with a throw to Martin.
“Oh yeah, I’ve said it over and over again, Fletcher is the No. 1 center fielder in the country,” Knight said. “He makes plays like that all the time, so if it’s hit out there that way I know he’s going to get it. The guy tagged and he threw him out. He’s got a heck of an arm.”
With an assist from catcher Grant Koch, Knight helped himself get out of a jam in the fourth inning with runners at first and third with one out. Knight snared first baseman Brady Smith’s come backer and was thinking about trying to start a double play, when Koch yelled India was breaking from third.
“I never saw the guy break off third, then I heard Grant at the last second, so I kind of made an awkward flip to Grant to get the out and it paid off,” Knight said. Knight retired Shane Shifflet on a fly ball to left to get out of the inning without allowing a run.
Kowar had a brief struggle with his command in the second inning and it cost him after a walk to Luke Bonfield. He fell behind Fletcher 3-1 but retired him on a high fly ball, but Martin caught up to his 1-0 pitch and put it over the left field wall, where he’s hit all of his home runs in Hoover.
“The one I got was a fastball in,” said Martin, who stood and watched the shot for a moment before flipping his bat. “I was kind of sitting on it.”
The Hogs increased their lead to 4-0 in the sixth on RBI singles by Fletcher and Jared Gates, then India got Florida started with his long shot to center field in the bottom of the inning.
Bonfield had a big day, with three walks and a double. Wilson pinch ran for him with no outs in the eighth and came to bat with Arkansas holding a 4-2 lead in the ninth after the Gators scored in the eighth on Austin Langworthy’s sacrifice fly.
Wilson, batting left-handed, golfed the first pitch he saw from lefty Andrew Baker just over the wall in right field for the grand slam, his first as a Razorback.
“Coach Van Horn, when I was on deck, he just told me, ‘be ready to slap something the other way,’ because that’s usually what I do,” Wilson said. “I just, I mean, breaking ball down, got the bat head out and let the wind do the rest, I guess. It was fun.”