AUBURN – Auburn starting pitcher Michael O’Neal thought it was going to be a double play.
Michael O'Neal cuts loose against Arkansas on Friday night/Lauren Barnard photo
With runners on first and third with one out in the third inning Friday night at Plainsman Park, Dominic Ficociello hit a bouncing ball back through the box. Not wanting to knock it away, O’Neal stayed away. But second baseman Jordan Ebert couldn’t get there in time and the ball went into centerfield. Matt Vinson scored from third base and Arkansas led 1-0.
In a pitcher’s duel like few seen before at Plainsman Park, that was all the Razorbacks needed to win 1-0 and deny Auburn a badly needed victory.
With the loss and Kentucky’s loss to Missouri, Auburn was assured of being the No. 10 seed for the Southeastern Conference Tournament, which begins Tuesday at Hoover Metropolitan Stadium.
Auburn fell to 32-22 overall and 12-17 in the SEC. Arkansas improved to 35-18 and 18-10.
“You know coming in you they have one of the best pitching staffs in the country and you can’t give up a run,” O’Neal said. “That’s what it feels like. I thought we were going to turn two on it and tried not to touch it at all. Ebert just barely missed it. One run kills you sometimes.”
Time after time, inning after inning, Auburn had baserunners against flame-throwing Ryne Stanek. But time after time, the threats started with two outs. And no Auburn runner got to third base.
Stanek's fastball was clocked as high as 98 mph. His 123rd pitch was 93 mph. He projects as a high first-round draft choice. He has pitched four games in the SEC season after Arkansas has lost a series opener. In those games, he is 4-0 with an 0.33 ERA.
The bounce of the ball that didn’t go Auburn’s way went Arkansas’ way in the eighth inning.
Garrett Cooper walked to lead off the inning. After Patrick Savage flied out, hitting coach Gabe Gross called for a hit and run. With Cooper moving, Dan Glevenyak hit the ball hard back up the middle. It bounced off Stanek. For a fleeting moment it seemed Auburn surely would have runners on first and third with one out. But the ball bounced straight to Ficociello at third base. He got the speedy Glevenyak by a step at first for the second out. And that was that. Auburn would not get another hit.
O’Neal pitched seven innings, giving up a run on four hits. After Arkansas scored its run, he retired the next 14 hitters. Reid Carter pitched a scoreless inning. Chase Williamson pitched one-third of an inning and Trey Cochran-Gill finished it.
Auburn outhit Arkansas 6-5 and did not make an error. It wasn’t enough to overcome Stanek, who run his record to 8-2 and dropped his ERA to 1.54. O’Neal took the loss and fell to 8-4.
The 1-0 loss was Auburn’s first since Tim Hudson lost another pitcher’s duel at Alabama in 1996.
Auburn coach John Pawlowski said Arkansas’ pitchers did what they’ve done for most of the season.
“Going into the game, when you face that have their numbers and the talent they have on the mound, you have to match them pitch by pitch,” Pawlowski said. “We had a few opportunities to score, but they made some big pitches.”
O’Neal made some big pitches, too. But one found its way into the outfield at the wrong time.
“I’m real proud of what he did,” Pawlowski said. “We made some very good defensive plays. It was a very good college baseball game. We did a lot of things right. We just have to find a way to push one across or two across. We weren’t able to do that.”
The series rubber game is set for Saturday at 1 p.m. Auburn must win it to keep alive hopes of making to an NCAA Regional without winning the SEC Tournament.
“I just told the players they understand exactly what we have to do,” Pawlowski said. “There are a lot of opportunities when you start the season. As the season progresses, you have to take advantage of it.”