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OMAHA, Neb. -- It didn't take long to figure out Arkansas starting pitcher DJ Baxendale was due for a fantastic start against Kent State.
In his first inning against the Flashes, Baxendale had as quick of an inning as a pitcher could ask for. He induced a pair of ground balls and a fly out for a 1-2-3 frame. From that point on, Arkansas coach Dave Van Horn got the feeling good things were in store, as the Razorbacks cruised to an 8-1 opening round win over Kent State.
"DJ was just incredible," Van Horn said. "I knew after the first inning he had it. He threw the fastball everywhere he wanted in the first inning. That was a big pleasure."
Baxendale's performance against the Flashes could be a good omen for the Razorbacks. To say the least, the right-hander hadn't exactly been sharp the past couple of weekends. In Houston Regional play against Sam Houston State, he allowed four runs in six innings of work. The toughest pill to swallow was his start against Baylor last weekend, where he allowed five runs in just four innings.
Baxendale was incredibly sharp against the Flashes. He commanded his fastball well and did a tremendous job of moving around the strike zone, while also using his breaking pitches to keep Kent State off balance.
"It was huge. Against Baylor, I felt like I had really let the team down, so it was good to come out there and help us get through game one with a win," Baxendale said. "I know anytime time you can win the first game and pound the zone like I did, it's big for us."
The right-hander struck out five Flashes and allowed just one run on three hits in 6 1/3 innings of work, turning things over to reliever Brandon Moore, who finished the final 2 2/3 innings of the contest.
"He just threw a lot of first-pitch strikes," Kent State shortstop Jimmy Rider said of Baxendale. "We had a good scouting report on him, we just weren't able to execute good swings on the pitches he threw."
While Baxendale excelled, Kent State starting pitcher David Starn, who cemented himself as one of the nation's elite left-handed arms this season, struggled in a big way against the Razorbacks, and has throughout much of the NCAA postseason.
Starn struggled last weekend against Oregon, walking seven batters and allowing four runs on five hits in 6 1/3 innings of work. It was much of the same against the Hogs, as the lefty walked six batters and allowed five runs on six hits in 5 2/3 innings.
"Basically just a flaw in mechanics," Starn said of his rough start. "I wasn't finishing my pitches, leaving things arm side. That's basically what happened with the control issues. I felt like I had better control as the game progressed."
Though command issues plagued Starn, much credit also goes to the Arkansas offense. The Hogs didn't enter the College World Series known for their offense. After all, they scored just seven runs in three games in the Waco Super Regional series win over Baylor after scoring just 11 runs in three games in the Houston Regional.
Against Starn and the Flashes, the Hogs were very opportunistic and aggressive at the plate with eight-hole and nine-hole hitters Matt Vinson and Jake Wise getting the job done. Vinson had a key two-RBI double in the sixth inning, this after Wise homered in the second inning, Starn's first home run allowed in 70 innings of work.
The Hogs left just five runners on base, with designated hitter Joe Serrano going 3-for-3 and both Bo Bigham and Brian Anderson collecting two hits.
"Lay off of everything off the plate and get something elevated. That's what our game plan was," Wise said. "We just wanted to get something elevated and go the other way."
When filling out College World Series brackets leading up to this weekend, Arkansas was down the list in terms of teams expected to compete for the national title. The Hogs had the starting pitching and bullpen arms to get the job done, but the offense, which entered the CWS hitting just .211 as a team.
Maybe like Baxendale, the offense, and the Hogs, are finding their groove.
"They play like that, with offense and clean defense with that pitching, they have a chance to win it all," Kent State coach Scott Stricklin said.
GAME IN REVIEW
PLAYER OF THE GAME: DJ Baxendale, Arkansas -- The talented right-handed pitcher hadn't thrown well in the NCAA postseason, but certainly turned the tide against the Flashes. He struck out five batters and allowed just one run on three hits in 6 1/3 innings of work. Baxendale also threw 94 total pitches, 59 of them for strikes. It was easily Baxendale's best performance since a late May start against Tennessee.
UNSUNG HERO: C Jake Wise, Arkansas -- Wise isn't exactly known for his offensive production, entering Saturday's contest with a .248 batting average, a home run and 22 RBIs. However, he rose to the occasion in the Hogs' triumph over the Flashes. He went 2-for-3 with a home run, two runs scored and three RBIs. His solo homer in the second set the stage for the Hogs, as Wise tallied a season-high three RBIs.
GAME WAS OVER WHEN: Kent State scored a run in the top of the sixth inning on a Jimmy Rider home run to left field to make the score 3-1 in Arkansas' favor. Well, just when you thought the tide might be turning in Omaha, the Razorbacks responded with a pair of runs in the bottom half of the sixth inning on a Matt Vinson two-RBI double. The Hogs didn't look back after that clutch hit.
WHAT'S NEXT: With the loss to the Razorbacks, the Flashes will now head to the loser's bracket with starting pitcher Ryan Bores on the mound. Meanwhile, the Razorbacks should feel good headed to the winner's bracket with right-hander Ryne Stanek on the mound. Stanek was phenomenal in the Houston Regional two weeks ago before looking rusty in last week's start against Baylor.