HOOVER, Alabama -- Tenth-seeded Texas A&M became the first double-digit seed to reach the SEC Tournament Championship game after holding on against 2-seed Arkansas for the 5-4 semifinal win on Saturday at the Hoover Met.
The Razorbacks came alive in the ninth inning, scoring three to pull within one run of the Aggies, but Troy Wansing and snuffed out the rally and closed out the victory with two crucial strikeouts.
After being swept by the Hogs during the regular season and enduring a fourth loss in the second round of the SEC tourney, the Aggies finally exacted their revenge with the title game on the line.
"I was telling the guys before the game, I was like, this is what you lay in bed at night at 11:00 and think about, dream about. You want to be in moments like this," starting pitcher Matt Dillard said. "When Coach (Jim Schlossnagle) gave me the opportunity, I was thrilled to have his respect and his trust to go out there in a situation like this, semifinal game. It's awesome."
Texas A&M not only ended things on a high note from the mound, but also began in good spirits.
Dillard shut down the Hogs' hot bats during his four innings of work with a season-high six strikeouts, allowing only two hits and one walk. Shane Sdao worked two strong innings of relief that included four strikeouts before Arkansas started chipping away, forcing him to pass the torch to Brandyn Garcia in order to close the seventh inning.
Wansing, who started the first game of the tournament and held Tennessee to one hit over eight innings of a 3-0 shutout, then came up with the clutch save.
Jordan Thompson led the way offensively, going 3-for-4 with one run scored, as the Aggies collected seven walks and notched 10 hits with five different players logging an RBI. However, the pitchers were key in the win as Texas A&M struck out 16 Razorbacks while walking only one and scattering 10 hits.
"Sdao who threw 50 some pitches the other day came back and gave us an awesome outing, and Brandon got us the outs we needed. Troy picked us up there at the end. J.T. (Thompson) had an awesome game, and (Jace) LaViolette's RBI in the bottom of the eighth proved to be a massive run," Schlossnagle said of the Aggies' collective winning effort.
"t I think this league has proven that on any given day if you don't play well, you're going to get beat, and it doesn't -- the depth of the conference is absolutely amazing," Schlossnagle added. "It's utter insanity, this conference. Every single game is a street fight. It's not even a boxing match; it's a street fight until the very last out is made."
Cali, going 3-for-4 with two runs scored, and Bolton, going 2-for-3 with two RBI, led the Hogs' offense. But it wasn't enough.
The game appeared to be a pitcher's duel at first, but Arkansas' bullpen struggled to keep the Aggies under control. Starter Brady Tygart tossed 3.1 innings, striking out three while walking two and allowing three hits along with one run. Will McEntire held it down for 2.2 innings before things began to take a turn.
The Hogs used three different pitchers to escape the sixth inning -- in which they allowed two hits and four walks -- and utilized six pitchers overall.
"Definitely wasn't the best day for me," Tygart admitted. "I had to compete a little bit more than I normally do. I just couldn't quite find it. But that happens, and glad we got off with as little damage as we did."
After a quiet first few innings, the Aggies scored the first run of the game after stringing together a couple hits in the bottom of the third. Hunter Haas continued to produce at the plate, singling to left field with two outs and advanced to scoring position after Jack Moss walked. Trevor Werner sent a pitch deep into right center, smacking the middle of the fence to score Haas with the stand-up double. Tygart retired the next batter to keep the damage to a minimum as Texas A&M took a 1-0 lead into the fourth frame.
With Sdao on the mound in the fifth inning, the Hogs' bats came alive as back-to-back singles by Caleb Cali and Payton Holt spelled trouble for Texas A&M. Sdao dug his heals in, striking out the next batter but then walking Bolton to put Arkansas in the perfect position.
Back at the top of the lineup with bases loaded, Tavian Josenberger stared down a golden opportunity to grab the lead. However, after working his way to a full count, he popped one up in foul territory and handed the momentum back to Sdao. With the threat of Arkansas' DH Diggs at the plate, Sdao remained sturdy and logged his fourth strikeout in a crucial survival moment for the Aggies.
The sixth inning proved to be the difference maker as Texas A&M tacked on some insurance runs.
The rally started with Austin Bost's two-out stand-up double, scoring Thompson who had singled earlier in the inning as his hard-hit grounder rolled its way to the very corner of left field. With a walk, Arkansas opted for a pitching change, but McEntire's stint on the mound didn't last long as he walked the next two batters, allowing Bost to score.
The Razorbacks looked to their bullpen once again, entering Parker Coil who, to their dismay, kept the free bases coming. The Aggies scored their third and final run of the inning with their fourth straight walk before Werner grounded into a fielder's choice, 4-0.
Entering the seventh, Arkansas dialed up its offense in an attempt to recover from its pitchers' struggles. the Hogs made a game-changing call, pinch hitting Ben McLaughlin with one out and Cali in scoring position after his lead-off double down the left-field line. McLaughlin took full advantage of the opportunity, sailing the first pitch of his at bat to left center and breaking up the shutout to make 4-1.
After Bolton's line out in right center, Josenberger singled to left field and forced a pitching change. Garcia took things over on the mound, drawing a groundout from Kendall Diggs to cut off the comeback attempt.
Arkansas entered its sixth pitcher of the game in the eighth inning, but the Aggies still found a way to score. With one out, Moss logged his second hit in the form of a double to right center before advancing to third on Werner's fly out to center. He made his way home on LaViolette's single to right field, adding on what would prove to be a crucial run for the Aggies, 5-1.
The Razorbacks refused to go down quietly as Cali led off the inning with a single through the left side, his third hit of the game, and advanced to second after Holt was hit by a pitch. Bolton came up big with an one-out double down the right-field line that brought in both baserunners and put Arkansas within two. Texas A&M quickly looked to its bullpen, entering Wansing to clean things up with the top of the lineup approaching.
Josenberger continued the Hogs' hopes of a comeback with a single through the left side, moving Bolton to third. A grounder toward the 5-6 hole scored yet another run as the throw tipped off Moss' glove and Diggs reached first. With one out, two runners on and only a one-run lead remaining, Wansing turned up the heat to strike out the next two batters and solidify the Aggies' 5-4 semifinal win.
"If we can continue to pitch, and we've played really good defense the whole season, then that'll give us the best chance either tomorrow or next week," said Schlossnagle.
HOW IT HAPPENED
B3 | Haas' two-out single started up the Aggies' bats in the third. Moss followed up with a walk before Werner smacked a double into right center, scoring Haas before the Hogs closed out the inning. Arkansas 0, Texas A&M 1
B6 | With two outs, Bost doubled on a hit toward the left corner of the outfield, scoring Thompson who had singled earlier in the inning. The next four batters drew walks to bring in two more runs as the Aggies made two pitching changes during the inning. Arkansas 0, Texas A&M 4
T7 | Cali led off the seventh with a double down the left-field line before pinch hitter McLaughlin plated the Razorbacks' first run of the game before the Aggies worked themselves out of the inning. Arkansas 1, Texas A&M 4
B8 | Moss doubled to right center with one out and later scored on LaViolette's two-out single to right field. Arkansas 1, Texas A&M 5
T9 | Cali led off with a single through the left side and Holt was hit by a pitch before they both scored on Bolton's two-out double into right field. Josenberger's single put runners on the corners and Diggs' grounder to the 5-6 hole scored Bolton as the throw tipped off Moss' glove, allowing him to reach first safely. With the lead on the line, Texas A&M's Wansing put all his power into the close, striking out the next two batters to secure the win. Arkansas 4, Texas A&M 5
Ten-seed Texas A&M (36-24) will move on to SEC Tournament Championship game against the winner of tonight's game between 1-seed Florida (44-13) and 4-seed Vanderbilt (39-18). First pitch is scheduled to start at 3 p.m. ET on Sunday in a contest that will be televised on ESPN2.
The Razorbacks (41-16), while eliminated from the SEC Tournament, will await word on when and where they'll play in the upcoming NCAA Tournament.