OMAHA, Neb. (AP) – Arkansas coach Dave Van Horn had a simple message for his Razorbacks before they played Florida for a spot in the College World Series finals Friday night.
“I don’t care if they have the best player in the SEC and the best pitcher in the SEC, we have to take it to them tonight,” Van Horn said he told them.
Isaiah Campbell, a 24th-round draft pick who got rocked by Florida three months ago, won his matchup against Southeastern Conference pitcher of the year and first-rounder Brady Singer in convincing fashion.
Arkansas freshman third baseman Casey Martin went 4 for 5 and scored three times. His counterpart at third, SEC player of the year and No. 5 overall draft pick Jonathan India, was 0 for 4.
The Razorbacks took it to them, just like Van Horn wanted, and earned their way into the best-of-three finals next week with a 5-2 win over the defending national champion Gators.
Arkansas (47-19) has never gone to the CWS finals since the NCAA Tournament went to its current structure in 1999. The Razorbacks were runners-up in 1979 in their only appearance in a championship game.
Florida (49-21), the No. 1 overall seed, lost for the first time in eight NCAA elimination games. The Gators were looking to get to the finals for the second straight year and fourth time since 2005.
Martin, who grew up three hours from Fayetteville in Lonoke, population 4,200, grew up watching the Razorbacks and choked up when discussing what it meant to be in the finals.
“Honestly, I never thought I’d be here,” he said. “I dreamed about it my whole life. Dreamed to play for this team. Dreamed to start my freshman year. I’m just super excited to play for these guys. Some careers end here and some don’t. I just want to do what I can for each of them.”
The run to the championship round might not have happened Friday if it hadn’t been for Campbell (5-6).
The sophomore limited Florida to two hits over 5 1/3 innings, more than atoning for his worst performance of the season when he faced the Gators in the teams’ SEC opening series in March. In that game, he lasted only an inning and allowed six runs in a game the Razorbacks lost 17-2.
“I had it in the back of my mind when I woke up this morning,” said Campbell, who was drafted by the Angels earlier this month. “I know I didn’t help the team at all in that start. It’s one of my worst starts of the year. I didn’t think about it too much once I got to the field. I was ready to give our team a chance to win.”
Campbell was at his best this time, matching his career high with eight strikeouts and leaving with a 5-2 lead. Meanwhile, Arkansas scored four times in five innings against Singer, who took both of the Gators’ losses in the CWS and was beaten for the second time this season by the Razorbacks.
Campbell’s performance was the highlight so far in his comeback from bone spurs in his right (throwing) elbow, which forced him to take a medical redshirt in 2017. The 6-foot-4, 225-pounder’s fastball touched the mid-90s and his cutter and slider mid-80s, and he struck out six of the first nine Florida batters and held the Gators hitless until there was one out in the fourth.
Asked if he thought Campbell was capable of such a performance, Gators coach Kevin O’Sullivan said: “I’ll answer that honestly. Yeah, he was a lot better than I thought. He had a perfect game through four. Once we got him into the stretch, he lost some command. He was certainly a different pitcher than we saw in Gainesville. He was 94-96 (mph) pounding the outer half of the zone and threw enough off-speed to keep us off his fastball.”
The Gators managed only three hits against Campbell, Jake Reindl and Matt Cronin – the fourth time this season they were held to three or fewer and first since May 13.
Singer (12-3), the No. 18 overall draft pick by the Kansas City Royals, gave up Martin’s double and Dominic Fletcher’s 10th home run of the season before leaving in the fifth. The four earned runs against Singer were the most he’s allowed since Arkansas got to him for six on March 23 in what was his first loss of the season.
“I think they’re ultra-aggressive,” Singer said. “I threw some pitches, but they capitalized on the bad ones. That’s what a good hitting team does. I could have obviously made some better pitches.”
The Razorbacks won three of five meetings with the Gators this season.
NO. 1 GOES DOWN AGAIN
Florida’s loss means the NCAA Tournament’s No. 1 overall seed has fallen short of winning the national championship every year since 1999 – the first year of the current format when Miami won the College World Series.
“I don’t know there’s a whole lot of separation between the 1 seed and the 8 seed,” O’Sullivan said. “When these seeds come out, that was almost a month ago. If Auburn was sitting here and they had won our super regional, they would have had just as good a chance to win it as us. This game is very fickle. It can change game to game and week to week. The seeds are really irrelevant when you get to this point.”
Arkansas awaits the winner of the winner-take-all bracket final between Oregon State and Mississippi State on Saturday. Oregon State beat the Bulldogs 12-2 on Friday. The best-of-three CWS finals begin Monday night.
For more AP CWS coverage: https://apnews.com/tag/CollegeWorldSeries