Caleb Gilbert’s first pitch was 92 mph for a called strike. The bases were empty in a scoreless game. The sparse Mother’s Day crowd had yet to fill the Alex Box Stadium bleachers in the top of the first inning.
“A more relaxed situation,” the freshman right-hander said of his new, starting scenario. “You can extend a little bit more. Of course it matters every time, but not every pitch is to the magnitude of being a reliever. It was a fun time out there.”
Oh, was it indeed.
Filling the dreaded “TBA” Sunday spot in his first college start, Gilbert — who began the season as the closer — fired five innings of five-hit, scoreless baseball while the offense built a quick lead against the Arkansas bullpen in a 7-1, sweep-clinching victory.
Gilbert had never pitched three innings and had only exceeded 50 pitches once in his short career, but he surpassed both of those benchmarks easily Sunday, retiring eight in a row from the second through the fourth inning.
The lanky right-hander with a 93-mph fastball and wipeout slider struggled to get ahead in counts but used a two-seam fastball with substantial run in the lower part of the strike zone to induce eight groundball outs in his five innings.
“Almost a little too low at times, and it put me in some bad counts,” Gilbert said of his two-seamer. “But I was able to make some pitches, get some ground balls. When you play behind a defense like this, it’s incredible. You just have all the confidence in the world in them.”
Seven of Arkansas’ first nine balls in play were hit with an exit velocity greater than 95 mph, but just three batters reached base in that span as the Tigers infield went to work.
Shortstop Kramer Robertson, playing with a swollen lip after absorbing Jake Fraley’s relay throw in Saturday’s game, made a slick backhanded play deep in the hole to begin the third. Chris Reid thwarted a potential rally in the fourth, fielding a tough grounder at third and beating Arkansas’ Rick Nomura to the bag for a force out.
“He showed out today,” catcher Jordan Romero said.
Romero gave Gilbert and relievers Parker Bugg and Jesse Stallings all the run support they would need with a three-run homer that left his bat at 103 mph and landed 383 feet away in the left-field bleachers, giving the Tigers a 6-0 lead in the fifth. Romero was swinging away with a 3-0 count.
“Gave him like an emphatic green light,” coach Paul Mainieri quipped. “Like, I really want you to hit this pitch.”
Romero’s power paired with Brennan Breaux’s continued emergence. Breaux scorched a two-strike liner into center field off Arkansas starter Keaton McKinney in the second for a two-run single. It was his fourth hit in as many at-bats.
Breaux entered Saturday’s 10-9, 10-inning win with an .050 batting average — one hit in 20 collegiate at-bats. A three-hit game Saturday gave him the start Sunday in left field.
“It wasn’t a reward so much as I thought having him in the lineup gave us the best chance to win today,” Mainieri said. “There was also a message sent to the team that you can be in a reserve situation, maintain a great attitude and be ready to go. And when you get your opportunity, you take advantage of it.”
“You get your work out in in a different way,” he said of his backup role. “Not necessarily in game reps, but the reps you take in practice, the reps you take in batting practice. They all matter. It’s just what you do with those reps that keep you mentally sharp and ready when your time is called.”
Bugg fired three scoreless innings in relief of Gilbert, and Stallings allowed the Razorbacks’ lone run on a ninth-inning single, closing a marsupial-free afternoon that began when former Miami pitcher Robbie Morrison threw a first pitch to 1996 College World Series hero Warren Morris and ended with little controversy.
“It was nice,” Mainieri said with a chuckle, “to play just kind of a normal game.”