LITTLE ROCK - The UALR baseball team (26-24, 12-14) rode another solid pitching performance to earn a 9-2 victory and secure a Sun Belt Conference series win over first-place Florida Atlantic (28-20, 16-8) on Saturday afternoon. Junior Blake Huffman limited FAU to five hits and two runs over 6.0 innings, and relievers Marshal Hamrick and Bubba Cooper combined to hold the Owls scoreless over the final three frames.
Florida Atlantic pushed across a run in the top of the seventh to make it a 4-2 ballgame, but junior Blake Johnson hit a two-out, three-run homer in the bottom half to put the game out of reach. Johnson went 2-for-5 with two runs scored and three RBI in the win. He was one of five Trojans to enjoy a multi-hit effort as UALR outhit the Owls 14-to-6.
Huffman improved to 5-3 on the year by striking out six batters while allowing just five hits and two runs over 6.0 innings. The Tyler, Texas-native retired 11-consecutive batters over one stretch, before Hamrick and Cooper combined to hold FAU to just one hit over the final three frames.
"Blake threw the ball really well today and gave us a chance to win, and our defense was a lot better than it was last night. I thought the turning point was Blake Johnson's three-run homer in the seventh after they made it a 4-2 game," said UALR head coach Scott Norwood. "It was nice to win the first two games and get the series victory, but we've still got work to do tomorrow."
FAU starter Kevin Alexander (5-1) suffered his first loss of the season after allowing seven hits and four runs (three earned) over 6.0 innings. Mike Albaladejo and Geoff Jimenez drove in FAU's only runs in the loss, with Albaladejo going 2-for-4 at the plate.
Huffman worked a pair of scoreless frames to open the game before FAU used three-straight hits to take a 1-0 lead in the top of the third. Nathan Pittman sparked the Owls with a double down the right field line and scored on the next play off a run-scoring single up the middle from Albaladejo. The Owls put runners on the corners with one out on the board, but Huffman prevented FAU from adding to its lead by striking out Corey Keller before getting an inning-ending groundout to second from Mark Nelson.
The Trojans evened things up at 1-all in the bottom half as senior Cameron Bentley plated junior John Clark with an RBI double to right. Clark opened the inning with a double past FAU third baseman Kyle Newton, and scored on the next play as Bentley delivered his team-leading 17th double of the year.
UALR pushed across two runs in the bottom of the fifth to take a 3-1 lead, after junior Chris Burk and sophomore Kaleb Jobe led off the frame with consecutive singles. Burk came across to score on a ground ball from Clark to give the Trojans a 2-1 lead, and Bentley singled through the right side to load the bases with no outs on the board. Alexander prevented the Trojans from having a big inning by getting a double play ball from the next batter, though UALR scored on the play, and then got out of the jam with a 4-3 groundout.
Huffman followed up Mitch Morales' single in the third by retiring the next 11 batters he faced, sitting down the Owls in-order in the fourth, fifth and sixth innings. FAU finally brought an end to Huffman's streak in the top of the seventh as Newton led off the inning with a single to left. Hamrick came on to pitch after Newton's single and struck out Alex Hudak before allowing a single to Mike Spano. Both runners advanced on a passed ball, and Jimenez made it a 4-2 ballgame with a sacrifice fly to right. The Owls stranded a runner at third, however, as sophomore Ben Crumpton ended the inning by making a diving catch at short on a line drive from Pittman.
The Owls turned things over to the bullpen in the bottom of the seventh trailing 4-2, but the FAU relievers surrendered three runs as UALR extended its lead to 7-2. Ahmed Garcia started the inning for FAU, but was quickly pulled after allowing consecutive singles to Crumpton and senior Sean Bignall. Greg Bennis took the mound in relief of Garcia and retired the first batter he faced before Johnson delivered a three-run homer to left center - his fifth of the year.
UALR tacked on a pair of insurance runs in the bottom of the eighth as Brett Nizamoff loaded the bases with no outs on the board by issuing a pair of walks around a double by Clark. FAU brought on Jake Meiers with the bags full and no outs, and Crumpton pushed across a run with a RBI single through the left side. Meiers was able to limit the damage by getting outs from the next three hitters, including a force out at the plate, as UALR added just one more run in the inning off a wild pitch.
Cooper prevented any late game heroics by sitting the Owls down in order in the eighth and ninth innings to give UALR its fifth Sun Belt series win of the season. UALR and FAU return to action tomorrow afternoon for the final game of the series at 12 p.m.