K-State baseball advances to regional final of NCAA Tournament with win over Arkansas

The Kansas State baseball team is one win away from advancing to its first NCAA Super Regional since 2013.

K-State put itself in that enviable position by defeating Arkansas 7-6 with a mixture of timely hitting and clutch pitching on Saturday at Baum-Walker Stadium in Fayetteville, Arkansas.

Relief pitcher Tyson Neighbors summed up the emotions of the victory by screaming at the top his lungs, kicking his feet with excitement and wildly pumping his fists after he closed out the game with a strikeout.

The Wildcats can punch their ticket to the next round of the NCAA Tournament at 6 p.m. on Sunday against either Arkansas or Southeast Missouri State.

It’s impossible to understate just how meaningful this win was for K-State. The odds were stacked against the Wildcats from the start. Not only were the No. 3 seed Cats playing against the No. 1 seed Razorbacks in front of a sellout crowd that spent all night loudly “calling the hogs,” they had to go up against Hagen Smith, who is one of the best pitchers in all of college baseball.

Oh, and K-State had to deal with fatigue. Pete Hughes’ team took the field just a few hours after it defeated Louisiana Tech 19-4 in a game that began on Friday night but was postponed until Saturday morning because of bad weather.

None of that seemed to matter for the Wildcats, though.

K-State got six runs in the fifth inning and then Nick English added a home run in the eighth frame. That was just enough for starting pitcher Jackson Wentworth and Neighbors, the K-State closer, to get the win.

But things didn’t go perfectly for the Wildcats in this one. The beginning of the game worked out well for Arkansas with Smith looking every bit like a future MLB star. He kept K-State off the scoreboard through the first four innings. The Wildcats seemed overmatched against him, and it seemed like they were going to be in for a long night when the Razorbacks scored two runs in the fifth and took a 2-0 lead.

K-State was going to need to respond with something big to stay in the game. But that is exactly what the Wildcats delivered in the bottom of the same inning.

The Bat Cats answered with six runs of their own to take a 6-2 lead thanks to some impressive discipline at the plate from several hitters. First, they manufactured runs off walks, bunts and singles. Then they got a home-run swing from Kaelen Culpepper.

This has been an incredible NCAA Tournament for Culpepper, as he hit for the cycle against Louisiana Tech and then followed that up with a three-run homer against Arkansas.

The Razorbacks fought back to within one and had a chance to pull ahead in the final inning. But Neighbors was able to close out the game despite entering in the sixth inning and throwing a season-high 67 pitches after Wentworth took a seat.

K-State needed all hands on deck to win a game of this magnitude. That’s exactly what happened. Now, a Super Regional is within reach.