OMAHA, Neb.: The two darlings of the College World Series could be going home quickly.
On Saturday, Kent State’s first trip to Omaha was spoiled with an 8-1 opening-game loss to Arkansas.
On Monday at 5 p.m., the Golden Flashes (46-19) will face either top-seeded Florida or two-time defending champion South Carolina. Those two, who squared off in Saturday’s second game, have a combined 19 trips to Omaha.
“Experience is one thing, but the talent’s the other,” KSU coach Scott Stricklin said of his two possible foes. “Those teams are loaded. You can’t wish for one or the other.”
On Friday, national underdog and fellow CWS rookie Stony Brook was summarily dispatched, drubbed 9-1 by 2011 runner-up UCLA. Today, the Long Island school takes on Florida State, making its 21st appearance in Omaha.
KSU starter David Starn (11-4), a senior from Walsh Jesuit, struggled for the second consecutive start. After walking a career-high seven in a victory over Oregon in the super regional, Starn issued six free passes against Arkansas. In the first inning, when he walked three of the first four batters, eight of his first 11 pitches were balls.
“His arm speed has not been there the last couple outings,” KSU pitching coach Mike Birkbeck said of Starn, recently drafted in the seventh round by the Atlanta Braves.
“It was basically just a flaw in my mechanics. I wasn’t really finishing my pitches. It’s just running away from me a little bit,” Starn said, echoing what he’d said Friday about his outing against Oregon. “I wasn’t really nervous coming into the game. Coach Birkbeck came in after the first inning and we talked about it. I thought I got it a little bit under control as the game went on. Arkansas is a great hitting team and they took advantage of a couple mistakes.”
Starn escaped the shaky first by allowing just one run, with senior shortstop Jimmy Rider minimizing the damage with an inning-ending double play. The Razorbacks also touched Starn for a run in the second, with No. 9 hitter Jake Wise rapping his second home run of the season to left field, and one in the fifth on an RBI single to right by designated hitter Joe Serrano.
For the Golden Flashes, the turning point came after Rider put KSU on the board with a solo home run down the left-field line in the top of the sixth.
Starn retired the first two batters, then gave up a double over the third-base bag to second baseman Bo Bigham and walked left fielder Derrick Bleeker. To the plate came center fielder Matt Vinson, whom Starn had struck out his previous two times up.
“That was his last hitter,” Stricklin said. “Coach Birkbeck was ready to bring him out, bring in Ryan Mace, right on right, and I told him, ‘This guy hadn’t had a good look on David all night. Let’s keep him in there.’ ”
Vinson responded with a two-run double to the left-field corner, giving Arkansas a 5-1 lead.
“I take credit for that 5-1,” Stricklin said. “That’s on me.”
Stricklin also credited Arkansas for its patience at the plate against Starn.
“David faced 26 hitters and only two of them swung at the first pitch,” Stricklin said. “I think that was the key.
“They got ahead in the count. They had the plan to stay patient. David gets a lot of swings and misses on first pitches that are balls. They had a good scouting report.”
Kent State mustered only three hits off Arkansas starter D.J. Baxendale, who had allowed a total of nine runs in his two previous starts. Going 6⅓ innings, Baxendale (8-5) walked one and struck out five.
“He threw a lot of first-pitch strikes,” Rider said. “On that [home run] swing, I was looking for a fastball and that was probably the one pitch he left up all night.”
Stricklin coached Baxendale last summer on USA Baseball’s Collegiate National Team.
“D.J. Baxendale was outstanding,” Stricklin said. “He kept us off-balance. His fastball was sharp and he threw the breaking ball behind in the count. Knowing him from the summer we told our guys, ‘He’s really going to compete,’ and he was on, too.”
After Rider’s homer, Kent State’s best threat came in the seventh, when T.J. Sutton singled and Nick Hamilton walked. Sawyer Polen advanced the runners with a groundout to short, but Alex Miklos flew out to center to end the inning.
Stricklin wants the Golden Flashes to enjoy the trip to Omaha, but looks for a more determined effort Monday.
“We’ve got to make sure that we’re not just happy to be here,” Stricklin said. “We want to compete and get some wins and make a run at it. It’s still possible. We’re still here. But playing [one] of those two teams, lots of talent, lots of experience, it’s going to be a tough task.”