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HawgBeat’s coverage of the Diamond Hogs’ Road to Omaha is brought to you by CJ’s Butcher Boy Burgers, which has locations in Fayetteville and Russellville.
FAYETTEVILLE — Sam Highfill breezed through the middle innings Saturday afternoon to help North Carolina State stave off elimination.
Despite a heat index that reached triple digits, the right-hander retired 16 straight batters at one point in the Wolfpack’s 6-5 win over Arkansas that forced a deciding Game 3 in the Fayetteville Super Regional.
He was charged with four runs, including three earned, on two hits and two walks while striking out five in 6 1/3 innings in what North Carolina State head coach Elliott Avent described as the second-year freshman’s best outing of his young career.
“He’s pitched great for us his whole career here and pitched great for us all year,” Avent said. “I just told Sam outside I thought it was the best game he’s ever pitched if you consider all of the circumstances of the meaning of the game, the crowd, but mostly the heat.”
Outside of a pair of home runs, Highfill kept the Arkansas hitters off balance while he was on the mound. He didn’t necessarily agree with Avent’s assessment, but was still pleased with his performance.
“I don’t know if it was the best I have ever thrown, but that’s a heck of a compliment,” Highfill said. “I battled out there there. It was tough with the heat. He mentioned that a few times and it was. But given the circumstances and situation and the team we were playing against, it couldn’t have gone much better I guess.”
A two-run home run by designated hitter Charlie Welch in the second inning was the only Arkansas hit through the first six innings. First baseman Brady Slavens, who walked and scored on the Welch home run, was the only other Razorback to reach base over that span.
Highfill went on to sit down 16 straight following the home run. He settled into a groove and nobody was able to figure him out. Four of his five strikeouts came during the stretch. He threw just 35 total pitches in the third, fourth and fifth innings.
“Just a confidence thing really…just go out and try to get ahead (in the count) and be in a lot better position later in the at-bat,” Highfill said. “I was able to do that for a couple of innings in a row.”
Head coach Dave Van Horn said he did a nice job spotting his fastballs away and then busting hitters in, but he he also said the batters helped Highfill out some.
“We swung at some high pitches, especially early on,” Van Horn said. “We went out of the zone too much. We had a chance to walk a couple of times and swung at balls that were up, fouled them off, swung and missed, popped up. He just got us to swing at it. He cost us.”
Highfill used his fastball – which touched 96 mph – effectively. He was good at getting the Razorbacks to chase it high, as it’s hard to lay off because it looks appealing, being close to the hitter’s eyes.
“They are a really good fastball hitting (team) but we can take advantage of that with 2-strike counts sometimes,” Highfill said. “That was the scouting report. … It was good that I was able to throw the high fastball for a good pitch.”
Even though he made it look like it at times, nothing came easy Saturday. It was 92 degrees at first pitch, but it felt like 101. That heat led to sweat affecting Highfill’s grip, so he had to adjust his tempo on the mound.
“It was just really hard for him to throw a breaking ball early and get a grip on that thing, so he had to throw a lot of fastballs today,” Avent said. “Sam likes to pitch quick. He’s a pitcher that gets the ball and throws it, but today, he had to take his time and become a different pitcher. That’s a quality of a competitor and a bulldog, which Sam is.”
Highfill managed to be an effective pitcher even without the use of one of his pitches. The grip issues did not slow him down, as he just dealt with it and continued to roll.
“Today might have been the slowest I’ve ever pitched in my life,” Highfill said. “I don’t think I threw a curveball after Welch hit that 2-run home run in the second inning. I don’t think I threw another, basically because I couldn’t grip the baseball. It was pretty much fastball and changeup all day.”
Highfill was able to make those adjustments in order to throw such a good game. He showed he was a flexible pitcher in a few ways – not only did he slow his tempo, but he changed his pitching motion on different pitches throughout the game, which threw off some of the Arkansas hitters.
“Honestly, the change of arm slot from going over the top to sidearm, you don’t really see that too often,” Welch said. “I think he was creating some bad swings from a couple guys. He even got me out on it. The elevated fastball all day was working for him, but really it wasn’t anything crazy. Nothing we haven’t seen before I don’t think. Maybe just went through a little bit of a cold streak.”
Highfill finally ran into trouble in the seventh inning. Slavens hit a one-out home run and Welch walked before North Carolina State made a call to the bullpen. Welch later scored on a throwing error by the shortstop.
In his 6 1/3 innings, only Welch and Slavens reach base.
“Highfill threw a great game,” Van Horn said. “Just kept us off the bases. (We) had a couple hits off him, a couple home runs and he might have walked us twice, but we never pieced anything together.”
It was just the latest solid outing by Highfill. He has beaten Georgia Tech, Louisiana Tech and now Arkansas since the regular season ended.
He allowed just one run on nine hits and four walks with nine strikeouts over 11 2/3 innings in his two previous starts. That gives him a victory in the ACC Tournament, the regionals, and the super regionals.
“It is a lot off fun,” Highfill said. “It has gotten bigger each week. I just try to not think about too many things and just go out there and try to get outs.”