Win or lose, designated hitter Charlie Welch keeps coming through in the clutch for the Arkansas baseball program.
In a Game 2 loss against NC State, he blasted his third home run in as many games, one day after helping to kickstart Arkansas’ 21-2 demolition of the Wolfpack in Game 1.
“I haven’t really changed anything, still trying to keep the same approach and hunt my pitches in certain counts,” Welch said.
“If they leave it over the plate, I feel like right now I can hit anybody. They just have to make a good pitch and they haven’t, so I guess that’s what has been going on.”
Welch is hitting nearly .400, slashing .397/.506/.841 with 24 RBIs and 8 home runs in only 63 at bats.
Without question, his most memorable at bat game last Monday night.
It’s a scene now etched in Arkansas baseball lore forever, and you likely missed the best part as it happened.
As the pandemonium of a newfound, late-game lead reached new heights in the rubber match against Nebraska, Arkansas baseball coach Dave Van Horn and Charlie Welch both saw an opportunity. Then, they spotted each other.
Arkansas had finally took control of the do-or-die game of its draining Fayetteville Regional. Nebraska reliever Jake Bunz had no choice, facing a 2-0 count, but to deliver a dead-red strike.
So Van Horn locked eyes with Welch, and gave his reserve weapon polite permission to swing freely.
Welch reversed the course of Bunz’s next pitch with the biggest and brashest swat he’s offered yet. The three-run shot sailed over an elated — let’s not kid ourselves, relieved — Hog Pen as the Hogs fended off the Cornhuskers 6-2 Monday night at Baum-Walker Stadium.
The latest and greatest of Kevin Kopps‘ ongoing hero-anthology notwithstanding, Welch took center stage for a genuine Razorback “moment” that Arkansas baseball fans can only hope for more of in the Arkansas vs NC State rubber match tonight.
Looking at the recent past, Welch’s ascent hardly seemed likely.
But when folk heroes are born, it rarely does.
Charlie Welch’s Unconventional Path
I’ll get torched for this, I reckon, but here goes: I think one of the more gratuitously bad sports movies of all-time is “Rudy.” It is formulaic and boring, but mostly, I don’t think it’s remotely unique.
Every college program has its Rudy. We gravitate naturally to the backups, the lightly- or non-recruited ones, because their stories are often so relatable.
Charlie Welch is this charmed 2021 Arkansas baseball team’s Everyman. He is a solidly and unspectacularly built six-foot, 200-pound guy who embodies the sports-ism, “circuitous route.”
Welch’s catching prep career in St. Petersburg, Florida attracted cross-country attention. He spent his freshman year toiling at perennial West Coast baseball stronghold Pepperdine, well over 2,500 miles from home.
Perhaps the distance weighed on him. In 24 starts for a pedestrian Waves team, Welch notched only five extra-base hits, including a grand slam in his first collegiate at-bat. He hit only .211 and didn’t leave the park again, and it was clear the fit wasn’t right.
Welch sought renewal by returning home for 2020 to St. Johns River State College in St. Augustine, Florida. He performed well, batting .280 with four homers and 20 runs scored in the 26 games he played for the Vikings.
Welch’s ambitions took an abrupt backseat when COVID-19 became a very real thing. Loosely paralleling Kevin Kopps’ saga, Welch’s mercurial tale could’ve ended in frustration a little over a year ago.
Instead, Welch simply plugged away through the summer, hitting well over .300 in a Texas league steeped in amateur talent. Arkansas needed Casey Opitz insurance and a potential power source off the bench.
Dave Van Horn took notice.
Hog Folk Heroes Find Their Place
Rather than bemoan the relative scarcity of his appearances, Welch is capitalizing on them.
In the process, he’s made personal and program memories — fittingly, for a Pepperdine transfer — in waves.
“I knew coming in, I was going to have to fight for playing time,” Welch said in an interview after his two-run walkoff double against Florida catapulted Arkansas to the outright SEC title. “I just have to be ready for my opportunity. If they call my name, I’m ready to rock.”
That attitude explains how “Charlie Welch” trended wildly across Arkansas social media last Monday night.
Likewise, in 1978, had the Twitterverse existed, “Roland Sales” would have gotten all kinds of mileage.
Sales, older Hog fans will recall, keyed the Hogs’ 1978 Orange Bowl upset of No. 2 Oklahoma when he spelled suspended tailback Ben Cowins. Lou Holtz (in)famously finished off his first season as Frank Broyles’ successor controversially when a sexual assault allegation involving Cowins, Michael Forrest, and Donny Bobo forced him to act amid player protests and political tempest.
Oklahoma’s projected odds of winning the game, and by extension the national championship, grew so lopsided that oddsmakers nearly pulled it.
Roland Sales didn’t seem to care. He erupted for a 205-yard, two-touchdown performance on the ground, and the Hogs’ defense overwhelmed the Billy Sims-led Sooners, 31-6.
That output also represented one-sixth of Sales’ career production at Arkansas. He had a fine 1979 season and was selected in the 11th round of the NFL Draft, but never played a down in the league.
A similar dynamic has played out on the Arkansas basketball side of things.
U.S. Reed, Mike Qualls, Charles Balentine, and most notably, Scotty Thurman didn’t play a minute of NBA regular-season basketball. Arkansas fans, however, know exactly who they are.
Brady Toops: Arkansas Baseball Folk Hero
Just over 17 years ago, Razorback Brady Toops hit likely the most famous grand slam in Arkansas baseball history — a walk off home run that prevented Arkansas from getting eliminated in a Fayetteville regional against Wichita State:
Since then, Toops has had quite a career outside of baseball, going into the Nashville music industry, starring on “The Bachelorette” and founded a company focused on personal development called “Soul Games” after he says he hit rock bottom a few years ago.
Through it all, Toops has remained an Arkansas baseball fan.
He made sure to watch Welch work his magic against Nebraska:
“I wasn’t there, but to see the energy in that stadium and even to hear the noise when that ball was hit, it took me back to 2004, took me back to the grand slam,” Toops told HawgBeat’s Andrew Hutchinson.
“It definitely reminded me of 2004 as far as Hog fans expecting a big moment – a big moment in a big game.
“I think the similarities of it was just the build up and the electricity and then the payoff when you see the ball go over the fence. It’s those kind of moments that have electrified Hog fans and I think, ultimately, has really been a huge part of building the University of Arkansas program since its inception.”
Charlie Welch Squeezes the Most Out of His Chance
The great news for Welch is that the ride continues.
While Sales’ heroics ended a season, but Welch’s longball made sure Arkansas baseball’s breakthrough 2021 campaign didn’t meet an unpalatable end.
Perhaps Welch’s next grand chapter is written tonight. Van Horn certainly won’t deny his soft-spoken junior the chance, given the results to date and Welch’s absolute eagerness to seize the moment.
“(Welch) was there and ready to go,” Van Horn said of Welch’s signature shot. “He laid off a bad pitch and you saw what he did to that next pitch.”
“He hit it as hard as you can hit it.”
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