Talk to diehard Arkansas baseball fans and there’s a good chance they’ll tell you they don’t care about the SEC Tournament because it doesn’t matter.
To a casual observer, it’s an unusual stance, but those who have followed SEC baseball know there’s some truth behind it — especially for teams like the Razorbacks who have locked in their postseason fate and have much higher aspirations than a conference tournament championship.
After all, the only time Arkansas has ever won the event down in Hoover, Ala., was during its historic 2021 season — a year that infamously ended in the super regionals despite a No. 1 ranking.
That wasn’t just an anomaly, either, as Arkansas baseball fan Cory Stewart eloquently pointed out in a well-researched video on his “stewhog” YouTube channel.
Since 2017, there have been 17 teams who played at least four games at the SEC Tournament and then reach the NCAA Tournament. Only three of them — or 17.6% — advanced to the College World Series.
Over that same time span, there were 29 teams who played three or fewer games in Hoover and were still selected to the NCAA Tournament. Nearly half — 14, to be exact — ended their season in Omaha.
That latter group includes 14 teams that failed to win a single SEC Tournament game — six of which made it to the College World Series, including the last two national champions: 2021 Mississippi State and 2022 Ole Miss.
Arkansas Baseball at the 2023 SEC Tournament
Entering the 2023 SEC Tournament, the Razorbacks are 39-15 overall with a 20-10 mark in SEC play, which was good enough to share the regular-season title with Florida. Throw in a No. 3 ranking in the RPI and they have essentially clinched a top-8 national seed.
That raises a legitimate question for Arkansas baseball: How should it approach what, on paper, are meaningless games in Hoover?
“Let’s just take care of the game we have in front of us and let’s just play good today and let’s not go backwards,” Arkansas baseball coach Dave Van Horn said. “You just want to play good. If we do that and it doesn’t go good, you can live with that and get back to your home base and rest up and get ready for an exciting weekend.”
That starts Wednesday afternoon with a matchup against the winner of Tuesday’s Tennessee-Texas A&M matchup. First pitch is tentatively scheduled for 1 p.m. CT on the SEC Network, but it follows the LSU-South Carolina game that starts at 9:30 a.m.
The Razorbacks swept both of those potential opponents last month.
“I’m sure whoever we get is going to give us their best shot,” Van Horn said. “When I saw that we were playing one of those two, I just kind of shook my head and thought, ‘Wow. That figures.’”
Right-hander Cody Adcock is slated to start Wednesday’s game, with left-hander Hagen Smith will start Thursday, as Arkansas is guaranteed at least two games in Hoover.
Here are four things that could happen on an individual basis at the SEC Tournament that’d help the Razorbacks down the road, followed by several other Arkansas baseball tidbits…
1. More ABs for Tavian Josenberger, Jared Wegner
Injuries have plagued this Arkansas baseball team worse than any other in recent memory, but the Razorbacks did recently return two of its starting outfielders in Tavian Josenberger and Jared Wegner.
Josenberger (hamstring) was back in time for the South Carolina series at Baum-Walker Stadium, while Wegner (thumb) needed an extra week before returning for the final series of the regular season at Vanderbilt.
They were two of the Razorbacks’ best hitters at the time of their injuries, but have struggled since coming back, going a combined 3 for 28 with 15 strikeouts, so the games this week will be used to “try to get them right,” Van Horn said.
Both of them have shown some encouraging signs even though it hasn’t necessarily shown up in the hit column.
Although Josenberger is just 2 for 17 with 10 strikeouts, he has also drawn nine walks out of the leadoff spot while making some very good plays in center. Wegner went 1 for 11 with five strikeouts, but his lone hit was a rocket off the top of the wall for a double that narrowly missed being a home run. He was also robbed of an RBI hit when the Vanderbilt third baseman snagged his scorcher that left the bat with a 117-118 mph exit velocity.
If they can get their timing back and hit like they showed earlier in SEC play, it’d give Arkansas a pretty deep lineup considering the production it’s gotten at the bottom lately.
2. Innings for Arkansas’ Young Arms
With not a whole lot riding on these SEC Tournament games, Dave Van Horn will have the flexibility to use some pitchers that have struggled in recent outings or haven’t seen the mound much the last couple of weeks.
At the top of that list is freshman Gage Wood, who had emerged as the Razorbacks’ closer in SEC play, but struggled in two outings last weekend at Vanderbilt. He is someone Arkansas would like to count on in high-leverage spots in the NCAA Tournament.
“We gotta get Wood out there,” Van Horn said after the Vanderbilt series. “We need to get him going. We have to have him throwing like he’s thrown before for us a lot.”
Two other freshmen that Van Horn wants to get on the mound at least once this week are right-handers Ben Bybee and Christian Foutch. They each last pitched against Lipscomb on May 2 and neither recorded an out.
Bybee has been up and down this season, even getting a couple of SEC starts, while Foutch was dominant his first several outings, but has allowed 12 straight batters to reach over his last four.
“They both have really good arms,” Van Horn said. “We are going to need them so we are are going to try and get them out there if it is right.”
Freshman left-hander Parker Coil is a candidate to see some time on the mound in Hoover, as well, but he also pitched in the last two games at Vanderbilt.
Another guy who hasn’t pitched since the Lipscomb game is sophomore Austin Ledbetter. It’s been a tough season for the right-hander, but threw four scoreless innings his last time out and has a 2.00 ERA over nine innings across his last five outings.
“He is more of a long guy for us so I think that if we play long enough, depending on the situation, he’s ready to roll,” Van Horn said. “So to speak, he is foaming at the mouth and he wants the ball. We’ll see if we can work that out.”
3. Another Chance for Will McEntire’s New Role
Something that makes Arkansas’ second-best ERA in SEC play even more impressive is the fact that roles on the pitching staff have been evolving virtually all season.
The latest development happened last weekend, as right-hander Will McEntire not only came out of the bullpen — something he’d done the previous three weeks — but did so twice.
He closed out Thursday’s win with four scoreless innings and then threw another 2 1/3 scoreless innings two days later. His first outing was 53 pitches and the second was 32, but he had plenty left in the tank when Van Horn pulled him with the SEC West title already clinched.
While most of Arkansas’ main guys will pitch only once and likely on a pitch count, Van Horn said McEntire could see the mound multiple times in Hoover — a role that could pay dividends in the NCAA Tournament.
“He’s a guy who we feel like wants to pitch more,” Van Horn said. “Get him out there and let him go a little bit. Just like the other day, we could have left him in. He was feeling great. He was actually throwing just as well as he did the first ball game he pitched and he felt great. Didn’t want to come out of the game. If it had been a different situation we wouldn’t have taken him out.”
4. Get ‘Future Starters’ in the Lineup
When talking about guys like second baseman Peyton Holt, Dave Van Horn doesn’t like calling them “backups.” Instead, he refers to them as “future starters” — and this week could give him an opportunity to get some of them in the lineup.
Most notably, Van Horn hinted at reinserting Ben McLaughlin at designated hitter, which would mean moving Kendall Diggs back to right field and taking out one of his outfielders.
With Tavian Josenberger and Jared Wegner needing the at bats as they work back from injuries, that leaves only Jace Bohrofen — arguably the Razorbacks’ best hitter in 2023. However, he’s mired in a two-week slump, going just 2 for 26 with eight strikeouts.
Van Horn has been known to give key veterans a day off when struggling at the plate, so perhaps he does that for a game in Hoover.
Another guy expected to play at the SEC Tournament is backup shortstop Harold Coll, as John Bolton is dealing with an injury (more on that below). If for some reason Bolton can’t return for the regional, this week is critical for Coll to get into somewhat of a groove.
John Bolton Injury Update
Dave Van Horn has ruled starting shortstop John Bolton out of Wednesday’s game and hinted that he might not play at all in the SEC Tournament because of a sprained ankle he suffered at Vanderbilt.
Bolton was injured in a collision with second baseman Peyton Holt during the Razorbacks’ eighth-inning collapse Friday in Nashville.
“They have tried to accelerate this as far as treatment, lot of treatment, keeping it elevated,” Van Horn said. “He walked with a boot on it and now he is not in a boot and he walked to the bus yesterday. He did not hit or field. I think he will today or maybe play some catch today.
“If we are here on Saturday, I think there would be an opportunity to play. That’s guessing. If he is not ready, like 90-95% ready, I am not going to play him. So we will see how that turns out.”
Although he is hitting just .202 this season, it is a significant blow for Arkansas because he has been playing his best baseball of late. Not only has he been making tremendous plays at shortstop, but Bolton also started to show some life over the last four SEC series.
Here are his splits from the first 16 conference games compared to his last 11, which began with the Texas A&M series:
- First 16: .100/.229/.125, .354 OPS, 2 RBI, 7 R, 45% strikeout rate
- Last 11: .300/.462/.367, .829 OPS, 5 RBI, 7 R, 23.3% strikeout rate
Arkansas Baseball Racks up SEC Honors
Dave Van Horn was named SEC Coach of the Year and four other Razorbacks were recognized with postseason accolades from the league’s coaches Monday afternoon.
Left-hander Hagen Smith was the lone first-team All-SEC selection for Arkansas baseball, while Kendall Diggs landed on the second team in the designated hitter/utility spot. Smith and centerfielder Tavian Josenberger were named to the SEC All-Defensive Team and right-hander Gage Wood was named Freshman All-SEC.
It is the third time in his career that Van Horn has been named the conference’s top coach, as he also won the award in 2004 and 2021 — the other two years he led the Razorbacks to a regular-season SEC title.
“It’s a great feeling, but the best feeling to me is knowing that we finished on top of the West and then getting a piece of the overall championship, which is so hard to get,” Van Horn said. “I’m just really proud of the players.”
Used as a starter and a closer this season, Smith has an 8-1 record and two saves to go along with a 2.56 ERA and 93 strikeouts in 63 1/3 innings. Opponents are slashing just .191/.323/.300 against the sophomore.
Diggs has started 50 games this season — 31 at designated hitter and 19 in right field — and hit everywhere from leadoff to seventh in the lineup. In addition to leading the team with 56 RBIs, the sophomore is slashing .314/.451/.566 with 10 home runs and has more walks (41) than strikeouts (39).
As the Razorbacks’ leadoff man when healthy, Josenberger has posted an impressive .916 OPS, but what landed him on the SEC All-Defensive Team was his excellent play in center, where he has yet to make an error in 116 chances. He even has seven outfield assists, plus consistently tracks down fly balls in the gaps.
After a somewhat shaky start to the season, Wood has been pretty solid for the Razorbacks and eventually emerged as the team’s closer. All five of his saves have come in SEC play and he has a 3.81 ERA with 41 strikeouts in 28 1/3 innings across 21 total appearances. Opponents are hitting just .184 with one extra-base hit (a double) against the Batesville native.
Tracking Dave Van Horn’s Bonuses
Following the 2021 season, Dave Van Horn agreed to a new contract that will keep him in place through 2031.
It came with an annual salary that started at $1.25 million with built-in raises, which — thanks to a trip to the 2022 College World Series — bumped it up to $1.35 million this year.
That’s not everything he’ll be earning this season, though, as he’s already achieved some of the incentives in his deal and several more are still on the table.
Winning the regular-season SEC title came with a $25,000 bonus, as did being named SEC Coach of the Year. Arkansas is a lock to make a regional, which will earn him a $50,000 bonus.
That means he’s essentially already earned an extra $100,000 this season. He could tack on another $25,000 by winning the SEC Tournament this week and another $50,000 if the ABCA names him the National Coach of the Year — an award for which Wake Forest’s Tom Walter is also likely a strong candidate.
Each additional stage of the NCAA Tournament the Razorbacks reach — meaning the super regionals and College World Series — would trigger an additional $25,000, while winning a national title would be another $150,000 on top of that.
Check out everything Dave Van Horn had to say ahead of the 2023 SEC Tournament:
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