It isn’t unusual for Dave Van Horn to struggle with filling out his 27-man roster each weekend and that was again the case for Arkansas baseball’s trip to Mississippi State.
Instead of agonizing over which pitcher or position player to give the last couple of spots, though, the veteran coach had a hard time finding a 27th player and he ultimately went with one of his many injured players — but it didn’t matter.
Despite limping into Starkville, Miss., without the top third of their lineup and another key arm, not to mention two other pitchers who weren’t at full strength, the Razorbacks head back to Fayetteville with a rare SEC road sweep after taking down the Bulldogs 11-6 at Dudy Noble Field on Sunday.
With second baseman Peyton Stovall (shoulder) joining outfielders Tavian Josenberger (hamstring) and Jared Wegner (thumb) on the injury report this week, Arkansas gave two players — Peyton Holt and Jayson Jones — their first career SEC starts this weekend and a third, Mason Neville, notched his first career SEC at bat.
“Just excited to get out of here with all three games,” Van Horn said with a laugh of disbelief as he sat down to talk with reporters afterward. “Came down here a little beat up again, just playing guys that hadn’t played much all year and it seemed like they just kept making good plays in the field, advancing runners and helping the team win.”
Making things even more difficult for the Razorbacks was the news earlier in the week that right-hander Dylan Carter, arguably their most consistent bullpen arm, needed Tommy John surgery. He joined projected ace Jaxon Wiggins (Tommy John) and top middle reliever Koty Frank (torn lat) as pitchers with season-ending injuries.
On top of that, Brady Tygart was still on a pitch count and Hunter Hollan’s start was pushed back a couple of days to give his leg extra rest.
That didn’t prevent Arkansas from notching just its 11th three-game SEC road sweep during Van Horn’s two-decade tenure — and only its second since 2015. Making that feat even more impressive is what happened elsewhere in the conference.
LSU lost two of three at Auburn. Vanderbilt lost two of three at Alabama, whose coach was fired the same day the series started. Florida lost two of three at Texas A&M. South Carolina was swept at Kentucky.
Just like that, Arkansas baseball has a half-game lead over LSU in the SEC West and is tied with Vanderbilt for first overall.
“The team’s kind of unreal to be honest with you,” Van Horn said. “They just believe they can win and they just show up. … They show up every day to play and they think they can win.”
Not only did the Razorbacks pull off a sweep while the other teams vying for a top-four seed lost their series, but they did so in dominant fashion. In fact, it was one of the most dominant SEC road sweeps in school history.
They outscored the Bulldogs by a combined 21 runs over the weekend, which is tied with a 2012 sweep of Tennessee for their largest run differential in a road sweep since joining the conference in 1992. During the Van Horn era, only twice has Arkansas swept an opponent by a wider margin, outscoring both Georgia in 2010 and Kentucky in 2018 by 24 runs.
Return of the Long Ball
As for Sunday’s game specifically, Arkansas scored all 11 of its runs with two outs, going 6 for 14 (.429) in those situations.
The swing that put the Razorbacks up for good was a double to right by Jace Bohrofen in an 0-2 count and they got on the board with Ben McLaughlin’s RBI single, but half of those two-out hits were home runs.
Brady Slavens hit the first one, following McLaughlin’s hit with his third long ball of the series to make it 3-0. It was a 398-foot blast that left the bat at 103 mph and 31.5 degrees.
“Putting him in the four hole, I was just trying to show him a little bit of confidence, especially with a couple of guys out,” Van Horn said. “I don’t know if he’ll stick there when we get our two other outfielders back, but he had some really good at-bats and some big swings and helped us get the lead. Just really happy for him that he had such a good weekend.”
The other two came in back-to-back at bats, with Kendall Diggs launching a 421-foot grand slam to blow the game open in the fifth and Bohrofen following him with a 403-foot solo bomb, despite a pitching change between them.
Arkansas had multiple home runs in each game over the weekend, hitting eight total. It had three on both Saturday and Sunday, marking the first time it had back-to-back games with at least three long balls since doing it in the first two games of the Wright State series in early March.
As a team, the Razorbacks have hit 76 home runs. That’s one shy of tying the 2008 team for 10th on the school’s single-season list. Their last five full seasons each rank among the top seven seasons in school history in terms of home runs, with the record being 109 in 2021.
Assessing Hunter Hollan’s Outing
After his ace got knocked around his last two starts, Dave Van Horn revealed the Hunter Hollan has been dealing with a leg injury that he described as shin splints.
That would help explain him giving up nine earned runs in nine innings across his outings against Georgia and Texas A&M, when he had posted a 2.81 ERA over his first nine starts.
In an effort to give his leg more time to rest, Van Horn pushed Hollan’s start at Mississippi State back from his usual Game 1 slot to Game 3. For nearly three innings, that move appeared to work flawlessly.
“His stuff was a lot better,” Van Horn said. “He was missing, but he was just missing. I mean, it was a ball or two off. It’s not like it was a foot off. He got himself into trouble. He got behind and that’s usually when they got him.
“It’s almost like he was a little rusty. I think we were all encouraged by what we saw — really good stuff, but maybe just not quite the command he had maybe three or four weeks ago. I’m guessing we’ll see the command next weekend.”
Hollan was one pitch away from getting through the third inning having faced just one over the minimum and thrown only 37 pitches, but instead, he ran into trouble.
In a full count against David Mershon, the left-hander started to walk off the mound thinking he had strike three, only for home plate umpire Jason Bradley to call it a ball for a two-out walk. Then things snowballed on him.
“It was definitely a strike,” Van Horn said. “Hitter’s what, 5-foot-7, 5-foot-8? It wasn’t low. I think the umpire knew it was a strike, with the little conversations that Coach Hobbs and I had with him later between innings a little bit. It is what it is. You’ve got to overcome.”
He ended up walking the next batter and then a couple of balks brought in the Bulldogs’ first run. On his very next pitch, Hollan caught too much of the plate and Hunter Hines hammered it for his 22nd home run of the season. It was a two-run blast that tied the game.
In the fourth, Hollan was once again a pitch away from getting out of the inning, but gave up an RBI double to Nate Chester in a 1-2 count. Van Horn pulled him after walking the next batter, ending his day after just 3 2/3 innings and 68 pitches.
He was charged with four earned runs on four hits and three walks while striking out thee — matching his strikeout total from his previous two starts combined (nine innings). It still wasn’t a great outing, but it was one that indicated Hollan’s leg is improving.
“It’s not 100%, but a lot of the pain is gone,” Van Horn said. “He’ll continue to monitor that and work on that this week. Hopefully, we can get that to the point where he doesn’t even think about it anymore.”
Zack Morris Strong in Relief
Perhaps the most encouraging development in Sunday’s win was the outing by left-hander Zack Morris.
After getting loose in each of the first two games, he finally got on the mound in Game 3 and turned in arguably his best performance in what has been a tough season for the senior team captain.
Inheriting a runner on first with no outs in the sixth, he gave the Razorbacks three scoreless and hitless innings while striking out two.
“The thing a lot of people don’t know is we had him up and down in the bullpen a couple of times this weekend, so he threw a lot of pitches this weekend,” Van Horn said. “Not just the ones you saw in the game, but getting up, pitching, not coming in, not coming in. Because we had him hot last night until we got the last out.”
Morris did issue a pair of free passes, plunking Amani Larry in a 1-2 count with two outs in the eighth and walking pinch hitter Aaron Downs sandwiched around Luke Hancock reaching on an error.
That loaded the bases and meant the tying run was on deck, but Morris made sure he never stepped into the box by getting Connor Hujsak to line out to left and leave the bases loaded.
The left-hander has now thrown five straight scoreless innings for the Razorbacks, as he also threw two scoreless and hitless innings against Lipscomb — one of the few positives Van Horn identified in the loss at Dickey-Stephens Park earlier this week.
Even with those two outings, his ERA is still 8.49 this year, but he might be showing some glimpses of the shutdown bullpen arm he was down the stretch last season.
“I’ve had a rollercoaster season so far and just couldn’t really find a groove earlier in the year, but this is where you want to get your team hot,” Morris said. “It’s this time of the year, so I’m just trying to find my way into this staff again, trying to be a reliable arm and then just trying to stack up quality outings.”
With no more midweek games on the schedule, the Razorbacks will have four days off before their next game. They host South Carolina for their final regular-season series at Baum-Walker Stadium beginning Friday.
The Gamecocks have lost back-to-back series since climbing into the top five of the national rankings. They followed up losing two of three at home to Auburn by getting swept on the road at Kentucky. Even after those losses, South Carolina is still 36-11 overall, which includes a 14-9 mark in conference play that is good for third in the SEC East.
First pitch of the opener is scheduled for 6:30 p.m. CT. Games 2 and 3 are set for 6 p.m. Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday, respectively, and all three games will be streamed on SEC Network-Plus.
Other Arkansas Baseball Tidbits
- With the sweep, Arkansas baseball has evened its all-time series against Mississippi State at 57-57. The Razorbacks did it by winning 11 of the last 12 games, pulling off three sweeps and winning two out of three in the other series — with the one loss coming in 12 innings. The Bulldogs won 18 of the first 21 matchups, which were between 1960 and 1993.
- Brady Slavens’ two-run home run in the third inning gives him 159 career RBIs with the Razorbacks, which ties Jake Dugger for 10th on the school’s all-time list.
- It was the third straight game in which Slavens homered, the first time he’s accomplished that feat at Arkansas. He now has 38 career home runs, which is one shy of tying Brian Kirby for sixth on that UA list.
- The only player who failed to reach base Sunday was Caleb Cali, who went 0 for 5 to end his on-base streak at 18 games. The longest active streak now belongs to Ben McLaughlin, who has reached in 17 straight games.
- Speaking of McLaughlin, he actually reached base in all five of his plate appearances Sunday, going 3 for 3 with three singles, two walks and an RBI. Including his seventh-inning walk on Saturday, he’s reached his last six trips to the plate.
- Freshman Jayson Jones made his first career SEC start Sunday and it was in left field despite being an infielder. He grounded out to first and struck out his first two at bats before getting hit in the helmet with a pitch his third time up. Although he was able to walk off under his own power, he left the game for precautionary reasons. Mason Neville replaced him as a pinch runner and stayed in the game.
- The first pitcher out of the bullpen was right-hander Cody Adcock. He got the Razorbacks out of a jam in the fourth and then threw a perfect fifth inning right after they went up 11-4. He was pulled after the first three batters reached in the sixth, including a two-run homer by Amani Larry.
- Freshman left-hander Parker Coil needed only eight pitches to induce three ground balls in a perfect ninth inning to close out the win. Van Horn said all of them were fastballs.
Arkansas vs Mississippi State Highlights (Game 3)
Arkansas vs Mississippi State Postgame Interviews
Arkansas vs Mississippi State Box Score (Game 3)
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