FAYETTEVILLE — To the casual observer, there was nothing particularly special about Ben McLaughlin’s scoreless inning of work in Arkansas baseball’s blowout win Tuesday night.
Sure, the right-hander struck out two in a perfect fifth inning, but it came in the Razorbacks’ 16-3 run-rule win over Omaha in a midweek game at Baum-Walker Stadium.
However, it was the pitching debut of a guy who came to Fayetteville as a corner infielder and has actually had some success at the plate. Plus, the two batters McLaughlin struck out — Cam Frederick and Mike Boeve — happened to be hitting .489 and .472, respectively, and he retired the side on just 11 pitches with a mix of fastballs and sliders.
As a hitter, he’s just 1 for 6 with two RBIs, but he flashed his potential during the preseason, including three home runs in Arkansas’ Fall World Series. While no one will confuse him with Shohei Ohtani or even Florida’s Jac Caglianone, McLaughlin could be a weapon down the stretch.
“He’s still going to hit, but he’s going to help us on the mound as well,” Arkansas baseball coach Dave Van Horn said. “I thought he did a great job for his first time out. He threw a lot of strikes and he wasn’t throwing the ball down the middle. He was throwing it on the corners.”
The Razorbacks didn’t recruit him to pitch. McLaughlin was one of several JUCO infielders they signed to replenish their depleted roster. He was primarily a third baseman, a position for which he earned a national Gold Glove Award, and also played some first base.
Early in his career at Hutchinson C.C., McLaughlin actually pitched eight innings, but ended up tearing his UCL and needing Tommy John surgery. Instead, he focused on hitting and got Arkansas’ attention by hitting .411/.511/.804 with 19 home runs and 83 RBIs last season.
There was a thought he might push for playing time at third base, or potentially first if Brady Slavens was unavailable, but Van Horn casually slipped in the fact that he was capable of pitching, too, when meeting with reporters after fall ball.
“He has a strong arm,” Van Horn said on Nov. 9. “He has a low arm slot. We even talked about seeing how that might go a little bit in the spring just to get him up there. Not necessarily because we need him to pitch for us this year, but we want to see what he can do and maybe get him ready for the future.”
About two years removed from surgery, McLaughlin’s arm is healed up now and he’s benefited from Arkansas’ weight program, something he didn’t have in junior college and that has helped him get a lot stronger.
With what was perceived to be one of the deepest and best pitching staffs in the country, though, there didn’t appear to be a clear path to the mound for him at the time. Since then, Jaxon Wiggins (Tommy John) went down before the season, Koty Frank (torn lat) suffered a season-ending injury and Brady Tygart is missing a chunk of the season because of a UCL sprain.
That led to an increased need for McLaughlin as a pitcher, so they started talking about it again — only for him to go down with a knee injury in Arkansas’ win over Eastern Illinois on Feb. 25.
“(Pitching) was always something I wanted to do,” McLaughlin said. “When I got hurt and tore my meniscus, they were saying, ‘When you come back, we want you to do both.’ It was something that I definitely wanted to do.”
Van Horn was unsure of McLaughlin’s timeline for recovery going into his surgery on March 2, but later revealed it was the better of two possibilities and he’d miss only 3-4 weeks. Sure enough, he made the trip to Baton Rouge, La., over the weekend and participated in pregame warmups, but never appeared in a game.
About 3.5 weeks after his surgery, McLaughlin was back on the field and making his first pitching appearance since throwing two innings for the Hays Larks in the Rocky Mountain Baseball League. Considering the long layoff and the fact he was returning from injury, the Golden, Colo., native was pleased with the outing.
“It went better than I expected, 100%, just because it was my first outing in a long time,” McLaughlin said. “That was my first time throwing to live hitters since the summer, so definitely beat expectations and had a little bit of adrenaline going, so it felt good.”
Disastrous Day for Omaha
As for how the Razorbacks went about their seven-inning win Tuesday night, they can thank Omaha for a chunk of their offensive production. The Mavericks did not have a good day on the mound, in the field or — quite frankly — at the plate.
After manufacturing a couple of runs in the second inning to briefly take a 2-1 lead, things quickly unraveled for Omaha.
Arkansas’ first six RBIs of the game weren’t actually “batted in.” It did score on a traditionally sacrifice fly in the first inning, but its next three runs came on bases-loaded walks by Omaha reliever Wyatt Sellers. Ball four for the second of those walks came on a pitch clock violation.
The next pitcher, Kai Reum, plunked Jace Bohrofen to score yet another run and Peyton Stovall notched an RBI on a fielder’s choice. It wasn’t until John Bolton’s two-run bloop single in the third that an Arkansas hit drove in a run — and they were only set up thanks to an error that put Reese Robinett on base and a balk, on which Tanner Olmstead fell off the rubber before throwing a pitch, that moved the runners into scoring position.
As if that wasn’t bad enough, Omaha also allowed a run to score on a passed ball — its second of the game — and had a wild pitch that put a runner in scoring position and set up a Kendall Diggs RBI single.
The Razorbacks ended up drawing nine walks, which was tied for their third-most in a game this season.
“What I like from our team is that we didn’t go out of the zone much,” Van Horn said. “We didn’t chase, and it set up some big innings for us. When they did throw it over the plate, we hit it pretty good. Just really unselfish by the offense tonight. I thought they did a great job of just letting the next guy work and taking a walk.”
In addition to falling to 7-11 overall, Omaha has now lost all four of its games against ranked opponents, as it was also swept by UCLA on Opening Weekend. It lost those four games, including to Arkansas, by a combined score of 63-5 and an average margin of 14.5 runs.
Making his fourth career start, freshman right-hander Ben Bybee zipped through the first inning on just eight pitches.
It looked like he’d continue his recent strong pitching, but he lost command of his fastball in the second inning, resulting in a couple of walks, a pair of hits and a run-scoring wild pitch. Bybee actually worked into the third, but failed to record an out before the coaches pulled him.
Dave Van Horn mentioned that he might have been a little tired after throwing 27 pitches in two scoreless innings at LSU on Saturday.
Another freshman, right-hander Gage Wood, was called upon in the third inning. He inherited a runner on second with no outs in a 6-3 game, but shut the Mavericks down.
The Batesville native induced a weak grounder down the first base line that he handled himself and then struck out the next two batters with the runner on third. Wood did issue a two-out walk in his second inning of work, but got out of it unscathed.
Left-hander Parker Coil worked around a two-out HBP, which came in an 0-2 count, but threw a scoreless seventh inning to preserve the run rule.
He followed what was yet another impressive outing by right-hander Christian Foutch. Using a mid-90s fastball and what several of his teammates consider one of the best breaking balls on the team, he should have had a perfect sixth inning, but a two-out error kept it alive before
“We think he’s going to jump in and start helping us more,” Van Horn said. “You saw he’s got good velocity. He’s got a splitter that’s pretty nasty. I thought he did a nice job.”
The Littleton, Colo., native also had scoreless innings against Louisiana Tech and LSU. He’s yet to allow a run or hit in three innings. Opponents are 0 for 10 with a walk and HBP against him so far this year.
Even though it’s still a small sample size, it’s impressive because he didn’t make his debut until nearly a month into the season and as recently as October, Van horn was considering redshirting him. However, he made a move in January and continued to get better in his bullpen sessions before they made the decision to play him.
“He was just okay in the fall, but you could see that it was probably in there,” Van Horn said. “Big guy, is he going to throw enough strikes? He didn’t throw the ball over the plate — he’s throwing it over the plate now.”
Van Horn said there’s a good chance he could pitch out of the bullpen this weekend against Alabama.
Josenberger’s Power Surge
The Razorbacks hit just one home run Tuesday night, but it was a no-doubter. Tavian Josenberger deposited Tanner Olmstead’s 1-1 fastball on top of the Hunt Center beyond the right field wall for a two-run homer that but Arkansas up 10-3.
“I took a fastball right down the middle the pitch before,” Josenberger said. “I was kind of upset for a second, thinking I wasn’t going to get another one of those. Looking for a heater, got one and put a good swing on it.”
His four home runs are fourth on the team, but it’s a noteworthy milestone for him because that exceeds his home run total from his two years at Kansas combined. After hitting just three in 406 at bats for the Jayhawks, he has four in 93 at bats at Arkansas.
That means his home run rate has gone from once every 135.3 at bats to once every 23.3 at bats. It wasn’t a major focus for his this year, but Josenberger admitted the power was a welcome addition to his game and said it was partially the result of a slight adjustment he made to his swing this offseason.
“Tavian’s a game hitter,” Van Horn said. “He just has good at bats. Batting practice, he doesn’t hit the ball out of the park in BP. You know he can, but he just works on things. I didn’t recruit him to come in here and hit double-digit homers. I just wanted him to get on base and score runs.”
Luckily for the Razorbacks, Josenberger has also done both of those things. He has scored 23 runs and is hitting .344 with a .438 on-base percentage, which are 48 and 64 points higher, respectively, than what he posted over two years at Kansas. His slugging percentage has made the biggest jump, though, as it’s improved 139 points to .538.
Up Next for Arkansas Baseball
The Razorbacks jump back into SEC play this weekend, welcoming Alabama to Fayetteville for a three-game series beginning Friday. That game is scheduled for 6:30 p.m. CT and will be streamed on SEC Network-Plus.
The other two games will start at 2 p.m. CT on Saturday and Sunday. Game 2 is streaming only, but the finale will be nationally televised on the SEC Network.
Alabama beat Middle Tennessee 10-4 on Tuesday to improve to 20-6 on the season, but it is just 2-4 in SEC play with series losses to Florida and Kentucky. In both series, the Crimson Tide lost a heartbreaker in one of the first two games before salvaging a Game 3 win to avoid being swept.
Other Arkansas Baseball Tidbits
- Brady Tygart, the Razorbacks’ star closer, was spotted doing some light throwing during pregame warmups, but is still working his way back from a UCL sprain. “He’s still a few weeks away, but I don’t know exactly on the timeline,” Van horn said. “But he is starting to the throw the ball a little bit I think. We could sure use him, that for sure.”
- First baseman Brady Slavens got the day off for some rest and to allow a few younger players — including freshman Jayson Jones, who started in his place — to get some game action. “Brady probably had his best batting practice of the year in pregame today,” Van Horn said. “I don’t know if he was mad at me or he was just relieved that he had a night off so he took it out in pregame batting practice. That was really good to see.”
- Tuesday night was Arkansas’ 15th consecutive home win, marking the longest such streak during Dave Van Horn’s 21-year tenure. It is the Razorbacks’ longest home winning streak since 1997, when it won 16 straight.
- Thanks to Tavian Josenberger’s third-inning blast, the Razorbacks have now homered in 21 straight games.
- Omaha’s Mike Boeve entered the game with a .489 batting average, which ranked second nationally behind only LSU Dylan Crews (.531), whom Arkansas faced over the weekend. The Razorbacks fared better against the Mavericks’ star than Crews, limiting him to a 1 for 4 day at the plate, but that one hit was an RBI double.
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