Lost in its shiny 1.5-game lead in the SEC West and sparkling top-five ranking were a pair of black holes in the Arkansas baseball lineup, waiting to consume it. That finally happened, to a certain degree, Thursday night in Athens, Ga.
Perhaps that’s a bit dramatic, especially given how poorly they played in all three phases of the game, but such is the case when the Razorbacks lose 6-5 to a Georgia team that entered weekend last in the SEC East.
While a subpar start by its ace and a 3-for-18 performance with runners in scoring position — more on those issues in a bit — definitely played a role in the Bulldogs pulling off the Game 1 upset, it’s hard to ignore the play Arkansas got at its shortstop and catcher positions.
In fact, what proved to be the game-winning run for Georgia was a direct result of an error by shortstop John Bolton.
Hunter Hollan bailed him out after botching a tailor made ground ball in the first by escaping a bases-loaded jam, but the Bulldogs made him pay for what went down as the only official error of the game.
In the fourth inning, he booted a ground ball by Connor Tate that should have been the third out, but instead gave Parks Harber a chance to hit with a runner in scoring position and he delivered the RBI single that made it 6-2.
Bolton was due up to start the top of the fifth, but backup Harold Coll pinch hit for him and played the rest of the game — a move that Arkansas baseball coach Dave Van Horn later said was mostly dictated by the situation and one that he was noncommittal about sticking with moving forward.
“It was an offensive thing,” Van Horn said. “I don’t know what I’m going to do yet, but it was all about we were losing, and we needed to score. We just felt like it was just time. I mean, Bolton’s a better defender; he had a bad night. That’s what it is. On the offensive side, Coll’s stronger. I just thought ‘Let’s go.’”
After a first-pitch fly out to right that time, Coll supplied the offense Van Horn was looking for when he ripped a double into the left field corner to start the seventh inning. It had a 106 mph exit velocity, which is harder than any ball Bolton has hit this season.
However, he did take a 3-2 pitch for strike three with the bases loaded in the eighth inning. Even with that strikeout, though, Coll’s OPS this season is 239 points higher than Bolton’s. That gap shrinks to just 58 points in SEC play (.429 vs. .371), but it’s also worth noting that Coll has more RBIs (3 vs 1) in 10 fewer at bats and his strikeout rate is much lower (32.1% vs. 44.7%).
That offensive discrepancy has never been questioned. Van Horn has openly discussed it all year. The problem is that he places a very high premium on defense at the shortstop position.
Bolton was by far the more consistent fielder during the fall and rarely, if ever, messed up the routine play, which ultimately led to him winning the starting job. Although he’s made four errors, he still has a respectable .951 fielding percentage. For perspective, Jalen Battles fielded .956 his first year at Arkansas.
At the same time, Coll has held his own defensively when given the opportunity. He’s made just one error in 45 chances, resulting in a .978 fielding percentage, and that error came while playing third base, a position he had never played before this year.
With almost the entire second half of SEC play remaining, Van Horn is going to have to determine if Coll’s defense has improved enough to outweigh Bolton becoming close to an automatic out, now hitting .105 in SEC play. There is no debate that Coll is more of a threat to put the ball in play more and hit it harder.
Injuries within the lineup could also play a factor in that decision, as well. Ben McLaughlin has exceeded expectations filling the spot created by Jared Wegner’s thumb injury, going 8 for 14 over the last five games, but the Razorbacks are now dealing with an injury at catcher.
Parker Rowland missed Thursday’s game because of “some back issues,” Van Horn said, and could be out the entire weekend. His replacement was Hudson Polk, whom he had split time with much of the season until asserting himself as the starter about a month ago.
There is a reason Rowland had started 10 straight SEC games and 13 of 15 overall prior to this weekend. His defense has vastly improved since the fall, as he’s shown a knack for picking off runners, and he’s been solid behind the plate.
All five of the Razorbacks’ passed balls this season — including one that scored a run in Georgia’s big third inning Thursday — have been charged to Polk, who has also thrown out a lower percentage of base stealers than Rowland (17.6% vs. 26.7%).
Much like at shortstop, Van Horn places a premium on defense at catcher. In this situation, the better defender has also been the better offensive threat, albeit still not a great one. Rowland is hitting .202 with a .582 OPS, compared to Polk’s .143 average and .559 OPS.
Rowland has hit the ball harder more consistently, even when it doesn’t result in a hit, but has struck out more this season — but that could be changing too. Granted it’s still a small sample size, Polk now has six strikeouts in nine SEC at bats. Three of those came in Thursday’s 0-for-4 performance and all three were on four pitches. The last of those was the first of three straight by the Razorbacks with the bases loaded in the eighth inning.
Between Bolton and Coll at shortstop and Rowland and Polk at catcher, it has been a rough season so far at those positions. The four of them are slashing a combined .145/.225/.156 with just two extra-base hits (both doubles), six RBIs and 56 strikeouts in 124 at bats.
At least with Coll, he was a heralded JUCO recruit who was a legitimate draft concern last summer, so he may get it going offensively if he can stay in the lineup, but the struggles behind the plate aren’t as much of a surprise.
Unlike a year earlier with Michael Turner, who had produced over four years at Kent State, Polk was a backup who hadn’t played much at Oklahoma and Rowland put good numbers in junior college, but didn’t play much in two years at Arkansas State before that.
(Cal Kilgore, who dealt with injuries in the fall and is now redshirting, came from New Mexico State after starting 33 games as a true freshman.)
To his credit, Rowland has developed into a solid defensive catcher for the Razorbacks, but if he has to miss extended time with his back injury, it might be a much harder injury to overcome than those on the pitching staff and to Wegner.
That is a big-picture concern that could be a major factor in what Arkansas hopes is another deep postseason run, regardless of whether or not it bounces back and still wins the series against the last-place Bulldogs this weekend.
Failures with RISP
Arguably the most damning single statistic from Thursday’s loss was Arkansas going just 3 for 18 (.167) with runners in scoring position. Prior to the game, it had been hitting .310 in those situations — nearly 20 points higher than its overall batting average.
Against Georgia, though, Dave Van Horn admitted he thought the Razorbacks “didn’t look like our normal selves” offensively.
“We’ve been pretty good this year at, maybe not getting the super big hit, but moving people over and then getting them in, scoring a run here or there,” Van Horn said. “We didn’t do that tonight. Tonight was all or nothing, it seemed like.”
Two of those hits were by Ben McLaughlin, who notched a two-out RBI single in the first inning and also had a single that moved the runner to third, setting up a sacrifice fly, in the sixth inning. His last two times up, though, he was hit by a pitch. Those came in the eighth and ninth innings.
The first eight batters in the eighth inning ended up reaching, as Caleb Cali followed McLaughlin’s HBP with an RBI single to make it 6-4. Brady Slavens was plunked, too, which loaded the bases, but they were stranded when Leighton Finley struck out Hudson Polk, Harold Coll and Tavian Josenberger in order.
“The eighth was a killer,” Van Horn said. “We just couldn’t get the big hit there. That’s the disappointment. You’ve got to put the bat on the ball, score a run, get it a little bit closer.”
However, it was far from over because Georgia has been known to blow late leads this season. Sure enough, Jace Bohrofen beat the shift with a one-out single through the left side and Kendall Diggs drove him in with a double off the wall in left-center.
He missed a game-tying home run by mere feet, but still represented the tying run in scoring position. McLaughlin’s second hit by pitch put the go-ahead run on base, too. That’s when Georgia turned to side-armer Dalton Rhadans and he got Cali to fly out to center on the first pitch and Slavens to pop out to the shortstop in an 0-2 count.
“We had another opportunity and had a couple of good hitters up there, guys that can get it done, and they just couldn’t get the big hit,” Van Horn said. “So credit to Georgia’s pitching (for) us not coming through with that big hit.”
Rare Rough Outing for Hunter Hollan
On the same day he was named to the College Baseball Foundation’s watch list for the National Pitcher of the Year Award, Hunter Hollan turned in just his second bad outing of the season.
The left-hander was charged with six runs — five of which were earned — on seven hits and a season-high five walks. He also had a wild pitch, just his second of the season, and hit a batter.
“He was wild,” Van Horn said. “He was pitching behind in the count a little bit, and they’ve got some good hitters. He’s got to pitch ahead, and he’s got a good fastball, but he uses his off-speed well. They didn’t chase. When that’s the case, you’ve got to throw the ball over the plate.”
Most of the damage came in the third inning, when three of the first four batters he faced reached on singles, the last of was an RBI for Georgia’s first run of the game. A passed ball allowed the game-tying run to score, but it ultimately just made Fernando Gonzalez’s home run a three-run shot instead of a grand slam.
Hollan should have followed up that disastrous inning with a couple of scoreless frames, but a two-out error by John Bolton kept the fourth alive and Parks Harber’s RBI single put a run on the board.
Van Horn made sure to mention that the defense didn’t help him much and he had a point. Between that error and Bolton’s botched double play in the first, Hollan had to throw 14 more pitches than necessary.
That could have allowed him to go an extra inning, saving the bullpen a little more, but Van Horn said he was glad he at least got through five on 99 pitches.
Third Time’s the Charm
One play the defense did make for Hollan came in that rough third inning. It could have been worse had Kendall Diggs not made a leaping catch at the wall in right for the second out of the inning.
At the very least, Will David would have had extra bases and a couple of RBIs, but it looked like the infielder-turned-outfielder robbed him of a three-run home run.
“He did a really good job getting to the fence,” Van Horn said. “A lot of times when guys get back to the fence, they kind of jump and they hit the fence and it keeps them from getting up in the air. He got back there and knew right where he was and just got up and made the catch.”
It was an impressive play for anyone, but especially Diggs because he is still new to the position. The injury to Wegner forced him to move from designated hitter to right field, as Jace Bohrofen flipped over to left, and he looked uncomfortable out there last weekend at Tennessee.
He made a couple of nice plays against the Volunteers, but also had an error and was unable to rob a leadoff home run by Jared Dickey in back-to-back games. His successful robbery, on his third try, was a perfect illustration of the progress he’s made out there in a short amount of time.
Brady Tygart Update
There was growing optimism that sophomore Brady Tygart might make his return to the mound this weekend, but he was left off Arkansas baseball’s 27-man roster, so he is not eligible to pitch against Georgia.
The right-hander made the trip, though, and threw a 20-pitch bullpen session in Wednesday’s practice, so he is very close to returning. He has been out with a UCL sprain since March 1.
“He’s probably about there, but we just feel like that we need to go one more week,” Van Horn said. “So we went ahead and had him throw a bullpen yesterday and he threw really well. It’s not like he’s thrown a lot of pitches, but just feel like one more (week) and we’ll be a little bit safer, and then next weekend we should get him out there. That was the target date all along, so we thought, ‘Let’s just stick with it.’”
Up Next for Arkansas Baseball
The Razorbacks will try to even the Arkansas vs Georgia series in Game 2, which is scheduled for 5 p.m. CT and will be streamed on SEC Network-Plus.
It’s unknown who Arkansas will start on the mound, as Van Horn told reporters that he wasn’t sure who’d get the ball, other than it’s be one of “the same people” who’ve been candidates before.
Right-hander Will McEntire has been the Game 2 starter for much of the season, but left-hander Hagen Smith is also available after not pitching in relief Game 1.
The Bulldogs are starting redshirt junior left-hander Charlie Goldstein, who has a 5.67 ERA and 35 strikeouts in 27 innings this season.
Other Arkansas Baseball Tidbits
- Right-hander Dylan Carter was first out of the bullpen and retired seven of the nine batters he faced in 2 2/3 scoreless innings. He threw 38 pitches before Dave Van Horn pulled him with the intent of using him again this weekend. “I feel pretty good,” Carter said. “I think I’ll be ready to rock and roll again on Saturday.”
- Right-hander Christian Foutch, a freshman, needed only one pitch to record the final out for Arkansas pitching Thursday. He got Charlie Condon, Georgia’s best hitter, to fly out to center.
- For the second game in a row, the Razorbacks failed to hit a home run. That matched their total homer-less games over the first 36 games of the season. Prior to Tuesday’s win over UCA, Arkansas had hit at least one in 32 consecutive games, which was believed to be the longest active streak in the country.
- While none of them left the park, half of Arkansas’ 10 hits did go for extra bases, as it hit a season-high five doubles. That is as many doubles as it hit the previous eight games combined.
- Kendall Diggs hit two of those doubles and also walked once, extending his on-base streak to 29 games. Jace Bohrofen and Tavian Josenberger have active streaks of 18 and 15 games, respectively, as well.
Arkansas vs Georgia Postgame Interviews
Arkansas vs Georgia Box Score (Game 1)
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