For a moment, it looked like Arkansas baseball might have a little bit more Hoover Magic left in the tank Saturday afternoon.
The Razorbacks scored three runs in the ninth and had the tying and go-ahead runs on base, but ultimately couldn’t move them around and lost to Texas A&M 5-4 to end their run at the 2023 SEC Tournament in the semifinals.
Troy Wansing, who threw eight shutout innings in a start on Tuesday, struck out Jace Bohrofen and Jared Wegner to prevent Arkansas from pulling off another comeback victory over the Aggies — which they beat three days earlier with a seventh-inning grand slam and 11th-inning walk-off home run.
“We swung at some bad pitches,” Arkansas baseball coach Dave Van Horn said. “Had two of our best hitters up there, and that was probably the most disappointing part to me about that inning. … We needed another hit to tie it up and had the 3- and 4-hole hitter up and a guy throwing pretty much exclusively sliders, and they didn’t find the barrel at all.”
The ninth inning started with three of the bottom four Razorbacks reaching base, as Caleb Cali hit a leadoff single, Peyton Holt was hit by a pitch and John Bolton drove them in with a two-run double.
Even though Tavian Josenberger singled and Kendall Diggs notched an RBI when he reached on an error, it was a perfect encapsulation of the game as a whole.
“Was just one of those games, really frustrating for us, especially on the offensive side,” Arkansas baseball coach Dave Van Horn said. “It’s like their pitchers did a great job against our top five hitters, and that ended up being the difference in the game.
“You move down past that, and 6 through 9, they fought pretty well, and they got that rally going there in the top of the ninth.”
The Razorbacks left the bases loaded in the fifth when Josenberger fouled out and Diggs struck out. Diggs also ended the seventh inning with a ground out, stranding runners on first and second.
The top five hitters in Arkansas’ lineup combined to go just 3 for 23 with 10 strikeouts and one walk. It wasn’t just a one-game anomaly, either. That group went 9 for 61 (.148) with 24 strikeouts and only eight free passes and had just two multi-hit performances in Hoover — Diggs on Wednesday and Josenberger on Saturday.
Slavens arguably had the Razorbacks’ hottest bat coming into the event, but saw his 12-game hitting streak come to an end against the Aggies. Some of his teammates have been scuffling longer than that:
- Tavian Josenberger: 4 for 30, 10 BB, 14 K — last 9 games
- Kendall Diggs: 3 for 13, 1 BB, 4 K — last 3 games
- Jace Bohrofen: 3 for 37, 4 BB, 13 K — last 9 games
- Jared Wegner: 2 for 22, 3 BB, 4 HBP, 10 K — last 6 games
- Brady Slavens: 2 for 13, 6 K — last 3 games
“I feel good except we’ve got to get our offense going,” Van Horn said. “It’s the older guys. They’ve got to do it. If we don’t get the offense going, it’ll be a quick weekend for us.”
Production at the Bottom
It wasn’t all bad at the plate, though.
Caleb Cali stayed hot by going 3 for 4 with a double. It was his third three-him game in the past seven games, a stretch in which he’s gone 14 for 29 (.483). That includes going 6 for 11 in Hoover.
He now leads all qualifying hitters on the team with a .323 batting average, which is particularly impressive considering he started the season 0 for 12. Take out his slump to begin the year and Cali’s average jumps up to .349.
“Feeling good, feeling confident,” Cali said. “That’s all I can really say about that. Obviously we didn’t come out with the win today, but I’m feeling good going into next weekend.”
Although he had his streak of multi-hit performances end at seven games, Peyton Holt still reached twice with a single and HBP. He is now hitting .394 — an average boosted by him going 20 for 45 (.444) since taking over for the injured Peyton Stovall.
The Razorbacks’ two catchers, Parker Rowland and Hudson Polk, struck out in all three of their combined at bats, but Rowland was lifted in the seventh inning for a pinch hitter and Ben McLaughlin delivered with a first-pitch RBI single.
At the bottom of the order was John Bolton, who didn’t skip a beat after returning to the lineup following a three-game absence because of a sprained ankle.
Not only did he not miss a beat defensively, but he went 2 for 3 with the aforementioned two-run double — which he hit the other way — in the ninth inning and he reached a third time when he was plunked in the fifth. Had it not been for a diving catch by Stanley Tucker in center, Bolton would have had three hits.
Even though he’s still hitting just .212 on the season, the Austin Peay transfer has looked much better at the plate in recent weeks. Beginning in the regular-season Texas A&M series, Bolton has slashed .333/.488/.424 — an impressive .912 OPS — in his last 12 games against SEC opponents. That’s a dramatic increase from his .354 OPS over his first 16 SEC games.
“I thought he looked really good, really sharp, strong,” Van Horn said. “When he got hurt, he was really starting to swing the bat a lot better obviously, a lot more confidence, hitting balls hard. … It would be nice if he can take that into the next weekend and give us a little offense towards the end of our lineup.”
Brady Tygart Not as Sharp
In what is believed to be his final start with a pitch count, Brady Tygart struggled with his command against Texas A&M. Half of his 64 pitches missed the zone and five of the 15 batters he faced found themselves in a 3-0 or 3-1 count.
The result was a shorter-than-hoped outing, as he failed to pitch one more inning than his previous start for the first time since moving into the rotation. He was pulled after only 3 1/3 innings and 64 pitches, which was right around his predetermined limit for the day.
“Brady didn’t have the stuff that he’s had the last couple outings,” Van Horn said. “He didn’t have the command that he had the first three outings. I just feel like hopefully got this out of the way and we can see him take a step forward next weekend, and I’m sure in a big game.”
Two of the hits Tygart allowed were doubles, including a two-out RBI double by Trevor Werner that started the scoring and led to him being credited with the loss.
However, it’s worth noting that swing drove in Hunter Haas, who extended the inning with a two-out single in a 1-2 count. He was actually fooled by a breaking ball, but somehow managed to almost golf the ball into left, just over a leaping John Bolton at shortstop.
That was the only run Tygart gave up, but he did leave the game with a runner on third and one out. Fortunately for him, that runner was stranded.
“Definitely wasn’t the best day for me,” Tygart said. “I had to compete a little bit more than I normally do. I just couldn’t quite find it. But that happens, and glad we got off with as little damage as we did.”
In five starts since returning from a UCL strain that kept him out for nearly two months, Tygart has allowed just three earned runs on six hits and four walks while striking out 15 in 13 1/3 innings. That works out to a 2.03 ERA.
Another Strong Second Outing by Will McEntire
For the second weekend in a row, Arkansas baseball experimented with using Will McEntire in a new role and — even if the box score doesn’t reflect it — it went well again.
The veteran right-hander threw the final four innings of Wednesday’s extra-innings win over Texas A&M and then threw another 2 1/3 innings Saturday. The two outings totaled 107 pitches and Dave Van Horn described both as “outstanding.”
It was McEntire who got the Razorbacks off the field without allowing the runner on third to score in the fourth inning. He followed that up with a scoreless fifth, but the last full batter he faced hit a two-out RBI double off him in the sixth.
He was pulled when he fell behind 2-0 to the next hitter, who was eventually walked — a stat that counts against McEntire. That’s unfortunate because both of the runners he was credited with came around to score.
That’s why McEntire was charged with three earned runs in his 2 1/3 innings, despite leaving the field after having allowed only one.
If he can continue to pitch multiple innings in multiple games throughout the postseason, he could be a valuable weapon out of the bullpen for the Razorbacks.
Freshman Arms Get Their Chance
Will McEntire’s emergence in that role is even more important now because of the recent struggles of Gage Wood.
The freshman once appeared to be a bonafide SEC closer, slamming the door in five SEC games, but has turned in three straight subpar performances that started with the eighth-inning collapse at Vanderbilt last weekend.
In his lone appearance at the SEC Tournament, Wood finished off the walk started by McEntire and then walked the next two Aggies, the last of which came with the bases loaded and brought in a run.
Van Horn had seen enough, so Wood ended up throwing just 15 pitches and only five of them were strikes.
“He’s had three in a row like that so it makes it tough,” Van Horn said. “It makes it tough for us as coaches to — what do we do? He’s a guy that was throwing 95 mph, had a little attitude, and he’s throwing the ball 91, 92, think he might have topped out at 93, but throwing nothing but strikes. It’s frustrating, and we’ve got to figure out this week if we’re going to be able to use him on the weekend.”
Freshman left-hander Parker Coil was up next and also walked in a run before getting out of the jam. He stayed in the game, but was quickly pulled after giving up a single and double with one out.
That’s when Van Horn finally decided to get freshman right-hander Christian Foutch back on the mound.
Although he had put 12 straight batters on base dating back to the Georgia collapse on April 22, Foutch had been very effective for the Razorbacks and he might have gotten back on track Saturday.
He induced a ground ball from Austin Bost, which resulted in an out at home with John Bolton throwing out the runner to trying to score, before walking Brett Minnich on four pitches to load the bases. He bounced back to strike out Max Kaufer to leave the loaded.
“His pitches have been real close,” Van Horn said. “It’s hurt him, hurt his confidence a little bit. But today he was all around the zone, threw a nice slider to get that last out, zipping the ball in there about 95, 96, 97, and looks like he’s taking a step back forward. He wants to help us out.”
Up Next for Arkansas Baseball
Despite it being their first loss of the week, the Razorbacks are out of the SEC Tournament because this is the single-elimination portion of the event. They now await their draw in the NCAA Tournament.
Losing at this stage of the SEC Tournament might not be the worst thing for Arkansas. In each of the five years it reached the championship game, it failed to make it to Omaha. Four of those years, the Razorbacks didn’t even make it out of a regional — including three in Fayetteville.
Arkansas has reached the SEC Tournament championship game five times…— Andrew Hutchinson (@NWAHutch) May 27, 2023
1998: 1-2 at Midwest Regional (pre-super regional format)
1999: 1-2 at Fayetteville Regional
2007: 2-2 at Fayetteville Regional
2017: 3-2 at Fayetteville Regional
2021: 1-2 at Fayetteville Super Regional
The only time Arkansas won the championship game was 2021, when it was the No. 1 team most of the season, but it was knocked out in the super regionals by North Carolina State.
“We played three tight games (and) feel very fortunate to win two of them,” Dave Van Horn said. “You hate to lose and leave, but now it’s time for us to switch gears mentally and regroup a little bit and build up a little strength and get ready for next weekend.”
With a 41-16 overall record that includes a 20-10 mark in SEC, which was enough to earn a share of the regular-season conference title, and a No. 2 RPI entering the day, Arkansas is widely projected to be a top-eight national seed.
That means the Razorbacks will host a regional at Baum-Walker Stadium next weekend and, if they win that, they’ll stay in Fayetteville for the super regional round. The regional sites will officially be announced Sunday night.
The NCAA Tournament selection show is scheduled for 11 a.m. CT on ESPN2.
Other Arkansas Baseball Tidbits
- With the win, 10 seed Texas A&M became the lowest seeded team to reach the SEC Tournament championship game.
- All three of Arkansas’ games in Hoover were decided by one run, as it reached the semifinals with one-run wins over Texas A&M and LSU. That is the most such games the Razorbacks have played in one conference tournament in school history, including their time in the Southwest Conference.
- Left-hander Matt Dillard made his second start of the year for Texas A&M and threw four scoreless outings in which he gave up just two hits and one walk while striking out six. It was his longest outing of the season. “I was telling the guys before the game, I was like, ‘This is what you lay in bed at night at 11:00 and think about, dream about,’” Dillard said. “This is so much fun. You want to be in moments like this.”
- Brady Slavens went 0 for 4 with two strikeouts, snapping his 12-game hitting streak and 22-game on-base streak. He went just 2 for 13 at the SEC Tournament, causing his batting average to drop 10 points to .293.
- The longest active hitting streak on the team now belongs to Peyton Holt, who has hit safely in nine straight games after notching a fifth-inning single. He’s also reached base in 11 consecutive games, but that’s one behind Jared Wegner, who walked in his first plate appearance to stretch his active on-base streak to 12 games.
- Sophomore right-hander Austin Ledbetter threw the bottom of the eighth inning for Arkansas and gave up one run — which proved to be the difference in the game. He faced five batters and all of them made solid contact, even though three were caught.
- Arkansas has played tremendous defense all year, but especially so the last three weeks. It committed just one error in its final nine games leading up to the NCAA Tournament, resulting in an incredible .997 fielding percentage. For the season, the Razorbacks are fielding .981, which is just behind last year’s record-breaking mark of .982.
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