Everything was falling into place for Arkansas baseball to capture its second SEC regular-season championship in three years Friday night. Unfortunately for Dave Van Horn, games require 27 outs instead of 21.
With Florida’s loss earlier in the evening opening the door for them to clinch the outright title, the Razorbacks had their closer on the mound with a six-run cushion to start the eighth. Before the second out to the inning was recorded, though, Vanderbilt turned that lead into a two-run deficit and shocked No. 2 Arkansas 10-8 to even the series at Hawkins Field in Nashville, Tenn.
There’s no getting around it: It was a collapse of epic proportions. Admitting as much doesn’t make you less of a fan or mean you’re jumping ship — it’s just a statement of fact.
It was the largest comeback by Vanderbilt since it erased an eight-run deficit against Ole Miss in the 2019 SEC Tournament title game nearly four years ago. For the Razorbacks, it was their largest blown lead since squandering a seven-run lead against LSU in 2017.
Considering what was at stake and how it all unfolded — with a rested Gage Wood needing only six outs and Troy LaNeve capping an eight-run eight with a three-run blast, his first homer of the year — it was a particularly painful loss for Arkansas baseball fans.
“We kind of had it set up the way we wanted it,” Van Horn said. “We just let it slip away there in the eighth. It was pretty hard to watch.”
That said, the sky is not falling. Arkansas hasn’t even lost out on the SEC title yet. It can still win the division and overall crowns with a win in Saturday’s rubber match.
It enters the final day of the regular season with a half-game lead over LSU in the West, plus a one-game advantage over Florida from the East.
A win over Vanderbilt or an LSU loss to Georgia would clinch the division. It would also guarantee the Razorbacks at least a shared overall title. The best the Gators can do is tie Arkansas in the standings and that’d require both a win over Kentucky and an Arkansas loss.
Sure, the Razorbacks could have ended it a day earlier by simply hanging on to win Friday night, but they can still get it done Saturday.
“We can’t dwell on it too much, especially with a game tomorrow that dictates the series,” Arkansas second baseman Peyton Holt said. “It was obviously like, ‘Yeah, that sucks.’ We hate losing, but we look forward to tomorrow, going out there and winning that game. We’re just focused on winning that game tomorrow.”
On thing that’s certain, regardless of Saturday’s results, is that Arkansas will be a top-8 national seed. Even if they lose the rubber match at Vanderbilt and go 0-2 at the SEC Tournament next week, their RPI — No. 4 after the loss, according to Warren Nolan — is strong enough that they’d still host a regional and super regional. That means playing at Baum-Walker Stadium, where Arkansas is 30-4 this year.
In the grand scheme of things, much like when it comes to college basketball and March Madness, conference titles are nice and should be celebrated, but the most important thing is setting yourself up for a deep postseason run. Just as he has several times throughout his career, Van Horn has done just that.
It’s also important not to overreact to just one game.
The Razorbacks’ pitching is not terrible. They entered the day with the No. 1 ERA in SEC play and still rank No. 2 even after the disastrous eighth inning. They had also been pitching at an incredibly high level, posting a 2.31 ERA over its previous 70 innings — all of which were against conference foes.
It was just an atrocious inning against a potent lineup that had been slumping for its past seven-plus SEC games, hitting just .186 as a team heading into that frame.
There’s a good chance that what happened Friday was more of a fluke than the Razorbacks’ 20 SEC wins and 39 overall wins.
Decision to Pull Zack Morris
The start of Arkansas’ collapse Friday night was when Dave Van Horn opted not to send Zack Morris back out to the mound in the eighth inning and instead turn things over to Gage Wood.
With a six-run lead, the left-hander was dealing, striking out six of the 10 batters he faced in three scoreless and hitless innings in relief of Brady Tygart.
The only blemish on Morris’ line was a two-out walk in the seventh inning, but he bounced back to strike out Troy LaNeve to strand that base runner. That came on his 42nd pitch of the night and it was then that the Razorbacks went with Wood.
“That’s probably the toughest one,” Van Horn said when asked about the decision. “He’d thrown about 42-45 pitches, three innings — that’s usually the max for him. I mean, Wood’s been good all year, or good for the last two months. If we leave Zack in too long, you’re kind of like, ‘Why didn’t we bring Wood in?’ It kind of is what it is.”
Van Horn has a point. His longest outing of the season was 3 1/3 innings and 59 pitches, way back in the second game of the season, an 18-6 loss to TCU on Feb. 18.
However, Morris was cruising and in the midst of his best performance this year. It’s been a bit up-and-down for the senior team captain, with his ERA peaking at 10.80 just a couple weeks ago, but has since thrown eight scoreless and hitless innings to lower it to 7.52.
“It kind of caught me off guard a little bit, because I really felt good,” Morris said about getting pulled. “My stuff was really good. I wanted to go back out there, but it just seemed like they had already made their mind up by the time they came and talked to me. I was in the dugout preparing to go out again, and they just came up to me and said they were going to the next guy. So I was like, ‘Okay.’”
What happened next is why anyone is questioning the move.
Wood gave up a couple of singles sandwiched around a walk to load the bases before getting Bradfield to pop out — a play John Bolton made while colliding with Peyton Holt in shallow center. After a single by Davis Diaz, the bases were loaded again and Wood plunked RJ Schreck to drive in. A run.
“He was behind in the count to almost every hitter,” Van Horn said. “I don’t know… He just had a bad outing.”
That was it for Wood, but Cody Adcock wasn’t much better. He issued a bases-loaded walk and then gave up a two-run single to Jack Bulger. With Arkansas’ lead cut to 8-7, it brought in freshman left-hander Parker Coil and his first pitch was crushed to left-center by LaNeve.
Even though he’s a freshman who had to overcome some nerves early in his season, Van Horn said he believes Wood will be fine mentally moving forward — something Morris is going to try to help with.
“You just have to tell them, ‘Hey man, you’ve been one of our dudes all year and we’re going to need you. You’ve got to flush this. We all know you’re a guy. You just have to believe that, too,’” Morris said. “I’ve already had those conversations with some of our guys today, like, ‘We haven’t lost confidence in you. This is just one outing, man. This moment doesn’t define you. Just go out there and go shove it tomorrow.’”
Brady Tygart Extended Again
Making his fourth start since returning from a UCL strain that caused him to miss nearly two months, Brady Tygart once again threw one more inning that the previous week.
The right-hander gave the Razorbacks four strong innings in which he retired 12 of the 14 batters he faced with seven strikeouts. The only blemish during his outing were back-to-back two-out home runs by T.J. McKenzie and Enrique Bradfield Jr. in the third inning.
“He left the one up to Bradfield and he just clubbed it and it went out down the line — it’s short over there,” Van Horn said. “The No. 9 hitter, he threw a first pitch fastball right by him and he tried to sneak another one by him and he cheated and got to it and hit it out of the park.
“You take away those couple of pitches and he had a really good outing. I think he’s building his pitch count up and hopefully his next outing he’ll be able to go longer.”
Prior to those long balls, Tygart had thrown 8 2/3 scoreless innings in which he allowed only one hit since returning from injury. His outing ended with a strikeout of Jack Bulger, who Van Horn said would be his final batter no matter what because he was at 62 pitches.
Injury Update on John Bolton
Making the eighth inning collapse even worse was the fact that shortstop John Bolton had to leave the game with an apparent ankle injury after colliding with Peyton Holt on a pop up to shallow center.
He caught it for the first out of the inning and it resulted in a sacrifice fly because the runner at third was able to tag up. Both players were shaken up on the play, but Holt was able to stay in the game. Bolton walked off the field under his own power and was replaced by Harold Coll.
“He made really good catch,” Holt said. “I don’t know how he held onto the ball honestly. It was just one of those [plays] where the ball was hit right between us. He caught it at the last second, but we were both going full speed and didn’t have time to move out of the way.”
Dave Van Horn didn’t have any update on his status after the game. Despite his .202 batting average, it would be a significant loss for the Razorbacks because he’s been playing his best baseball of the year lately. In addition to being excellent defensively at shortstop, Bolton has also started swinging the bat better and even had an RBI single Friday night.
The series — and regular-season title — comes down to Saturday’s Arkansas vs Vanderbilt rubber match. First pitch is scheduled for 2 p.m. CT and will be streamed on SEC Network-Plus.
Junior left-hander Hunter Hollan (3.75 ERA, 69 2/3 IP) will get the nod for the Razorbacks, while the Commodores have yet to announce their starting pitcher.
Coming off a complete game performance against South Carolina that earned him SEC and National Pitcher of the Week honors, the junior could see a slight decrease in his pitch count because he had one day less for rest.
“I think he’ll kind of show us how it’s going to go,” Van Horn said. “If he’s thrown a lot of pitches or struggling in innings with runners on or having to fight it, it’ll be a little shorter than normal. But he’s in shape, and it’s warm, so we’ll see how it goes.”
Regardless of that, the Razorbacks feel good about their odds of bouncing back with a win.
“We’re really confident whenever Hunter’s on the mound,” Holt said. “He’s a dude. He competes every pitch, even if he gives up a hit or a run or whatever. He’s a really confident pitcher and he does a really good job attacking the strike zone, attacking the guys he’s facing.”
Other Arkansas Baseball Tidbits
- Peyton Holt continued his excellent play, going 2 for 3 with a double, home run, four RBIs and a HBP. Since taking over for the injured Peyton Stovall, he’s gone 13 for 29 (.448). “Holt had a great day, obviously,” Van Horn said. “Made a couple really nice plays in the field and a couple of really big hits for us that helped us build up a pretty good lead. It’s just too bad it was for naught.”
- It’s clear that Tavian Josenberger and Jared Wegner haven’t gotten back into a groove after missing time with injuries. They are a combined 0 for 13 this weekend, with Josenberger drawing four walks and Wegner drawing one. “They’re both trying to get it going,” Van Horn said. “Today, not a whole lot there. Hopefully tomorrow will be their day.”
- By collecting three hits Saturday, Brady Slavens extended his on-base streak to 19 games and hitting streak to nine games. He’s improved his season batting average to .294.
- Jace Bohrofen hit his team-leading 14th home run of the season in the first inning. That gives Arkansas 80 home runs as a team this season, which ties the 1997 and 2009 teams for the eighth-most in school history.
Arkansas vs Vanderbilt Postgame Interviews
Arkansas vs Vanderbilt Box Score (Game 2)
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