FAYETTEVILLE — A youth movement has arrived for Arkansas baseball and it couldn’t have come at a better time.
Three of the last four pitchers the Razorbacks used in their sweep of Tennessee at Baum-Walker Stadium, including two in Sunday’s 7-2 win, were freshmen.
After Gage Wood notched his third save in as many weeks on Saturday, Ben Bybee got Arkansas off to a solid start in the finale and Christian Foutch finished off the win.
The trio combined to throw 7 1/3 of the final 12 innings, allowing only three runs on two hits and six walks while striking out 10. Their emergence has been particularly important in the absence of Jaxon Wiggins, Koty Frank and Brady Tygart – key arms who went down with injuries earlier in the year.
“Hunter Hollan met with all of us freshmen after Frank went down and he told us that if we are going to accomplish anything this season, the freshmen are going to have to step up,” Foutch said. “Gage Wood kind of set the path and we are just all following him.”
Arkansas baseball coach Dave Van Horn wasn’t sure who he’d start in Game 3 and didn’t announce until Sunday morning that it’d be Bybee, who had carved out a role as the Razorbacks’ midweek starter.
The right-hander answered the call by throwing three scoreless innings before running into some trouble in the fourth. He left the game with the shutout still intact, but both of the runners he put on base came around to score.
That meant he was charged with two earned runs in 3 1/3 innings. Bybee allowed only one hit, but did issue four walks and hit a batter while striking out three.
“His stuff’s good — it’s about throwing strikes,” Van Horn said. “He’s got a pretty good breaking ball, and he showed a changeup a little bit today to the left-handers.”
Unlike Hunter Hollan and Will McEntire, Bybee not only kept Jared Dickey in the park to start the game, but he struck him out. He ended up stranding runners on the corners in the first two innings and throwing a perfect third inning.
It was a stark contrast to his first SEC start, which came a couple of weeks ago against Alabama. He got two quick outs in that outing before things unraveled and he allowed five straight to reach before being pulled.
“Ben is a guy who works his tail off and I knew he wasn’t happy after that first one,” teammate Dylan Carter said. “He works and works and to see what he did today…I’m super proud of him. He gave us all that he got.”
When it became clear that Carter was out of gas in the ninth inning, Van Horn had another decision to make. He could have turned to a struggling veteran like Cody Adcock (6.37 ERA), Austin Ledbetter (7.52 ERA) or Zack Morris (8.40 ERA), but instead went with a promising young arm.
Foutch got rocked for four earned runs in 1 1/3 innings during the midweek loss to Little Rock, but had thrown five scoreless innings in the first four appearances of his career.
“He’s one of the younger guys we have left in the bullpen, but you’ve got to go with what your eyes tell you, what you see,” Van Horn said. “And what we’ve been seeing is Christian has been throwing good, been throwing better than some other guys.”
Prior to the rough outing against Little Rock, Foutch threw two scoreless innings against Ole Miss and showed he wouldn’t collapse under pressure when things didn’t go his way. Even after the first two batters he faced reached with cheap hits, the right-hander got through it without allowing a run.
That’s why Van Horn trusted him with runners on second and third with no outs and the Razorbacks leading 7-2 in the ninth inning Sunday. Despite the top of the lineup coming up, he delivered by going three up, three down to end the game.
“He kind of showed us last week against Ole Miss that he’s ready for this, because they have a good lineup, tough place and he just went out there and pitched,” Van Horn said. “He didn’t get all carried away or worried about what was going on on the bases. He knew we had the lead and he didn’t need to worry about those runners. He just needed to attack the hitters and that’s what he did.”
Although his fastball sits in the mid-90s, it’s actually Foutch’s splitter that everyone talks about when it comes to his arsenal of pitches. It was consistently referenced by his teammates throughout the fall and Brady Slavens, when asked how tough it is to hit, gave a sly smile and said, “You don’t hit it.”
Foutch revealed after the game that the inspiration for the pitch is a player from his home state who also pitched the SEC, but at LSU, before enjoying a successful MLB career.
“I’m a huge Kevin Gausman fan, just because he’s from Colorado, and he throws one,” Foutch said about the origin of his splitter. “I never wanted to throw a curveball, so I just stuck with that, and that’s where it came from.”
As a staff, the Razorbacks limited Tennessee to only seven total runs in the series. The Volunteers went just 20 for 97 (.206) over the weekend and struck out 31 times.
The performances of Hollan, McEntire, Hagen Smith and Carter certainly played a significant role in that, but Arkansas likely wouldn’t have won all three games without the play of its freshmen.
“It started with the two lefties on Friday and then what went on yesterday, a freshman closing,” Van Horn said. “A freshman closing again today. That’s some stuff you can build off of and gives us some more confidence in some options on the weekend.”
Jumping on Beam
Even though he wasn’t announced as a starter earlier in the week, Drew Beam had been Tennessee’s most consistent starter on a staff considered to be among the most talented in the country.
While Chase Dollander and Chase Burns have had their fair share of struggles, Beam owned a 2.52 ERA and had issued only nine walks in 39 1/3 innings entering Sunday’s game.
The right-hander failed to make it through the second inning against Arkansas, though, giving up six runs on four hits and four walks.
“Our plan was to not swing at the pitch above the belt if at all possible,” Van Horn said. “Easier said than done. When a guy’s throwing in the mid-90s on up, you see it and you’ve got to make a decision in a split-second.”
Just as he did Saturday, Tavian Josenberger set the tone by drawing a full-count walk. He then stole second and scored on Peyton Stovall’s RBI single. The Razorbacks ended up loading the bases with another couple of walks, setting up a sacrifice fly by Brady Slavens and RBI single by Caleb Cali.
In the second inning, John Bolton reached on an infield single — his fourth hit in SEC play — and Josenberger walked again, but Beam retired the next two Razorbacks. It looked like they were going to “let a big inning slip away,” Van Horn said, but Slavens wouldn’t let that happen.
After Kendall Diggs was hit by a pitch to load the bases, the veteran slugger smacked the first pitch he saw into the right field corner for a bases-clearing triple.
“He was just starting out all the lefties with a breaking ball, so I thought it might be a good idea to jump on it first pitch,” Slavens said. “I was thinking double and then it kind of got stuck in the corner, so I decided to go to third.”
Dylan Carter Does it Again
Probably the most consistent arm available for Arkansas on Sunday was Dylan Carter. Sure enough, the right-hander was the first guy called on out of the bullpen, entering with one out in the fourth and runners on first and second.
“The plan was to go to Carter if there was…some traffic on the bases there, people on base, because he has experience with that,” Van Horn said. “It’s not going to get him all upright. So that’s kind of what we did.”
He did let both of those inherited runners score on a two-out single by Jared Dickey, but didn’t give up any runs of his own while setting career highs in innings (4 2/3) and pitches (73). The Bentonville native scattered six hits and one walk while striking out three and benefitting from a couple of double plays.
It was an impressive performance for a guy who got up and moving in the bullpen, including throwing off the mound to warm up, each of the first two games of the series, only not to actually come in.
“I think over the course of yesterday and Friday, I probably got up, got hot obviously at times,” Carter said. “Last night after the game, I got home pretty quick, made sure I’d get some sleep. I knew I had to do whatever I can to help our team win today, and I thought I did to the best ability that I could.”
New Designated Hitter
The injury to Jared Wegner had a few ripple effects. It shifted Jace Bohrofen from right to left field and forced Kendall Diggs to play in right after being the primary designated hitter.
That opened the door for a new DH and Ben McLaughlin made the most of the opportunity over the weekend. He went 4 for 7 against Tennessee and was honestly better than his stat line indicates.
Hitting safely in all three games, his hit on Saturday was an RBI single that extended Arkansas’ lead to 3-1 in the fifth. McLaughlin nearly went 3 for 3 in the final, but his hard line drive in the first inning was caught by the left fielder at the warning track, robbing him of extra bases.
“What I like about him, he’ll fight you, and he’s a good hitter with two strikes, as he showed you today,” Van Horn said. “He’s got a good swing and I just felt that it was time to give him an opportunity. He’s been hitting the ball really well in batting practice. I think he’s kind of a gamer, honestly.”
A knee injury earlier in the season likely contributed to McLaughlin not having more at bats at this point, but now he looks like the starter at DH for the foreseeable future.
That begs the question: What does it mean for his status as a pitcher? Coming to Arkansas as an infielder from the JUCO ranks, McLaughlin has started transitioning into a two-way player since returning from the injury.
He threw a scoreless inning against Omaha on March 28, but did allow three earned runs against Little Rock on Tuesday during the last midweek series. Van Horn said he’ll continue to do both.
“We’ve got to find a way to get through that game on Tuesday without using our guys we have to use on the weekend because it gets here quick,” Van Horn said. “So yeah, I would expect that he would throw a couple innings on Tuesday.”
Speaking of Wegner and his thumb injury, Van Horn said he was meeting with a hand doctor Sunday and they’d make the final decision sooner rather than later. It seems likely that he won’t be ready until the Vanderbilt series to close out the season.
“They may be dealing with it today (and) there could be a decision made whether they want to go ahead and just let it heal exactly the way it is or if they need to go in and put a pin in there that will speed things up while it heals,” Van Horn said. “We’re thinking that we’ll get him back probably for maybe the last series of the season, at 100%.”
Up Next for Arkansas Baseball
The Razorbacks will play their final midweek game at Baum-Walker Stadium on Tuesday, hosting Central Arkansas for a single game. First pitch is scheduled for 6 p.m. CT and the game will be streamed on SEC Network-Plus.
UCA will head to Fayetteville with a 16-19 overall record after losing two of three games at North Florida this weekend, which made it 7-8 in ASUN play.
While they did sweep the home-and-home midweek series against the softball team, the Bears have never beaten Arkansas in baseball. The Razorbacks have won the two matchups in Fayetteville in blowout fashion, by scores of 21-8 and 21-9, but last year’s game at Dickey-Stephens Park went 10 innings and Arkansas won 2-1.
After Tuesday’s matchup with UCA, the only midweek games left on the Razorbacks’ 2023 schedule are a road trip to Missouri State (April 25) and a matchup with Lipscomb in North Little Rock (May 2).
Other Arkansas Baseball Tidbits
- The announced attendance for Sunday’s game was 10,625. That brings the three-game total for the series to 32,744.
- Tony Vitello, who was an assistant at Arkansas from 2014-17, is now just 1-9 against his former team as the Tennessee head coach.
- It didn’t take long for Kendall Diggs to extend his on-base streak to 27 games, as he drew a walk in the first inning. He was also hit by a pitch in the second inning, but was officially 0 for 2 with a strikeout and ground out.
- There was much more suspense surrounding Arkansas’ home run streak, as it wasn’t extended until Tavian Josenberger’s line drive off the Hunt Center with one out in the sixth. The Razorbacks have homered in 32 straight games and 34 of 36 games overall.
- Josenberger’s long ball had an exit velocity of 99 mph and launch angle of 28 degrees, resulting in the 361-foot blast. He now has seven home runs in 163 plate appearances this season after hitting only three in 480 plate appearances across two innings at Kansas.
- The Razorbacks stole nine bases during the series. They would have gone a perfect 10 for 10, but John Bolton slid through the bag and was called out. “We just kind of took what they gave us,” Van Horn said. “We didn’t just wear it out. Their pitching is too good to string together too many hits. We had to advance people.”
Arkansas vs Tennessee Highlights (Game 3)
Arkansas vs Tennessee Postgame Interviews
Arkansas vs Tennessee Box Score (Game 3)
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