Gabe Gaeckle Goes Where No Arkansas Freshman Has Gone Before

Gabe Gaeckle, Arkansas baseball, Arkansas vs Oral Roberts
photo credit: Craven Whitlow

FAYETTEVILLE — Any time Arkansas finds itself in a jam, it calls on Gabe Gaeckle.

That was the case again Tuesday night, as the right-hander stranded the tying runs on base and earned another save in the No. 1 Razorbacks’ 4-2 midweek win over Oral Roberts at Baum-Walker Stadium.

Even though the Golden Eagles have struggled in their encore to last season’s magical College World Series run, they were scrappy and threatened to erase Arkansas’ 4-0 lead late in the game.

With two already on the board, they had runners on the corners with two outs in the eighth when Dave Van Horn brought in Gaeckle. He got David Herring to fly out to left to get out of that inning and then threw a perfect ninth inning with a pair of strikeouts sandwiched around a routine ground out.

By retiring all four batters he faced, Gaeckle notched his SEC-leading fourth save, further solidifying the electric freshman as Arkansas’ closer.

“I really didn’t have a certain role set in my mind coming in,” Gaeckle said in an interview on the UA radio broadcast afterward. “I knew there was a bunch of great pitchers and whatever role I was most useful in…I was happy to be in it.

“Lately it has seemed to be those (end of the) games they put me in and I love it. It is fun having that challenge. I have just really enjoyed it.”

Ranked as the No. 51 overall recruit in the 2023 class by Perfect Game, Gaeckle had no experience coming out of the bullpen before arriving on campus, much less closing games.

Like Gage Wood last year and Brady Tygart two years ago, though, he has emerged as the Razorbacks’ go-to option when the game is on the line despite being a freshman.

What’s different about Gaeckle is he’s asserted himself in that role much sooner than those two pitchers. All five of Wood’s saves in 2023 came against SEC foes and only one of Tygart’s eight saves in 2022 came before the start of conference play.

With four saves already, Gaeckle is one-third of the way to the UA freshman record of 12 set by Phillip Stidham in 1989.

None of those have been cheap, either. In fact, he literally knows nothing but pitching in high-leverage spots. In all six of his appearances, Gaeckle has either faced the tying run or inherited a situation with at least the tying run on base. Twice, he’s entered with the bases loaded and gotten out of it.

  • James Madison: Started the fifth inning, score tied 2-2
  • Oklahoma State: Bases loaded in the ninth inning, score tied 1-1
  • Murray State: Two runners on in the eighth inning, Arkansas up 3-1
  • UCA: Started the eighth inning, Arkansas up 7-6
  • McNeese State: Bases loaded in the seventh inning, Arkansas up 3-1
  • Oral Roberts: Two runners on in the eighth inning, Arkansas up 4-2

The only time he “failed” was in his collegiate debut against James Madison, when he threw two scoreless innings in a tie game before giving up a couple of bunt singles and a walk — all of whom came around to score after he was relieved. None of his 10 inherited runners have scored this year.

It’s unlikely that any other Arkansas freshman has been put in as many consistently high-leverage situations as Gaeckle has this early in his career

It hasn’t necessarily been a surprise, though. His teammates knew pretty quickly in Arkansas baseball’s intrasquad scrimmages that he’d contribute in some way as a freshman.

“First outing we were like, ‘Yeah, this guy is going to help us win,’” senior Peyton Holt said. “It’s an uncomfortable AB for sure, especially as a righty. He hides the ball well, he does a really good job locating. He’s pretty special.”

Junior Kendall Diggs, arguably the best hitter on the team, said he fouled off a 98 mph fastball the first time he faced Gaeckle and knew he was in trouble because a “nasty” changeup, curveball or slider was on the way – an arsenal that made him a legitimate MLB Draft prospect coming out of Aptos High School in California.

“I remember walking in the door (the) first day after summer ball I got back here and that’s all everyone was talking about, was his first bullpen,” Diggs said. “This kid, I don’t know how he’s even here, but we’re super happy he’s on the team and he’s doing an amazing job for us.”

Gaeckle now owns a 2.92 ERA with 19 strikeouts and five walks in 12 1/3 innings, with opponents hitting just .133. Take out his debut and the ERA drops to 0.87.

The Other Freshman Arm

Making his fourth start of the season, Colin Fisher gave the Razorbacks three scoreless innings, but he needed some help to do it.

After facing the minimum through 2 2/3 innings, the left-hander ran into some trouble trying to get the final out of his outing. Dylan Wipperman extended the inning with a two-out single and then Fisher walked Elijah Rodriguez despite getting ahead of him 1-2.

The Golden Eagles nearly got on the board when Holden Breeze hit a grounder that looked like it’d get through the left side, but shortstop Wehiwa Aloy made a diving stop. He couldn’t get an out, but by preventing the ball to get all the way through, it loaded the bases instead of driving in a run.

Fisher, following a mound visit, got Kyle Booker to fly out to center to leave them loaded. It was a big moment in the game because Arkansas had just taken a 3-0 lead.

“It was good to see him finish it and not let them cut into that lead that we just got and kind of flip the momentum back (to) their dugout,” Van Horn said. “It stayed with us. I thought he did a great job of coming out and obviously throwing the ball over the plate. He mixed it up pretty good.”

The only other hit Fisher allowed came in the first at bat of the game. Rodriguez hit a slower chopper and it got under Aloy’s glove as he charged it. It was a play Aloy probably feels he should have made and could have been ruled an error, but it didn’t matter because Fisher promptly picked him off.

With Tuesday’s outing, the Noble, Okla., native lowered his season ERA to 1.26 with 19 strikeouts and three walks in 14 1/3 innings with Arkansas baseball.

That kind of production is why Fisher threw only 51 pitches before getting pulled, as Van Horn would like to have him available to pitch out of the bullpen this weekend against Missouri.

“You never know how it’s going to go or what’s going to happen or somebody might come up sore or sick or whatever because things are happening,” Van Horn said. “That’s the way it works. You get into the season and we still got flu running around, we got Covid running around and you just gotta make sure you have guys available.”

Peyton Stovall In the Field

After returning to the lineup as the designated hitter over the weekend, Peyton Stovall made his first start at second base Tuesday night. He also hit in the leadoff spot for the first time. That’s where he was projected to play and hit before breaking his foot in an intrasquad scrimmage less than two weeks before the season.

Stovall picked up where he left off against McNeese State at the plate, driving in two with a bases-loaded single in the second inning for the first runs of the game.

That proved to be his only hit in a 1-for-5 day, but the Haughton, La., product also hit the ball hard in his final at bat. Unfortunately for him, the 108 mph line drive was caught in center.

“That was a big hit,” Van Horn said. “It drove in two runs and then you look at his last at bat, he hit that ball super hard to the deepest part of the park. You gotta love it when hitters stay through the middle of the field. But I really like what I’m seeing from him swinging the bat.”

Defensively, Stovall didn’t get many chances. He did turn a 6-4-3 double play to end the seventh inning, though. His throw to first wasn’t great, but Ben McLaughlin picked it. He also fielded a routine grounder in the ninth inning.

The domino effect of Stovall returning to the field was Peyton Holt getting the starting nod at third base over Jared Sprague-Lott. He went 2 for 3 with a double and a walk at the plate and also made a great defensive play when he went in front of shortstop Wehiwa Aloy to field a slow roller and then fire to first for an out.

“We worked there a lot in the offseason,” Holt said. “It’s not too bad. I’m comfortable over there at second. Just wherever he needs me to play. We’ve talked about it – I could play third, second, left, I even almost caught last year. It’s just wherever they need me to play.”

Up Next for Arkansas Baseball

SEC play is upon us, as Arkansas will welcome Missouri to Baum-Walker Stadium for a three-game series beginning Friday. First pitch of Game 1 is scheduled for 6:30 p.m. CT and will be streamed on SEC Network-Plus.

The Tigers 9-8 after beating rival Kansas in a midweek game Tuesday night. Prior to that win, they were ranked No. 206 in the RPI. That is easily the worst mark in the SEC, with the second-worst being Mississippi State at No. 87.

Other Arkansas Baseball Tidbits

  • The Razorbacks tacked on a big insurance run with a two-out home run by Kendall Diggs in the fifth inning. It traveled 378 feet with a 104 mph exit velocity and 30.2 degree launch angle. “In the past week or so, I feel like I’ve been just missing my pitch, so I was looking for a fastball there,” Diggs said. “Took the first one he threw me. He brought that one in a little bit. Good thing it kept going through the wind. I wasn’t sure it was going to, but it worked out.”
  • Immediately after Peyton Stovall’s two-run single, Wehiwa Aloy drove in one more with a single of his own. He has now hit safely in six straight games and has at least one RBI in the last five.
  • For the second straight game, Arkansas picked off a runner at first in the first inning. This one didn’t require a review, as Colin Fisher caught Elijah Rodriguez leaning for an easy out.
  • Pitching coach Matt Hobbs missed the game because he is sick. Zach Barr, the Director of Video & Scouting for Arkansas baseball, served as the pitching coach in his place, making the non-pitching change mound visits.
  • Oral Roberts’ roster includes a pair of Bentonville natives in right-hander Conner Floyd, who went to Lifeway Christian in high school, and left-hander Reed Ronan, who went to Bentonville High. Ronan actually pitched in the game, tossing a perfect eighth inning with one strikeout.
  • Former Arkansas baseball players Chad Spanberger and Hunter Wilson were in attendance for Tuesday’s game. Wilson, of course, played for both the Razorbacks and Oral Roberts.
  • Arkansas softball ace Robyn Herron, who tossed a perfect game against Illinois State on Feb. 24, threw out the ceremonial first pitch before Tuesday’s game. Softball coach Courtney Deifel was also in attendance.

Arkansas vs Oral Roberts Highlights

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Postgame Interviews

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Arkansas vs Oral Roberts Box Score

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