Furious DVH Returning to Old Ways Didn’t Prevent Shocking Outcome vs Georgia

Dave Van Horn, Arkansas baseball, Georgia baseball, Arkansas vs Georgia
photo credit: SECN+

Arkansas baseball was three outs away from salvaging a win to cap what had otherwise been a disappointing trip to Georgia, but disaster struck in the ninth inning.

Just as he did against Florida last week, Connor Tate launched a game-tying grand slam, and then Parks Harber hit the very next pitch out of the park to give the Bulldogs a 9-8 walk-off win and finish off a sweep of the No. 5 Razorbacks.

It’s the first time Arkansas has been swept in SEC play since 2018, when it lost three straight at Mississippi State almost exactly five years ago. The Razorbacks had won at least one game in their last 39 SEC series.

Making the result even more shocking was that Arkansas entered the weekend with a 1.5-game lead in the SEC West and a consensus top-five ranking, while Georgia — despite better play of late — was last in the SEC East and 13th overall in the 14-team league.

“I thought we fought well,” Arkansas baseball coach Dave Van Horn said. “We played pretty well. It’s just, we didn’t finish.”

Freshman Ben Bybee threw the two fateful pitches, first leaving a fastball up that Van Horn said was supposed to be down and away in a 1-2 count against Tate and then doing the same on a first-pitch fastball to Harber.

Inheriting a bases-loaded, no-out situation, the right-hander blew the save opportunity with the first long ball and then took his first collegiate loss with the next.

“I’m telling you that was unbelievable,” Georgia baseball coach Scott Stricklin said. “Unbelievable. I hardly know what to say or how to describe it. I do know this – the wind was blowing and I thought before the game that it might turn into a slugfest. It did, just at the end. Tate and Parks got two fastballs up and got ahold of them.”

The series of unfortunate events that led to Bybee being on the mound for that moment was actually put in motion several innings earlier.

With starter Hagen Smith at 96 pitches, Arkansas turned the game over to freshman Gage Wood to start the sixth inning. The right-hander likely should have had a quick first inning, but threw a ball into center field trying to start a 1-6-3 double play on Will David’s grounder back to him.

That extended the inning and eventually led to an unearned run on Sebastian Murillo’s squeeze bunt. Wood also gave up a two-out RBI single in the seventh and followed it up with a walk, increasing his pitch count to 52 and forcing the Razorbacks to bring in after another freshman right-hander, Christian Foutch, about four outs sooner than they hoped.

He did get Arkansas out of its seventh-inning jam and threw a perfect eighth, but that required 19 pitches. Granted it was only one official pitch, Foutch also threw in Thursday’s game, so he had already gone through the warm-up process once before during the series. Sure enough, he ran out of gas in the ninth, issuing a leadoff walk and giving up back-to-back singles to load the bases.

“We were hoping that Foutch could get it done,” Van Horn said. “Really, the plan today was Hagen Smith to Wood to Foutch, but the issue was we needed three innings out of Wood and we only got (five) outs…so it put a lot of stress on Foutch having to throw more pitches than we were planning.”

The name missing from that plan was right-hander Dylan Carter. The redshirt junior threw only 38 pitches in 2 2/3 scoreless innings in Game 1 of the series and Van Horn said afterward that he took him out when he did in order to preserve his arm for another appearance this weekend.

Carter himself told reporters that he’d be “ready to rock and roll again” and it’s something he’s done several times this year, but when Saturday actually rolled around, the Razorbacks opted to let him rest instead of using him again.

“He’s pitched a lot for us,” Van Horn said. “He’s having just a little bit of soreness — and he hasn’t had much soreness — just normal stuff, but we just felt like we didn’t want to hurt him, obviously, and we didn’t feel like we could put him in there.”

Not having arguably their most consistent bullpen arm available forced the Razorbacks to turn to their newfound closer — Wood had saves in three straight series-clinching wins — in the sixth, who was the first of three relatively inexperienced freshmen tasked with closing out the win.

It did not go well and Van Horn used the moment to validate his strategy of using Smith to close games with a lead, even if it means he’s burned after only three innings rather than the five or six you’d expect from him as a starter.

“Some people always wonder, ‘Why do you save that really good pitcher and don’t start him?’” Van Horn said. “Well, there you go. You’ve got to be able to finish the game.”

Injury Bug Monster Strikes Again

Not having Dylan Carter in the series finale because of soreness was just the tip of the iceberg for Arkansas baseball.

There had been growing optimism that star closer Brady Tygart, who has been out since March 1 with a UCL sprain, might get back on the mound this weekend, but he ended up getting left off the 27-man roster.

Starting catcher Parker Rowland missed all three games because of back issues and starting left fielder Jared Wegner is still out with a broken thumb. That’s not even mentioning projected ace Jaxon Wiggins needing Tommy John surgery before the season and top middle reliever Koty Frank going down with a torn lat on March 5.

As if that wasn’t bad enough, center fielder Tavian Josenberger had to leave Saturday’s game in the fourth inning because of a hamstring injury he suffered while avoiding a tag and diving into first base.

All of those factors made the ninth-inning collapse that much harder to swallow.

“It was one of the tougher (losses),” Van Horn said. “It was really one of the tougher ones because of where we are. We fought like crazy. We had our No. 2 catcher going. We were pitching with freshmen. Our center fielder hurt his hamstring. Our 3-hole hitter has a broken thumb. I mean, we’ve got issues and we still almost won the game.”

While Wiggins and Frank are out for the season, the good news is that Tygart is still expected to return this coming weekend against Texas A&M and Wegner is expected back by at least the final week of the regular season.

No timetables are known for Carter, Rowland or Josenberger, although Van Horn didn’t sound particularly optimistic about the latter.

“It’s a concern,” Van Horn said about Josenberger’s hamstring injury. “Those usually take some time, so I’m going to say it’s going to take some time.”

When the Razorbacks were swept by Mississippi State five years ago, the situations — on paper — were relatively similar. The Bulldogs were just 19-19 overall and 5-10 in SEC play when a top-five Arkansas team came to town and used the sweep to propel themselves to the College World Series semifinals.

They nearly got a rematch with the Razorbacks, who still earned a national seed and made it all the way to Omaha — where they were one out away from winning the national title.

However, despite Van Horn saying a day earlier that he didn’t want to use them as an excuse, the injuries make this sweep — and Saturday’s collapse — feel a bit different.

“We’re just trying to patch this thing together until we can get all of our guys back,” Van Horn said. “We’ve just got to win enough games to get to a regional, because there’s going to be a lot of conference games played without our guys, and we’ve got to find a way to win.”

Dave Van Horn Ejected

The Razorbacks took a two-run lead in the seventh inning thanks to a sacrifice fly by Hudson Polk and safety squeeze bunt by John Bolton, but they had a chance to add to that total when Peyton Stovall drew a two-out walk to load the bases.

That brought Jace Bohrofen — arguably Arkansas baseball’s best hitter — to the plate. However, he was called out on a 1-2 pitch that looked low. Even the hometown SEC Network-Plus commentators admitted it should have been a ball.

Understandably, Van Horn didn’t like the call and voiced his displeasure. Home plate umpire Christopher Griffith ejected him before he even made it out of the dugout. It was the first time he’s been tossed since a rubber match against LSU on April 9, 2017.

“He called a slider that was down and away for a strike,” Van Horn said. “It was definitely a ball — at least from our angle. If it was over the plate, it was definitely low.”

Van Horn added that it was a “shocking call” and that those in the dugout “couldn’t believe it.”

There was no warning before the ejection, but he had been warned earlier in the game. In fact, things had been building to the moment since the fourth inning.

It started on the play Tavian Josenberger got hurt. He led off the fourth by bunting down the first base line. It was fielded by first baseman Parks Harber, who then tried to tag him. Although he was called out on the play, replays showed Josenberger was never touched and should have been safe.

Van Horn wanted it to be reviewed, but it never was.

“They said it wasn’t reviewable because it wasn’t close enough to the base,” Van Horn said. “And then the home plate umpire told me that he felt like that he tagged him anyway — so he said.”

Later in the inning, after a two-out single by Bohrofen, Ben McLaughlin fouled off four straight 2-2 pitches before being called out on strikes. Like Bohrofen’s third strike in the seventh, it likely should have been a ball — even by Griffith’s own admission.

“He had already admitted he rang up McLaughlin earlier in the game on a ball and apologized to him,” Van Horn said. “We got on him pretty good about that, but that was during a (nine-)pitch at bat, and he took the bat right out of the kid’s hands. So there was a lot of frustration going on in the dugout.”

Instead of McLaughlin — who has been one of Arkansas’ hottest hitters since filling in for Jared Wegner — having a full count with runners on first and second, he was out to end the inning.

Van Horn has said multiple times in recent years that the reason he hadn’t been ejected lately is because replay has reduced how many times he feels the need to argue, as it usually corrects missed calls. Saturday’s outburst was a throwback to the fiery Van Horn of old.

Return of the Long Ball

Through the first four innings, Georgia starter Liam Sullivan had allowed only two base runners and, thanks to a double play, had faced just one over the minimum.

Things finally swung Arkansas’ way in the fifth, though. Diggs drew a leadoff walk and Caleb Cali followed with a towering two-run blast to left. The ball left the bat at 108 mph and 31 degrees, resulting in a 426-foot home run that tied the game at 2-2.

After a fly out by Brady Slavens, catcher Hudson Polk got ahold of the first pitch of his at bat and sent it over the fence in center to give the Razorbacks just their second lead of the weekend. His was a 406-foot shot that had an exit velocity of 104 mph and launch angle of 22 degrees.

Those were really the only two blemishes of the game for Sullivan, but the left-hander was ultimately charged with four runs because the leadoff walk he issued in the seventh before getting pulled came around to score.

“Liam gave us a great start, but he left a couple of fastball ups and they did just what we did at the end,” Sticklin said. “He was really good for us, just like their guy.”

Cali wasn’t done. Facing reliever Nolan Crisp in the eighth inning, he gave Arkansas what appeared to be some important insurance runs when he hit a three-run homer to center. This one was a 427-foot blast that had a 108 mph exit velocity and 21 degree launch angle.

The two long balls were part of a 3-for-4 performance for Cali, who would have had four hits had the second baseman not been positioned directly behind the second base bag when he grounded into a double play in the second inning. Despite starting the year 0 for 12, his batting average has climbed all the way up to .304 — and he’s hitting .350 since collecting his first hit of the year.

As a team, the three home runs were a refreshing show of power after Arkansas not only saw its nation-leading 32-game home run streak end this week, but also went back-to-back games without leaving the park.

The Razorbacks actually went 26 full innings without a home run until Brady Slavens’ two-run blast in the eighth inning of Game 2, but they have now hit four in their last 11 innings.

Hagen Smith’s Outing

Speaking of “their guy” whom Scott Stricklin referenced above, left-hander Hagen Smith made just his second start in SEC play and had a solid outing — albeit maybe not by his standards.

The sophomore mostly scattered three hits and three walks across five innings while matching his season high with eight strikeouts, but one of those hits was a two-run home run by freshman phenom Charlie Condon.

“He would tell you he didn’t have his best stuff, but his stuff was good,” Van Horn said. “He made a mistake — gave up a two-run homer on a breaking ball that he left up, and he knew it right when it left his hand — but other than that, he competed hard. I thought he finished strong.”

As he’s shown a tendency to do this year, Smith’s pitch count climbed quicker than Van Horn would like. He walked only three batters, but he found himself in nine three-ball counts — five of which were full counts.

His best inning was probably his last, as he struck out the top of Georgia’s lineup — Ben Anderson, Condon and Connor Tate — in order.

It was an emotional inning, too, as Smith started walking toward the dugout after throwing an 0-2 pitch he thought was a strike to Tate, only for it to be called a ball. That led to some chirping from the Georgia dugout, which Van Horn said made him “pissed off.” Two pitches later, Smith struck him out anyways and yelled back at the Bulldogs as he left the mound.

Having thrown 96 pitches, there’s a chance he could have thrown another inning because Van Horn has said he could go 100-110, but Smith was relieved to start the sixth, beginning the aforementioned domino effect.

“He used a lot of emotion and a lot of adrenaline in that last inning and we just felt like it was time to get him out,” Van Horn said. “He pitched well and gave us every opportunity to win the game.”

Van Horn has said the potential return of Brady Tygart could impact how he handles the pitching staff, but for now, he plans to continue using Smith as the “wildcard” who can come out of the bullpen in either of the first two games or start in Game 3 like he did Saturday.

“Going forward, it just depends on who all we’ve got healthy,” Van Horn said. “We’re just going to continue to use him out of the pen if we need to and if we get a chance to start him on the last day we might.”

Up Next for Arkansas Baseball

Before hosting Texas A&M next weekend, the Razorbacks will make the short trip north for a single midweek matchup with Missouri State in Springfield, Mo.

The Bears completed their third straight MVC sweep Saturday, but they’ve lost four straight midweek games. Two of those losses were by one run against Missouri and Kansas. For the season, Missouri State is 22-16 overall and 11-4 in conference play.

Arkansas baseball leads the all-time series 55-27, but did lose 6-4 in a midweek matchup at Baum-Walker Stadium last season.

This year’s game will start at 6:30 p.m. CT Tuesday at Hammons Field and will be streamed on ESPN-Plus, which is ESPN’s subscription service and — unlike games on SEC Network-Plus — not included in cable packages.

Other Arkansas Baseball Tidbits

  • After giving Harold Coll a start on Friday (and seeing him go 2 for 4), Dave Van Horn went back to John Bolton at shortstop on Saturday. He notched his 10th RBI of the season with a squeeze bunt and also walked, but officially went 0 for 2 — which lowers his batting average in SEC play to .100. “To me, that’s always going to be a defensive position first,” Van Horn said. “If there’s a situation where we get down early or something by a bunch, might put the offensive player in there. To me, it’s a defensive position.”
  • In the seventh inning, Connor Tate’s two-out RBI single was set up by a Ben Anderson stolen base. That is notable because it was just the second stolen base attempt in 18 SEC games by Georgia. Polk has now thrown out only three of 18 base stealers (16.7%), compared to Parker Rowland’s 26.7% rate (4 of 15) — the latter of which doesn’t include three successful pickoffs.
  • With three walks and a double, Kendall Diggs easily extended his on-base streak to 31 games. That is tied with Robert Moore’s 31-game streak last year for the longest by an Arkansas baseball player in the past decade. He is also the only Arkansas player with more walks than strikeouts this season and it’s not particularly close for him — he’s got 32 walks to only 24 strikeouts.
  • It was a relatively quiet weekend for Georgia’s Charlie Condon. The freshman phenom hit the home run off Hagen Smith and also had a single in the ninth inning comeback, but went just 3 for 14 (.214) with five strikeouts against the Razorbacks. He entered the series hitting .444.

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