Injuries forced his hand, but Dave Van Horn finally unleashed his best pitcher as a Friday night starter to open Arkansas baseball’s series at Mississippi State.
After seven weeks of serving a “wildcard” role, Hagen Smith got the nod against the Bulldogs and was dominant for two innings before his command started slipping. The left-hander still fought through five innings, though, and helped the Razorbacks win 6-2 at Dudy Noble Field in Starkville, Miss.
With usual Game 1 starter Hunter Hollan needing a couple extra days to rest his leg, Smith came out firing.
“His stuff was amazing early — almost too good,” Van Horn said. “You could tell he was exerting way too much energy for a starter. The first inning I think he might’ve touched 98, 95, 96, 98 (mph) on the gun. It was incredible.”
Not only was he throwing the ball harder than usual, but he was also in the zone. He got ahead 1-2 against the first five Bulldogs he faced and went six up, six down on just 28 total pitches — only nine of which were called balls — to start the game.
Smith began his outing with a strikeout of David Mershon, who walked in his other four plate appearances, and also struck out Dakota Jordan and Kellum Clark to begin the second.
“He came off the field and he was in the dugout and I was like, ‘Wow, we’ve got to calm him down a little bit,’” Van Horn said. “His adrenaline… He looked like a caged lion, to be honest with you. He was just so pumped up.”
Sure enough, that proved to be unsustainable. Smith nearly threw a third perfect inning, but he plunked Amani Larry in an 0-2 count to give Mississippi State its first base runner. That came back to bite him on a two-out RBI single by Colten Ledbetter.
That inning doubled his pitch count and was the start of three straight innings in which Smith had to battle his command issues. After throwing 19 of his first 28 pitches for strikes (67.9%), only 43 of his last 84 (51.2%) found the zone.
Van Horn said the reason behind his deteriorating control was that he got tired because he came out throwing like a closer — the role he’s held for a good chunk of the SEC slate — rather than a starter.
“He just needs to back off a little bit with maybe the intensity,” Van Horn said. “I mean, the stuff will be close to the same. Just got to find a way to calm down just a little bit, but I love the way he attacks the game and attacks the hitters. It’s just something that he’ll have to work on and he can do it. He’ll be fine.”
Smith stranded runners on the corners by striking out Larry in the fourth and then limited the damage to only one unearned run in the fifth by striking out Dakota Jordan and Kellum Clark.
Those two strikeouts, the latter of which came on his 112th pitch of the game, capped what was a crucial inning in the game. Mississippi State’s first four batters reached, but a potential crooked number was partially foiled when Parker Rowland thew out Ross Highfill trying to steal third base for the first out of the inning.
“We have guys run green lights, but it’s probably a young kid being aggressive,” Mississippi State baseball coach Chris Lemonis said. “Probably not the right moment. I like the fact that Ross plays hard and isn’t scared, but it’s a left-handed hitter, and their guy is melting down, a lot of things going on in that opportunity. Probably would redo it if we had to.”
He ended up matching a season high with eight strikeouts and tying a career high with five walks while allowing only two runs — one earned — on two hits and two hit batters. The Razorbacks had hoped to get at least six, if not seven, innings out of Smith, but they were a bit lucky to get a full five from him Friday night.
Long Ball Supplies Just Enough
It’d be hard to draw up a better start to a game than what Arkansas got Friday night.
Leadoff man Kendall Diggs worked the count full and drew a walk, and then Jace Bohrofen followed with a line drive over the right field wall for a two-run home run.
The 368-foot blast was crushed with an exit velocity of 106 mph, but had a launch angle of just 19.8 degrees. It was Bohrofen’s 12th home run of the season, which ties Jared Wegner for the team lead.
After that, though, Mississippi State starter Cade Smith really settled in. He retired the next 11 Arkansas batters in a row and 16 of the next 18.
“I honestly didn’t think we were swinging it bad,” Brady Slavens said. “We barreled up a lot of balls, just right at people. We felt pretty good. He was mixing his pitches well, throwing a lot of strikes. When you throw strikes, get ahead and don’t walk people, it makes it harder to hit.”
Luckily for the Razorbacks, one of those barrels resulted in another home run just as the Bulldogs were starting to gain some momentum. They had just tied the game in the bottom of the fifth and knew Arkansas would be going to its bullpen the next inning, while they were able to send their starter back out in the sixth.
Ben McLaughlin set the stage with a single to center and then Slavens — who had hit the ball hard, but right at the first baseman his first two times up — crushed the first pitch he saw over the wall in right-center.
It was a 394-foot home run that had a launch angle fo 27 degrees and exit velocity of 105 mph. He now has six home runs this season and 36 in his UA career, which moved him into sole possession of seventh place on the school’s all-time list — he had been tied with Heston Kjerstad, Rodney Nye and Greg D’Alexander.
“Obviously Brady hit the first-pitch fastball,” Van Horn said. “He hit it a long way. We knew right when it left the bat that it was gone. It kind of erupted our dugout. It was a big swing.”
Bridge to Wood
With a two-run lead, Arkansas turned to right-hander Cody Adcock out of the bullpen and he needed just 13 pitches to retire Mississippi State in order in the sixth.
As quickly as he got through the inning, it led to Dave Van Horn thinking about sending him back out in the seventh, but he ultimately decided against it and brought in closer Gage Wood for what he hoped would be another three-inning save.
“You’re thinking, ‘Man, if we squeeze another one out of him,’ but we just stuck with the plan — for him to bridge,” Van Horn said. “We just felt like with 12 outs to go, we needed to get a few more and Gage could finish it.”
The plan worked almost flawlessly. The freshman issued a one-out walk in the seventh, but struck out the other three batters he faced in his first inning of work. He made quick work of the Bulldogs in a perfect eighth before running into some trouble in the ninth.
Wood was working with a four-run lead at that point, though, and he struck out Colton Ledbetter to strand runners on first and second, plus keep the tying run on deck.
“My mindset going in there was nine outs, count ’em down, and let’s go win a ball game,” Wood said. “I felt good, but just kind of made that ninth inning a little harder than it actually was by walking some guys. I ended up getting out of it, and we got the win.”
It was the fifth save of the year for Wood, who now owns a 2.62 ERA with 37 strikeouts in 24 innings across 18 appearances. Opponents are hitting a minuscule .159 against him, which is the best mark on the team.
Caleb Cali Bounces Back
He didn’t hit either of the Razorbacks’ two home runs, but Caleb Cali had easily had their best performance at the plate Friday.
After seeing his 13-game hitting streak come to an end against Lipscomb on Tuesday, the hot-hitting JUCO transfer went 3 for 4 with a couple of singles and a double — all of which he hit the other way.
He gave credit to assistants Nate Thompson and Bobby Wernes afterward, saying they did a “really good job” putting together the scouting reports on Mississippi State’s pitchers.
“Just knowing that the starter was kind of going to go away to righties, we kind of bit into that approach,” Cali said. “Especially after my first at-bat, they were throwing it away, and maybe it was a controversial call on the (first) one, but after that, I kind of got in the box and started just kind of looking that way.”
Cali’s double led off the ninth inning and he eventually came around to score an important insurance run.
Even with the 0-for-4 midweek game, he is hitting .462 since April 8. That stretch has caused his overall batting average to rise 121 points to .321.
More Lineup Changes
Despite it being the 22nd conference game of the year for Arkansas baseball, Peyton Holt made his first career SEC start and Mason Neville notched his first career SEC at bat in what was his second ever start in conference play.
Neither player recorded their first SEC hit, though. Holt went 0 for 4 with a couple of strikeouts, while Neville struck out his first three times up before laying down a critical sacrifice bunt in the ninth. It was a nice moment for the struggling freshman, who is now 2 for 21 with 15 strikeouts this year.
Both of them were forced into action because of injuries. Holt replaced usual second baseman Peyton Stovall, who is not on the 27-man roster for the Mississippi State series. It was an expected move, as Stovall is still dealing with a shoulder injury and Van Horn doesn’t want him throwing a ball at all this weekend.
In a bit of a surprising move, Tavian Josenberger — the regular starting center fielder — was included on the 27-man, but Van Horn said it was mostly because he needed to put someone complete the roster. However, he didn’t completely rule out the possibility of the Kansas transfer getting in the game some how as he works his way back from a hamstring injury.
“He’s a guy that if we really needed him to go in there, (he could) lay down a bunt or who knows, maybe even go up there and get a pinch hit if he would just kind of jog to first base,” Van Horn said. “He’s probably 80 percent now but we don’t want to hurt him.”
Arkansas Bus Hit in High-Speed Chase
At one point in the middle innings of Friday’s game, sirens could be heard in the background of the SEC Network-Plus broadcast. The commentators never mentioned them, but they were the result of a high-speed chase that ended with a crash just outside of Dudy Noble Field.
There were plenty of jokes on social media about the driver being recently fired Mississippi State pitching coach Scott Foxhall or recently fired Alabama head coach Brad Bohannon, but according to the Mississippi Clarion Ledger, it was a man from Knoxville, Tenn., who stole a car and was pursued by police before ramming into a bollard. He attempted to flee, but was caught and arrested.
Details about this part of the story are fuzzy, but apparently the Arkansas team bus was hit by an ambulance, as well.
The incident was perfectly symbolic for both teams, as Mississippi State’s season has been one long car wreck and the Razorbacks have been ravaged by injuries.
Up Next for Arkansas Baseball
The Razorbacks will be playing in front of a national television audience as they try to clinch the series Saturday night. First pitch is scheduled for 6 p.m. and it is on ESPN2.
Right-hander Brady Tygart will make his second career start for Arkansas, but it will be sort of an “opener” situation again as he slowly works his way back after missing nearly two months with a UCL sprain.
The sophomore threw 20 pitches last week against Texas A&M and is now slated to throw 35-40 pitches Saturday. It’s expected that right-hander Will McEntire will follow him and, assuming he’s pitching well, throw starter-like innings. He did that last week and went 5 2/3 innings after Tygart.
Dave Van Horn had left the second and third games open with a TBA designation, but said Friday that left-hander Hunter Hollan will likely get the nod in Game 3 on Sunday. The Razorbacks are giving his legs an extra couple of days to get ready, as he’s been dealing with what Van Horn has described as shin splints.
It’s unknown who Mississippi State will start in Game 2.
Other Arkansas Baseball Tidbits
- Friday marked the first time Arkansas baseball had won a game away from Baum-Walker Stadium since winning the rubber match at Ole Miss on April 8. Since then, the Razorbacks were swept at Georgia, lost at Missouri State and dropped their annual game at Dickey-Stephens Park. When told of the lengthy drought being snapped, Dave Van Horn let out a laugh on the postgame Zoom. “It feels good to win Friday and even better when you bring it up that we haven’t won on the road in that long,” Van Horn said. “I challenged them a little bit yesterday that we’ve got to play better on the road and don’t worry about getting beat, just play, and they did.”
- Before being thrown out trying to steal third in the fifth inning, Mississippi State catcher Ross Highfill was involved in a couple of rarely seed umpire interference calls. One didn’t matter, as he dove back in safely on a pickoff attempt, but after seemingly stealing second, Highfill had to go back to first because of the second interference. On both plays, home plate umpire Scott Cline made contact with catcher Parker Rowland. “My thing to the umpire was ‘get back,’” Mississippi State baseball coach Chris Lemonis said. “Happens once, all right. It shouldn’t happen twice.”
- Both of Mississippi State’s hits were by Colten Ledbetter, who went 2 for 5 with a pair of singles, an RBI and two strikeouts, including the one that ended the game. The rest of the Bulldogs combined to go 0 for 23 with eight walks and 11 strikeouts — and half of those walks were by David Mershon.
- Injured right-hander Dylan Carter underwent Tommy John surgery to repair his torn UCL on Friday. He shared on Twitter that the procedure “was a success” and that he was “on the road to recovery.”
Arkansas vs Mississippi State Highlights (Game 1)
Arkansas vs Mississippi State Postgame Interviews
Arkansas vs Mississippi State Box Score (Game 1)
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