New Approach, Same Dominant Hagen Smith for Hogs in Game 1 vs Alabama

Hagen Smith, Arkansas baseball, Arkansas vs Alabama
photo credit: Arkansas Athletics

He didn’t put up his usual gaudy strikeout numbers, but Hagen Smith was still dominant for Arkansas on Friday.

The left-hander threw six scoreless innings and the No. 1 Razorbacks hung on late to beat No. 25 Alabama 5-3 in the series opener at Sewell-Thomas Stadium in Tuscaloosa, Ala.

Arkansas (30-3, 12-1 SEC) has now won 11 straight games since blowing a four-run lead in its series finale at Auburn on March 23, while the Crimson Tide (22-12, 4-9) have lost five straight.

The stressful eighth inning in which Alabama scored three runs and stranded the tying runs on base might have overshadowed what Smith did earlier in the game, but he was masterful.

Despite having only six strikeouts, which were his fewest since his one-inning start in the season opener against James Madison, Smith scattered three walks and two hits in what was his seventh quality start in nine appearances this year.

“I thought he threw the ball really well,” Arkansas baseball coach Dave Van Horn said. “We challenged them a lot early with fastballs. They put the bat on the ball, didn’t get any hits. Just trying to pitch to contact.”

It was the first time we’ve seen Smith dominate an opponent without a heavy reliance on strikeouts. That was more than okay to Van Horn, who said he was happy to see him get non-strikeout outs because it kept his pitch count down.

For a while, it seemed like that might allow him to finally break through the six-inning ceiling that he’s maxed out at in seven of his last eight starts.

Smith got through the first four innings on just 54 pitches, which put him on pace to get through the seventh in about 95 pitches. However, Alabama made him work in the fifth and sixth innings.

Each of the four batters he faced in the fifth inning saw at least five pitches, resulting in a 22-pitch frame, and then he lost the no-hitter on a leadoff single by Gage Miller in the sixth. Justin Lebron also reached on a one-out single, giving the Crimson Tide their first runner in scoring position with just one out, but Smith bounced back to retire Will Hodo and TJ McCants in full counts.

“We competed hard,” Alabama baseball coach Rob Vaughn said. “The problem is we just didn’t quite finish it. We had a lot of at bats where we spoiled pitches, we took pitches, we fouled them off, we fouled them off again, but we just couldn’t quite finish the at bat. And you look up and he finishes it with a punch out or weak contact.”

McCants was Smith’s final out, going down swinging to strand runners on first and second. Smith was fired up after getting him to swing and miss at a slider — a pitch he didn’t throw quite as much as normal.

His wipeout slider has been a major weapon this season, as he famously used it to get 15 of the 17 strikeouts against Oregon State earlier this season, but catcher Hudson White noticed how good his cutter was in pregame and opted to call that more.

That decision, coupled with Alabama’s discipline, led to the significant dip in strikeout rate against the Crimson Tide. He entered the game averaging more than two strikeouts per inning, but averaged just one per inning Friday.

“I threw a lot more cutters today than sliders, so I think that kind of got them swinging,” Smith said. “They had a really good approach against off speed, too. They didn’t swing at much off speed that was out of the zone, so you gotta give credit to them.”

The lack of strikeouts is just nitpicking at this point. What really mattered is that Smith kept Alabama off the scoreboard for six innings and gave Arkansas a chance to win yet another series opener.

With the performance, Smith improved to 7-0 and lowered his season ERA to 1.53 with 89 strikeouts in just 47 innings. He’s been even better in SEC play, going 5-0 with a 1.20 ERA in his five starts.

“It seems like every week, we say the same thing, ‘What was good? And what wasn’t?’” Van Horn said. “I thought everything was pretty good. If he throws like that every weekend, we’ve got a shot. Was he as good as he was three weeks ago? I don’t know. Because to me, he’s good every time he goes out.”

Vaughn knew it wouldn’t be easy to produce against Smith, even drawing a savage analogy for his team to follow, but it didn’t matter against the Razorbacks’ ace.

“When you have got 98 (mph) and you are running it under a lefty’s hands and then you’ve got an 87 (mph) slider, it’s tough,” Vaughn said. “There is a reason that (Smith) is going to be a top-five pick in the draft in July. But you just have to keep fighting and get the mistakes because that guy doesn’t make many. When he does, you can’t miss them.”

Back-to-Back Jacks

The Razorbacks really made Alabama ace Ben Hess work right out of the gates and then jumped on him.

Even though he ended up striking out to start the game, Peyton Stovall fouled off a couple of pitches and worked the count full in his at bat. Wehiwa Aloy was even more of a pest, fouling off five straight pitches in a 1-2 count before poking a single into right.

“I would think it probably bothered him a little bit,” Van Horn said. “All of a sudden he looked up and he’s faced two hitters and he’s already thrown 15 pitches and then after the home run, we made him thrown another 15-18 pitches.”

That set the stage for two of the biggest at bats of the night.

After falling behind 0-2, Ben McLaughlin got back to even before crushing a 423-foot bomb to left-center for his sixth home run of the season. It was a two-run blast and made it 2-0 Arkansas.

Hess looked like he might follow that up with a walk, but Jared Sprague-Lott turned on his 3-1 pitch and hit a rocket over the left field fence for a solo homer. It got out of the ballpark quickly.

“I was just trying to work the count, got into a hitter’s count and got the fastball I was looking for,” Sprague-Lott said. “I just didn’t want to miss it and tried to put a good swing on it.”

It was just the third time the Razorbacks have hit consecutive home runs this season, but the first since Peyton Stovall, Wehiwa Aloy and Kendall Diggs hit three straight against Missouri on March 16.

Sprague-Lott’s Perfect Performance

That first-inning blast was just the beginning of what might have been one of Jared Sprague-Lott’s best games at Arkansas.

The transfer from Richmond started the Razorbacks’ two-out rally in the third inning when he was hit by a pitch. He walked his next two times up and then notched a two-out single, meaning he reached all five plate appearances.

“He had a great day,” Van Horn said. “His last at-bat he got into the count a little bit and then smacked one the other way. They had a little shift on him, and they’re probably going to have to think about that now, that he can go the other way. And he hit it hard.”

It’s been a refreshing string of performances by Sprague-Lott, who has kept his spot in the starting lineup because of his defense. He’s not known as an offensive threat, but is 5 for 12 with a double, two home runs, five RBIs and five walks since the beginning of the Ole Miss series — a span of four games.

That’s significantly better than his first eight SEC games, in which he went just 5 for 29 (.172) with one home run and four RBIs.

“I would say over the past couple of weeks, Coach (Nate) Thompson has just been doing a great job with all the hitters coming up with a good approach,” Sprague-Lott said. “I just simplified some things and starting to feel good for sure.”

Gaeckle Picks Up McEntire

Just as it has the last several weeks, Arkansas turned to Will McEntire when Hagen Smith came out of the game.

The right-hander has been one of the top bullpen arms in the country, but didn’t quite have it Friday night. Even when he retired the Crimson Tide in order in the seventh inning, it took him 19 total pitches despite getting ahead of each hitter 0-2.

Things unraveled for McEntire in the eighth inning when he gave up four straight singles to start the eighth inning. The last two of those resulted in RBIs for Ian Petrutz and Justin Lebron, ending the shutout bid and scoring a couple of runs. A third run charged to McEntire came in on a sacrifice fly allowed by Stone Hewlett.

That’s the most runs he’s allowed all year, but Van Horn didn’t think he was terrible.

“I thought Will had kind of tough luck pitching,” Van Horn said. “They spun a couple balls a couple balls to the outfield on him and maybe he didn’t get a call here or there.”

Hewlett recorded the first out of the eighth inning, but freshman Gabe Gaeckle was tasked with closing it out. He inherited runners on the corners — which represented the tying runs in a 5-3 game — and escaped the jam by striking out Mason Swinney and getting Evan Sleight to ground out to second.

The ninth inning was pretty uneventful, as the right-hander slammed the door with a 1-2-3 frame to earn his sixth save of the year.

“Really just pounding the strike zone,” Van Horn said. “I mean, throwing everything for a strike — fastball, obviously, (and ) the breaking ball. Just seemed like he was ahead of everybody. They tried to swing early in the ninth. He got some foul balls, got ahead, then he jammed a couple guys and got a couple of pop-outs.”

Up Next for Arkansas Baseball

The Razorbacks can clinch the road series with a win over the Crimson Tide on Saturday. First pitch is scheduled for 5 p.m. CT and it’ll be streamed online on SEC Network-Plus.

Left-hander Mason Molina (3-0, 3.38 ERA) is slated to start for Arkansas, while Alabama will counter with left-hander Greg Farone (3-1, 3.28 ERA).

Other Arkansas Baseball Tidbits

  • Thanks to a first-inning single, Wehiwa Aloy extended his team-leading on-base streak to 23 games. His 14 game inning streak ended Wednesday against San Jose State, when he went 0 for 2.
  • It wasn’t a great day for Peyton Stovall, as the leadoff man went 0 for 5 with a pair of strikeouts. That snapped his on-base streak at 20 games.
  • Left-hander Stone Hewlett served as the bridge between Will McEntire and Gabe Gaeckle. He faced two batters in the eighth, issuing a walk and then giving up a sacrifice fly. It was the first time in 14 appearances this season that he failed to record at least one strikeout.
  • With six more on Friday, Hagen Smith is up to 288 career strikeouts. That moved him past David Walling (283) for the third-most in UA history. He now trails only Matt Carnes (301) and Nick Schmidt (345).
  • Alabama quarterback Jalen Milroe threw out the ceremonial first pitch prior to the game.

Arkansas vs Alabama Highlights (Game 1)

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Arkansas Baseball Postgame Interviews

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Arkansas vs Alabama Box Score (Game 1)


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