“Luck” Plays into Worst-Case Scenario for Hagen Smith, DVH Gets Feisty + More from KSU Loss

Hagen Smith, Arkansas baseball, Arkansas vs Kansas State, Fayetteville Regional, NCAA Tournament
photo credit: Craven Whitlow

FAYETTEVILLE — The worst-case scenario finally happened for Arkansas, and it came at the worst time imaginable.

Staked to a two-run lead, Hagen Smith fell apart in a disastrous fifth inning Saturday night and the No. 5 Razorbacks couldn’t dig out of it, as Kansas State pulled off a 7-6 upset win to send them to the loser’s bracket of the Fayetteville Regional.

Already named the SEC Pitcher of the Year and likely the frontrunner to be National Pitcher of the Year, the left-hander unraveled in a way previously thought impossible.

As Kansas State baseball coach Pete Hughes put it, the Wildcats “got lucky” and then took advantage of it when some small ball to take the lead and then their star, shortstop Kaelen Culpepper, delivered the haymaker with a three-run homer.

When the dust settled, Kansas State had six runs on the board.

“All of those things came together — a little luck, a call here or there, a cheap hit, a big hit,” Hughes said. “That resulted in a big inning. We’re not going to get many of those opportunities against Hagen. I knew it was going to be a tough one. It was either going to be a pitching duel where a defensive miscue would have decided the game or it was going to be one of those fluke big innings. We’re fortunate enough to be on the right side of it.”

A packed Baum-Walker Stadium was stunned. Smith hadn’t allowed more than three runs in a start all year and the Wildcats doubled that. In one inning.

The Razorbacks had just taken a 2-0 lead in the top half of the fifth when Smith opened the home half with back-to-back full-count walks. As they typically do, those came back to haunt him.

After a sacrifice bunt moved those runners to second and third, 9-hole hitter Chuck Ingram poked an 0-2 pitch that wasn’t even in the strike zone into right for an RBI and Brendan Jones followed with a chopper over first baseman Ben McLaughlin for another RBI.

“We punch in two, take the lead, momentum is on our side and then they fouled off a pitch or two,” Arkansas baseball coach Dave Van Horn said. “He walked two guys and then a couple things went their way.”

A perfectly executed squeeze bunt by Jaden Parsons brought in the go-ahead run before Culpepper — who hit for the cycle in his first game this weekend — hit a home run that just barely cleared the wall in right. In fact, center fielder Ty Wilmsmeyer nearly tracked it down for a leaping grab.

“I’m not exactly sure how close I was,” Wilmsmeyer said. “I think it went over my glove by a foot or two. But a warm night like tonight, ball’s gonna carry a little bit, and credit to him, he put a good swing on the ball and it carried out of here.”

Smith retired the next two batters, but the damage had already been done and, with his pitch count at 92, he was done for the night. In what could be his final appearance in an Arkansas uniform, he gave up six earned runs on four hits and four walks while striking out seven in five innings.

That’s not the kind of stat line anyone was expecting to see him post against a Kansas State team that entered the game hitting just .208 against lefties.

And it wasn’t just any lefty, either. Smith is trying to become the first pitcher since Stephen Strasburg to lead Division I in both ERA and strikeouts per nine innings. He broke the UA single-season strikeout record in the second inning and opponents were hitting just .139 off him.

Hughes said he made it a point not to show those numbers to his team, while also preaching the importance of staying positive and staying within their approach, even amid inevitable adversity, so they could hopefully hit a mistake when they got one.

That’s exactly what happened in the fifth inning.

“It’s just baseball,” Arkansas outfielder Peyton Holt said. “You can’t throw a shutout every time you go out. You see it in the big leagues. You’ve got all those good arms, and they can’t have a good outing every time. Part of it.”

Smith had made it 83 innings without such an outing, but had one when it mattered most. It was the most runs he’s allowed in almost exactly a year, since getting shelled for eight runs in one inning against TCU in last year’s Fayetteville Regional.

Some fans may point to those two starts as evidence of Smith’s inability to deliver in big moments. However, that’d not only be disregarding his key contributions on the 2022 College World Series run, but also stellar regular seasons in which he helped Arkansas win an SEC title in 2023 and SEC West title this year.

He has certainly carried the Razorbacks this season, but now it’s up to his teammates to pick him up and win three games in two days to give him a chance at redemption in the super regionals. Otherwise, his legendary season will end on a sour note.

Feisty DVH Fired Up About Offense

Even with the stunning collapse of Hagen Smith, the Razorbacks still had plenty of chance to rally and beat Kansas State on Saturday.

Despite out-hitting the Wildcats 13-5 and having runners all over the base paths, the big inning eluded Arkansas. It left 13 total runners on base, including 11 over the final six innings.

Perhaps the two most frustrating innings came in the fifth and eighth.

The Razorbacks took the lead with two runs in the fifth inning, but could have thrown an early knockout punch. Instead, Kansas State starter Jackson Wentworth limited the damage by getting Ben McLaughlin and Wehiwa Aloy to fly out.

Their fifth straight inning leaving two runners on came in the eighth. With one out, Hudson White nearly tied it up with a home run, but his deep drive to left hit off the wall for an RBI double. It also put the tying runs in scoring position, but Jared Sprague-Lott popped out and McLaughlin looked at strike three.

That has seemingly been the story all year for Arkansas’ scuffling offense, but Dave Van Horn was not about to pin this loss on the hitters.

In fact, he got a little fired up talking about his offense that is finally starting to heat up. Through two games in the NCAA Tournament, the Razorbacks are 29 for 81 (.358) with 13 extra-base hits. That means they are hitting 90 points better in those games than they did all regular season (.268).

“I wouldn’t want to play us right now, honestly, the way we’re swinging the bat and we were fighting at the plate,” Van Horn said. “We are hitting the crap out of the ball, that’s why. … Man, they’re fighting like crazy. Some teams would have rolled over out there.”

That’s a lot of confidence, but with potentially three games in two days looming, Arkansas will need to continue swinging a hot bat if it’s going to have a chance of slugging its way through the winner’s bracket.

Up Next for Arkansas Baseball

With the loss, Arkansas now must win three games in two days to advance to the super regionals. It must first beat SEMO in an elimination game at 1 p.m. CT Sunday on ESPN-Plus.

Next up would be a rematch with Kansas State. The Razorbacks would have to beat the Wildcats at 6 p.m. CT to force a winner-take-all game on Monday, with first pitch for that game still TBA.

Right-hander Gage Wood (3-1, 3.86 ERA) will get the start in the first game Sunday, which is something Best of Arkansas Sports discussed with Wood in an exclusive. You can read more on that here:

Arkansas’ pitching plans beyond that, both out of the bullpen against the Redhawks and for any potential game after that, are murky.

The only pitchers on the 27-man roster who haven’t appeared in a game this weekend yet, other than Wood, are right-handers Koty Frank and Dylan Carter and left-handers Stone Hewlett and Parker Coil.

Everyone else the Razorbacks might throw would be recycled from one of the first two games.

“Not a problem,” Van Horn said when asked about his pitching depth. “We can do it. Everybody’s Mr. Oh Poor ‘Ol Me, negative. We can do it. We might not do it, but we can.”

Other Arkansas Baseball Tidbits

  • The announced attendance for Arkansas vs Kansas State in the Fayetteville Regional was 11,213. That makes it the second-largest crowd of the season at Baum-Walker Stadium, trailing Game 2 of the Ole Miss series (11,234).
  • Despite being one of the nation’s leaders in that category, Kansas State attempted only one stolen base and Danniel Rivera was thrown out trying to swipe second. Opponents had been 29 of 32 on stolen bases against Hudson White, so it was just the fourth runner he’s gunned down.
  • At the plate, White went 2 for 4 with a walk to extend his hitting streak to 15 games. That’s the longest hitting streak by any Arkansas baseball player this year, surpassing a 14-game streak by Aloy earlier this season.
  • Ben McLaughlin narrowly missed a first-inning home run, hitting a ball 399.6 feet to dead center where it was caught just in front of the wall. He ended up going 0 for 4, but did get hit by a pitch to extend his on-base streak to 24 games.
  • Jared Sprague-Lott and Peyton Holt each homered in Saturday’s game, giving Arkansas 85 long balls this season. That is the seventh-most in a single season in UA history.
  • After not getting a single at bat during the entire month of May, Jack Wagner got the nod at designated hitter and went 1 for 5 with a double. It was his first start since April 30 against Missouri State and his only appearance in a game during May was for one inning as a defensive substitution against Texas A&M on May 16.

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