Way-Too-Early Projection of Hagen Smith’s Place in the Record Book + More from Game 1 vs Murray State

Hagen Smith, Arkansas baseball, Arkansas vs Murray State
photo credit: Crant Osborne

FAYETTEVILLE — He might not have had quite as many strikeouts, but Hagen Smith was still excellent in his encore for Arkansas baseball Friday afternoon.

A week after recording 17 of 18 outs via strikeouts against No. 7 Oregon State, the left-hander had “only” 12 punch outs in the Razorbacks’ 5-1 series-opening win over Murray State at Baum-Walker Stadium.

Those were compiled across six innings in which he retired all but two batters he faced, allowing one run on one hit and one walk before getting pulled because of pitch count.

“A lot of people were asking me, ‘What do you think? Is Smith gonna have another good outing?’” Arkansas baseball coach Dave Van Horn said. “It’s tough, whenever you have an outing like he had last weekend, which for some people it’s once in a lifetime. But I don’t think with him it’s going to be. My comment was, ‘He’ll be good. I don’t expect him to be as good because it’s the outing after.’”

The veteran coach was right, even if it didn’t look like that’d be the case right out of the gates.

Just as Arkansas softball’s Robyn Herron gave up a home run to the first batter she faced after tossing a perfect game, Drew Vogel sent Smith’s second pitch of the game over the right field fence and off the Hunt Center for a leadoff bomb.

“He cheated a little bit on the fastball and he hit it — hit the bottom of it, hit it late, deep in the zone and he drove it out of the park,” Van Horn said. “When a guy’s throwing 95-96-97-98, whatever he’s throwing you don’t have to hit a lot of it if you get a little bit of leverage and extension and all those other offensive terms everybody uses all the time.”

Van Horn added that he thought the homer served as a “slap in the face and got him upset,” similar to how the 42-pitch, one-inning start on Opening Day set the stage for his monster performance against Oregon State.

Smith agreed with that assessment and this time, Arkansas fans didn’t have to wait a week to see the results.

“Obviously, I don’t want it to happen, but it happened,” Smith said. “It did kind of light a fire under my butt a little bit. Just got me locked in a little more.”

Only one of the next 19 Racers he faced reached, as he retired seven straight and 11 straight with a walk sandwiched in between.

The free pass came with one out in the third inning when Smith briefly lost control of his fastball after getting ahead 0-2 against Logan Bland. He went back to the trusty slider to strike out Vogel, who homered his previous time up, and then got Dustin Mercer to chase a 96 mph fastball up in the zone to end the inning.

Smith was constantly working ahead in the count, throwing first-pitch strikes to 12 of 20 batters. Of the eight he started with balls, six saw at least back-to-back strikes in the next two pitches.

“The guys were excited to face him, obviously a talent like that,” Murray State baseball coach Dan Skirka said. “You’ve got no other option when you’ve got the opportunity to go against the best. Drew was ready and then Hagen really settled in there after that and started landing that slider. I think that was the biggest difference there. It got us off the fastball and he just did a phenomenal job.”

Because he wasn’t striking everyone out like last week, Smith — last year’s SEC All-Defensive Team selection at pitcher — even had a chance to flash some leather.

Bland, Murray State’s 9-hole hitter, tried to bunt his way on to start the sixth, but the Bullard, Texas, native came off the mound and made a great play to get the out, albeit after a challenge to overturn the call on the field.

“It was a perfect bunt and he flipped it with his glove, which was the play,” Van Horn said. “(He) didn’t have time to get his hand down there at the same time. He flipped it a little high. I thought McLaughlin did a good job of going on top of it and going to get it just a little bit.”

Over his last two outings, Smith has allowed only one run on four hits and two walks while striking out 29 in just 12 innings — a stretch of dominance that’s even impressed his teammates.

“It’s definitely something special, not something you can say you can see over and over again,” sophomore Jayson Jones said. “This guy, we faced him in the fall and the spring and it’s, ‘Good luck.’ It’s definitely something special to see.”

Both of those starts went six innings, which is longer than any of his 18 appearances last season, and he probably could have gone deeper if Van Horn chose to leave him in.

Smith threw only 78 pitches against Oregon State and 81 against Murray State. That kind of efficiency would allow him to get through seven or eight innings when Arkansas decides to fully turn him loose.

“He knew that was the key for him to be a really, really good starter,” Van Horn said. “He’s all of that. He could have gone another inning, but we figured 81 was enough. Especially after last week and so much emotion, and everything that was going on.”

Climbing the Record Book

With 12 more Friday afternoon, Hagen Smith moved past four Razorbacks and into seventh place on the UA’s all-time strikeout list — and the four he jumped are pretty good.

The left-hander now has 230 career strikeouts, which is more than Charley Boyce, the workhorse on Van Horn’s first College World Series team at Arkansas and a trio of future big leaguers — Mike Oquist (223), Isaiah Campbell (224) and Gerald Hannahs (225). The latter named his son after the former Los Angeles Dodgers Dusty Baker. Decades later, Dusty Hannahs would leave his own mark on the Arkansas basketball record book when it comes to three-point shooting.

Next up on the list are two other recent stars: Kevin Kopps with 232 and Blaine Knight with 244.

Although it’s still way too early to project what he made do this season and with the obvious caveat of staying healthy, Smith should not only blow past those guys, but he could challenge for both the UA single-season and career strikeout records. Those are currently held by David Walling (155 in 1999) and Nick Schmidt (345 from 2005-07), respectively.

At his current pace of 21.5 strikeouts per nine innings, Smith would need only about 52 more innings to surpass both of those marks. However, that pace is probably not sustainable. The NCAA single-season record is 16.8 strikeouts per nine innings. Last year, LSU’s Paul Skenes averaged 15.3 per nine innings.

Even if Smith dipped to, say, 14 strikeouts per nine innings and he averaged just six innings per start for the rest of the regular season, plus a start in the SEC Tournament and a start in a regional, he’d still break both records.

Potential Closer Emerging

It’s easy to get caught up with what Hagen Smith did at the beginning of the game, but freshman Gabe Gaeckle further proved his ability to deliver in late innings Friday afternoon.

The situation wasn’t quite as dire as it was against Oklahoma State last week, when he inherited a bases-loaded, one-out jam in the ninth inning of a one-run game, but it was still a pressure spot. Murray State had the tying runs on base with one out in the eighth and the top of its lineup coming to the plate.

Just as he did against the Cowboys, though, Gaeckle got out of it with back-to-back strikeouts. The first of those wasn’t easy. Drew Vogel — who homered off Smith — fouled off five two-strike pitches before finally swinging and missing at a slider in a full count. Dustin Mercer then looked at a slider for strike three to end the inning.

“In that first at bat, he was just battling,” Gaeckle said. “He was just making me work, so every pitch was taking a deep breath and focusing on it and executing it. Eventually I got him, but it was a tough out.”

Things got a bit interesting in the ninth inning, but the Razorbacks had tacked on a couple of insurance runs, so he had a little bit longer leash.

That gave Van Horn the confidence to stick with he freshman when he walked Jonathan Hogart to start the frame.

“His stuff was good,” Van Horn said. “He was still throwing the ball right around the plate. Fastball was electric and had a pretty good breaking ball going. It seemed like when he got a couple strikes on guys, they didn’t want to go down swinging. They fouled off a couple of pretty good pitches. Got to give them credit, but his stuff was good.”

It might have been a different story if the Racers got the tying run to the plate, but that never happened. Even when Taylor Howell reached on a dropped third strike that would have ended the game, the tying run was still on deck. That’s where he remained, too, as Gaeckle struck out Dan Tauken to end the game and earn his first career save.

You wouldn’t know it by how he’s pitched the last two outings, but Gaeckle said this has been his first time coming out of the bullpen. Like most high-level pitchers, he was always a starter in high school, so this has been invaluable experience for the freshman.

“I think it was just confidence,” Gaeckle said. “Going out there and being able to succeed against those guys, it just gave me confidence whenever I went back out there.”

Since allowing three earned runs on three hits and one walk with two strikeouts in two innings against James Madison, the Aptos, Calif., native has thrown 4 1/3 innings without allowing a run or a hit. He has issued two walks, but he also has 11 strikeouts over that span.

“I think he’s done an awesome job,” Smith said. “I think the biggest thing is confidence. You’ve got to have confidence with what you throw. He’s done a great job with it.”

Another Big Hit for Jones

After an offensive explosion against Grambling in the midweek, hits were once again hard to come by for Arkansas on Friday.

It managed just seven as a team, but one of them was a huge swing courtesy of Jayson Jones, who is still fighting to lock down the starting job in left field.

A walk and back-to-back singles loaded the bases with no outs in the second inning before Jones’ first at bat of the day. He came up to the plate hunting a fastball and he got one the first pitch.

Jones smoked a line drive into right field and the ball, which had an exit velocity of 110 mph, went all the way to the fence for an opposite-field double that drove in two runs. The Razorbacks eventually tacked on three more runs, but none of them came on RBI hits.

“It was on the inside half of the plate if you watch the replay,” Van Horn said. “He really got his hands inside the ball and just shot it down that right-field line. He does that a lot in batting practice when we’re working on going the other way and through the middle. He’s got a knack for doing that with an inside fastball if he’s not on it, so to speak, or he’s out front and guessing.”

Even though he finished just 1 for 3, it’s worth mentioning that one of those outs was a deep, opposite-field fly out caught on the warning track in right. He appeared to get just a little too much under it or else it may have been a home run. Jones also drew a walk. It was a solid follow-up performance to his two-homer game against Grambling.

Racking Up Strikeouts

Between Hagen Smith, Koty Frank and Gabe Gaeckle, Arkansas pitchers combined for 20 strikeouts Friday afternoon.

Prior to this season, that would have been a single-game school record, breaking the previous mark of 18. Instead, it’s just the third-highest total for the Razorbacks in their last five games. They had 23 against Oregon State and 25 in the 14-inning loss to Oklahoma State.

“I don’t think anybody could’ve predicted how many we have the last few games, because it’s been unbelievable honestly,” Van Horn said. “It doesn’t surprise me that we’re striking a lot of people out. We have really good arms on our team and they throw strikes.”

As a team, Arkansas now has 133 strikeouts in 82 1/3 innings — an average of 14.5 per nine innings. That is just behind Florida State’s 15.6 for the second most nationally.

“I mean, you saw it in the fall,” Smith said. “We all knew everybody’s good on our staff, so it just kind of started then. We all competed the whole fall and our biggest thing is just trying to get to two strikes as fast as we can. I think that’s the biggest thing that’s helped us.”

The Razorbacks have also done that without issuing very many free passes, which continued against Murray State. With only two walks, they improved their strikeout-to-walk ratio to 4.93. The NCAA hasn’t updated its official stats yet, but that will likely move Arkansas into second nationally in that category, behind only Texas A&M (5.25).

“When you’re not walking people, you’re making them swing the bat and you’ve got a chance to strike people out,” Van Horn said. “We have guys that have secondary pitches, and that’s what it takes. They’ve got pitches that can get you out and get you to swing and miss.”

Up Next for Arkansas Baseball

The Razorbacks will have a chance to clinch their series against Murray State in Game 2, which is scheduled for 2 p.m. CT Saturday.

Right-hander Brady Tygart (1-0, 0.82 ERA) will take the mound for his third start of the season for Arkansas, while the Racers are slated to start right-hander Bryce Valero (1-1, 4.50 ERA).

All three games this weekend will be streamed online on SEC Network-Plus.

Other Arkansas Baseball Tidbits

  • With the win, the Razorbacks now lead the all-time Arkansas vs Murray State series 6-0. They also swept a three-game series in 2021 and won a pair of games in 1986.
  • Murray State’s leadoff home run against Hagen Smith snapped a streak of 23 consecutive scoreless innings by Arkansas’ starting pitchers. That stretch included six innings by Smith, six by Brady Tygart, five by Mason Molina and six by Colin Fisher (in two starts).
  • Between Hagen Smith and Gabe Gaeckle, right-hander Koty Frank threw 1 1/3 scoreless innings for the Razorbacks. He notched three strikeouts in his first inning of work, but got into a bit of trouble in the eighth, prompting Van Horn to turn things over to Gaeckle.
  • The only Arkansas player with multiple hits Friday was shortstop Wehiwa Aloy, which was good to see considering his struggles at the plate. He also had a double Tuesday against Grambling, making him 3 for 7 the last two games after going 0 for 13 in Arlington. “I think he’s kind of streaky,” Van Horn said. “That’s what we’ve seen. That’s what we’ve heard. It’s all about strike zone for him. If he’ll just be a little bit more patient, he’s going to hit the ball a lot harder a lot more.”
  • Catcher Hudson Polk got the nod at designated hitter after hitting a grand slam against Grambling and went 1 for 3 with a walk.
  • Aside from the three-run second inning, right-hander Cade Vernon turned in a really good start for Murray State. He threw 99 pitches in seven innings and retired the last 11 Razorbacks he faced. “I just feel like that he kept the ball away from us and we just kept rolling over and hitting ground balls to short and second,” Van Horn said.
  • The first pitcher Murray State brought in out of the bullpen was left-hander Thomas McNabb, a Conway native. He would have gotten through the eighth inning unscathed, but his teammates botched a pickoff. That opened the door for Arkansas to score two runs and McNabb was pulled after only 2/3 of an inning.
  • Right-hander Ben Bybee has reached the point in his recovery from mono that he was able to rejoin the team, but he’s still within the 21-day window in which he can’t do much. “He’s having to do most of his stuff on his own, whatever he can do,” Van Horn said. “Then hopefully we can get him back with our catchers and throwing and getting ready to pitch in a real game hopefully in the next couple of weeks.”

Arkansas vs Murray State Highlights (Game 1)

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Postgame Interviews

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Arkansas vs Murray State Box Score (Game 1)


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