FAYETTEVILLE — After using only four pitchers the first two games of the series, Arkansas baseball had several arms available Sunday afternoon. It needed just one.
Hunter Hollan hurled a gem unlike the Razorbacks have seen in seven years, going the distance in their 5-1 win over No. 6 South Carolina in a critical rubber match at Baum-Walker Stadium.
With Arkansas’ spot atop the SEC baseball standings on the line, the left-hander allowed only six base runners — five hits and one walk — while notching a career-high 10 strikeouts in the Razorbacks’ first complete game of at least nine innings in a conference game since 2016.
“I think it was in the sixth inning I looked up and I was like at 70-something pitches or 60-something pitches and I was like, ‘Yeah, I’m probably going nine today,’” Hollan said. “Hobbs came to me after the eighth and he was like ‘Well?’ And I was like, ‘Yeah, I want it!’ So that was cool.”
Over the final six innings of the game, Hollan was virtually unhittable. Prior to a two-out single by Cole Messina in the ninth inning, he had retired 19 consecutive Gamecocks. Beginning with his second time through the South Carolina order, Hollan set down 21 of the final 23 batters he faced.
Included in that stretch were five straight perfect innings in which he recorded 15 outs on just 48 total pitches.
“I thought that, at times, we were just not doing a good enough job letting the ball get deep, making sure we saw it up and using the opposite field,” South Carolina baseball coach Mark Kingston said. “The one guy that did that for us today, Cole Messina, he had a had great day. We just didn’t have enough guys that were committed to really using the whole field.”
His sheer efficiency in those middle innings were what made the complete game possible. He was at 46 pitches through three innings — which was a pace that would have required 138 pitches to go the full nine innings.
When he got Michael Braswell to ground out to end the eighth inning, though, his pitch count was at 94. That made the decision to keep him in the game relatively easy for Arkansas baseball coach Dave Van Horn.
“We thought about taking him out,” Van Horn said. “Going into the eighth we thought, ‘This will be his last inning.’ Then he goes out and works a great inning, quick. He’s in the 90s, but there was no way we could take him out.
“The number of pitches, they do matter, but not as much as how stressful were they? How many tough innings did he have to fight out of? He really only had one, I feel like.”
An argument could be made that Hollan actually had two somewhat stressful innings and they were back-to-back.
In the second, he allowed a leadoff double to Messina and then a single by Gavin Casas put runners on the corners. However, Braylen Wimmer popped out and Talmadge LeCroy lined out back to Hollan, who was then able to double up the runner at third.
An inning later, Will Tippett smacked a leadoff home run to give South Carolina the lead and then Hollan walked the 9-hole hitter, Evan Stone, on five pitches. A one-out single by Dylan Brewer put a two runners on base, but they were stranded when Ethan Petry and Messina got caught looking at strike three — thus beginning Hollan’s run of dominance.
It was an even more amazing performance considering he’s been dealing with an injury to his push-off leg that had contributed to a rough stretch. After posting a 2.81 ERA over his first nine starts, Hollan came into Sunday’s game having allowed 13 earned runs in 12 2/3 innings over his last three outings.
That said, there were flashes of the old Hollan in his start at Mississippi State last weekend. Van Horn was complementary of his stuff after the game, but said he expected him to take his command to the next level in his next start. That proved to be prophetic.
“Today I felt like he just really pitched,” Van Horn said. “He just pitched. Fastball, changeups, cutters, sliders — he just mixed it and all of them were right around the plate. Even his misses a lot of times were really close. They got into swing mode because they felt like they were going to be behind 0-1, 0-2. So they just went up there hacking.”
For just the second time this season, Hollan’s pitch count reached triple digits and he blew past his previous career high (101 pitches vs. Tennessee on April 14) by finishing with 113. Only 33 of those pitches missed the zone, meaning 70.8% of them were strikes.
“That’s an incredible percentage,” Van Horn said. “That is big-time percentage right there. For him to do that, it just keeps your fielders on their toes. When you’re pounding the strike zone, I know as a former infielder, I loved it. It’s like every pitch, ‘Here it comes, here it comes, it’s coming to me.’”
In today’s era of baseball, complete games are a rarity, but this was actually the Razorbacks’ second of the season, as Will McEntire did it against Louisiana Tech back on March 11.
That was their first complete game of any length since 2017, when Trevor Stephan and Kacey Murphy each went the distance once. Their outings were just seven innings, though.
You have to go back one more year to find the last time an Arkansas pitcher threw a complete game of at least nine innings against an SEC foe — Dominic Taccolini’s 10-inning shutout at Kentucky on April 22, 2016.
It was also a first for Hollan, who said he had an 8- and 7-inning complete game while at San Jacinto J.C., but never one of nine innings.
“They’re rare and they’re hard,” Van Horn said. “You just don’t want to stress guys out like that. At this time of the season, warm day, it was a perfect scenario.”
SEC Baseball Race Coming Into Focus
With one regular-season weekend remaining, Arkansas baseball finds itself in the driver’s seat for the SEC West and overall SEC titles.
Thanks to LSU blowing a nine-run lead and losing in its rubber match against Mississippi State 14-13 in 10 innings, the Razorbacks’ lead in the division is now 1.5 games. That means the Tigers need to win two more games than Arkansas next weekend to overtake first place in the division.
Of course, that is certainly in play because the Razorbacks head to Vanderbilt next weekend, while LSU takes on Georgia. Because one of the Tigers’ games against South Carolina was rained out, they’ve played one fewer game, which means there can’t be a tie for the division title.
In terms of the overall SEC title, Arkansas has a one-game lead over Florida, which is coming off a sweep of the Commodores. The Gators end their season at Kentucky.
While unlikely, a sweep of Vanderbilt would definitely clinch the regular-season SEC title for Arkansas baseball. If they win at least one game in Nashville, the Razorbacks would secure at least a share of the championship.
One thing Arkansas has already clinched is a top-four seed in the SEC Tournament, meaning it will receive a bye into the double-elimination portion of the event.
Bottom of the Lineup Produces
Between the shortstop and catcher positions, Arkansas has had a weak spot in its lineup all year. That has only grown and been more pronounced in light of recent injuries to the likes of Jared Wegner, Tavian Josenberger and Peyton Stovall.
On Sunday, though, the bottom of the order came through when the Razorbacks needed it the most.
Shortstop John Bolton, batting the in 9-hole, hit an RBI double in the third inning to tie the game at 1-1 and then catcher Parker Rowland, batting eighth, gave Arkansas the lead with a two-run single in the fifth. On top of that, Peyton Holt — starting in place of Stovall for the second straight weekend — had a three-hit day batting just in front of Rowland and Bolton.
“After I congratulated Hunter, I said something like, ‘How about the 7-, 8-, 9-hole hitters today?’” Dave Van Horn said. “And the team kind of erupted. They did a great job. … The end of the order did it for us today.”
Holt actually had hits in each of his first three plate appearances, including a fifth-inning double, and scored twice. The performance made him 6 for 10 on the weekend.
“He stepped up big-time,” teammate Caleb Cali said. “Obviously with the injuries that we’ve had he’s had to come in and play that second base role the past two weekends and he’s done an unbelievable job. That’s kudos for his hard work and staying ready.”
Perhaps the Razorbacks’ most surprising development over the last three weeks has been the emergence of Bolton. His double on Sunday was his second in as many days after going 25 games (nearly two months) without an extra-base hit and it had an exit velocity of 95 mph, making it one of his harder-hit balls of the year.
The subject of extensive criticism from the fan base for much of the season, the Austin Peay transfer has seemingly turned a corner since the Texas A&M series. Over Arkansas’ last nine SEC games, he is 8 for 23 with two doubles, four RBIs, seven runs, eight walks and only five strikeouts — not to mention three stolen bases, four sacrifice bunts and his fantastic defense at shortstop. That works out to an impressive .348/.516/.435 slash line.
“Coach Thompson and him, they’ve made a couple of adjustments. More of it was just a little bit of how he was going to attack the ball. He’s done a good job. … I think that he’s starting to get some confidence.”
Even as good as Hunter Hollan was on the mound, it’s not a stretch to say the Razorbacks would have lost Sunday had it not been for the bottom half of their lineup.
Including Cali, who hit in the 6-hole, the last four players in Arkansas’ starting lineup went a combined 8 for 14 — a start contrast to the 2 for 20 by the top five batters. That latter number included Josenberger, Jace Bohrofen and Kendall Diggs each going 0 for 4.
“The big boys up top, they can’t do it all the time,” Van Horn said. “You’ve got to get some help, and our lineup seemed a little longer today than it had been in the last few days.”
McLaughlin Provides Insurance Run
After hitting multiple home runs in all three games at Mississippi State, the Razorbacks didn’t hit one until they were down to their final strike of their last at bat in the South Carolina series.
With Arkansas clinging to a 4-1 lead, Ben McLaughlin stepped up to the plate and, after taking a first-pitch strike, proceeded to foul off the next six pitches he saw. Finally, on the eighth pitch of the at bat, he got just enough of the ball for his second home run of the year — extending the lead to 5-1.
“That was a big run for us,” Van Horn said. “You go from three to four, that’s a little bit difficult. Especially mentally if you’re swinging the bats, that fourth run is a little tough.”
The long ball hit the top of the fence in right field, traveling 378 feet with an exit velocity of 96 mph and launch angle of 27.9 degrees.
Not only was it a big swing from a metrics- and score-perspective, but it also ended what had been a bit of a mini-slump by McLaughlin. Prior to the home run, he was just 1 for 11 and struck out three times against the Gamecocks.
“He was really frustrated,” Van Horn said. “Ben’s kind of quiet. Kind of popular in the dugout, with the team. Just a fun guy to be around, but doesn’t say a whole lot. You could see the emotions. Some guys they let it out, but he holds it in a little bit. He hadn’t had a good weekend.”
Even with the 2-for-12 weekend, McLaughlin is still slashing .343/.452/.500 in 70 at bats this season.
Up Next for Arkansas Baseball
The Razorbacks will hit the road to end the regular season, traveling to Nashville, Tenn., for a three-game series at Vanderbilt. Game 1 is scheduled for 6 p.m. CT Thursday and will be nationally televised on the SEC Network.
Other Arkansas Baseball Tidbits
- Despite facing what has been a dangerous lineup for most of 2023, Arkansas’ pitchers really limited what the Gamecocks were able to do offensively. As a team, South Carolina went just 17 for 94 (.181) and scored only fifth total runs. On the flip side, the Razorbacks posted a 1.67 team ERA over the weekend.
- With the win, Arkansas improved to a whopping 30-4 at Baum-Walker Stadium. That includes a 13-2 SEC mark, with the two losses coming at the hands of Alabama and South Carolina. The other two losses were against Eastern Illinois on Feb. 26 and Arkansas State on April 12.
- He was on the 27-man roster, but left fielder Jared Wegner did not appear in the series. He’s still making his way back from a broken thumb suffered on April 14.
- A sixth-inning double extended Brady Slavens’ hitting streak to seven games and on-base streak to 17 games.
- Ben McLaughlin’s eighth-inning home run was the 77th of the season for Arkansas. That is tied with he 2008 team for the 10th-most it has ever had in one season.
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