FAYETTEVILLE — Hunter Hollan will get the ball first as Arkansas baseball begins its road back to Omaha.
The left-hander is set to start in the Fayetteville Regional opener between the No. 3 Razorbacks and Santa Clara. First pitch is scheduled for 2 p.m. CT and the game will be streamed on ESPN-Plus.
It’s not a particularly surprising move, but one Arkansas baseball coach Dave Van Horn had to at least think about with left-hander Hagen Smith and right-hander Brady Tygart also available.
Ultimately, it boiled down to the seven straight Game 1 starts Hollan made in SEC play before moving back in the rotation to allow for extra rest as he dealt with a leg injury.
“He has a lot of experience going in Game 1 and we like that,” Van Horn said.
Even with the injury, Hollan never came out of the rotation. He was the only pitcher to start all 14 weekends during the regular season, but he did come out of the bullpen at the SEC Tournament.
Against LSU last Thursday, Hollan threw 86 pitches in 5 1/3 innings in relief, limiting the Tigers’ dangerous lineup to two runs on six hits and one walk while striking out eight.
That was partly in order for him to be available to start the opening game, but also to get a look at him in that role — something he hadn’t done since his junior year of high school — in case its needed in the postseason.
“We thought he might start this game,” Van Horn said. “We’ve also liked the way he bounces back and if we’re fortunate enough to be around on Sunday night or we have to play Monday, he could come back and pitch again.”
While Smith is the headliner on Arkansas’ pitching staff, a case could be made that Hollan has been a second ace for the Razorbacks, as both lefties started seven Game 1s during the regular season. When healthy, Hollan was nearly as good as Smith and is arguably more reliable in terms of what he does each game.
For the season, he has a 4.06 ERA and 1.36 WHIP with 72 strikeouts in 77 2/3 innings. Take out his outings against Georgia and Texas A&M, when he was clearly hampered by injury, and his numbers improve to a 3.41 ERA and 1.25 WHIP with 69 strikeouts in 68 2/3 innings.
“Really consistent, you know what you’re getting,” Van Horn said. “He really cares. Great effort. Popular amongst our team. He had a game or two where it didn’t go well and I think it had to do with that leg, honestly. But just consistent. Confident. Pitches with a little bit of an attitude and fields his position pretty good. He’s a confident guy.”
Luckily for the Razorbacks, that injury — which Van Horn described as shin splints and Hollan described as a pinched nerve — has almost completely healed and he should be good to go Friday afternoon, especially considering he go an extra day of rest after his last outing.
Home Sweet Home for Arkansas Baseball
The Razorbacks have been good all year, hence their No. 3 overall seed, but they’ve been particularly dominant inside the friendly confines of Baum-Walker Stadium.
They are 30-4 in Fayetteville this season, which – at .882 – gives them their second-best winning percentage at home since the venue opened in 1996. The only year Arkansas was better was in 2018, when it went 34-4 (.895) including the postseason, before a runner-up finish at the College World Series.
Such a great record has earned the Razorbacks the right to play at home the first – and, if they win, second – weekend of the NCAA Tournament. It’s the fifth time in six tournaments that Arkansas has hosted a Fayetteville Regional, with last year being the exception.
The trip to Stillwater, Okla., didn’t seem to bother the Razorbacks, but this year’s team is certainly looking forward to staying home.
“Last year was awesome, getting to go to Oklahoma State, but I’m really looking forward to the fans and the atmosphere here at Baum-Walker,” outfielder Jace Bohrofen said. “Last year was cool, because we were on the road, hostile environment. We kind of felt like everyone was against us, and now we’re going to have our fans on our side, being loud as heck.”
Even though the last one was just a couple of years ago, only a handful of Razorbacks have experienced a Fayetteville Regional – most notably, first baseman Brady Slavens and left-hander Zack Morris.
“The fans are going to be nuts, like always,” Morris said. “In ’21, the fans were crazy. I expect the same this regional because that’s how passionate Hog fans are.”
The crowd should provide Arkansas with a true home field advantage, especially Friday against Santa Clara. The Broncos averaged just 352 fans at their home games and the largest crowd they played in front of this year was 1,857 in a road win at Cal Poly.
According to official data from the NCAA, a total of 9,139 fans came to Santa Clara’s 26 home games. More than that will likely be at Friday’s game alone, as it’s expected to be a “near capacity” crowd, per a UA spokesperson.
“I personally can’t wait,” Santa Clara right fielder Michael O’Hara said. “I’m an outfielder, so I know there’s going to be a good amount of people out there with something to say. People down here have been nothing but nice so far and I’m really looking forward to it. I’ve played in some big games in my life, but 10 or 11,000, it’s new. It’s new, but it’s so exciting. I just can’t wait to get out there, to be honest.”
Santa Clara baseball coach Rusty Filter told reporters that he found some audio of the Hog Call and had been blaring it at practice all week, too, in order to prepare his team for what’s in store for them Friday.
Bohrofen Aiming to Break Slump
Arguably the best hitter for Arkansas baseball most of the season, Jace Bohrofen is in the midst of a three-week slump.
Since the South Carolina series, the junior outfielder is just 3 for 37 (.081). That’s led to his batting average dropping 55 points to .318.
Earlier in the week, Dave Van Horn hinted at his – and a few other slumping sluggers’ – issue is more between the ears. On Thursday, he added that Bohrofen just needs to relax and not let the outside noise impact him.
Bohrofen told reporters that he thinks getting nearly a week off before the regional could be key to him breaking out this weekend.
“I think it’s always healthy to get a couple days off, especially from baseball,” Bohrofen said. “Kind of get your mind away from it and just relax. These days at home have been really helpful to me. Being able to get in the facility, getting my swings, building a routine. And just getting my mind ready mentally for this weekend.”
Respecting the Opponent
Santa Clara tied for second in the West Coast Conference standings during the regular season, but punched its ticket to the NCAA Tournament with a 4-0 run through the conference tournament.
It is the Broncos’ first postseason appearance since 1997, so they aren’t exactly a known mid-major power, but they’re not your average 4 seed. They went 5-5 against Pac-12 opponents and are ranked No. 81 in the RPI. For a comparison, NJIT – the 4 seed in the 2021 Fayetteville Regional – was No. 117 in the RPI.
“We don’t want to look past anyone, especially in the postseason,” Jace Bohrofen said. “Everyone’s good. Everyone got here for a reason. We can’t look forward to whoever down the road. We have to play Santa Clara on Friday. That’s really who we’re focused on.”
Dave Van Horn echoed that sentiment.
“To me, at this time of the year, everybody is good,” Van Horn said. “I don’t get too excited about ‘Oh, we have these guys in our regional,’ or ‘Oh we’re going to get that game first.’ My mind moves to the next game, because if you do that, you’ll end up losing. We respect them. We know they’re going to play super hard and that’s the game for us. Tomorrow, we’ll be ready mentally.”
When the Razorbacks get done with Santa Clara, win or lose, they’ll have to face either 2 seed TCU or 3 seed Arizona on Saturday.
The Horned Frogs, despite having just the 13th-best RPI among 2 seeds in the field, are one of the hottest teams in the country. They’ve won 12 of their last 13 games and cruised through the Big 12 Tournament.
“Word on the street is the team you don’t want to play right now is TCU,” Van Horn said. “They’re on fire.”
The Wildcats were one of the last four teams to receive an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament, but have one of the best offenses in the country and won seven of their last nine to put themselves in position to make the postseason. Now that they’re in, Van Horn said he believes they’re excited to show what they’re capable of.
“I think we’re just playing with house money,” Arizona shortstop Nik McClaughry said. “We’ve got nothing to lose and we’re here to play hard and we’re here to play and win games.”
All of those factors have led to the Fayetteville Regional being considered the toughest among the 16 host sites in the tournament.
Pair of Encouraging Updates for Arkansas Baseball
Jace Bohrofen isn’t the only Arkansas outfielder in the midst of a slump. Recently back in the lineup after missing time with injuries, Tavian Josenberger and Jared Wegner have also been scuffling at the plate.
Josenberger collected hits in his last two plate appearances at the SEC Tournament, but Wegner is still struggling a bit. He is just 2 for 22 since coming back from his broken thumb.
Both of his hits – a double off the wall at Vanderbilt and a grand slam in Hoover – have been hit extremely hard, though, and Van Horn said Thursday that he continues to show improvement in practice.
“He broke his thumb and it had been bothering him,” Van Horn said. “Had it looked at Monday when we got back. X-rays and everything said he can’t hurt it anymore. There is some pain still, (but) I think that eased his mind a bit. He has swung it better in batting practice the last two days than he has the last two weeks by a lot.”
Another player Arkansas needs to get back to the level of play he was at much of the season is right-handed Gage Wood.
The freshman emerged as a legit SEC closer, racking up five saves — all in SEC play — and a 2.30 ERA heading into the Vanderbilt series.
His last three appearances have been a different story, though. In two outings at Vanderbilt and one against Texas A&M at the SEC Tournament, Wood has allowed five earned runs on three hits and four walks in just one combined inning.
In Hoover, Van Horn told reporters the coaching staff had to figure out if they could trust him enough to put him on the mound. It sounds like they came to the conclusion that they can, as he threw a “great” bullpen the other day.
“We feel like he’s back on track,” Van Horn said. “Man, this game sometimes, it’s so mental. You just let everything get in your head and bother you. Next thing you know, you can’t hit, you can’t field, you can’t throw strikes. Sometimes you get off to the side a little bit, and you regroup and slow the game down, and you’re back in there again.
“We’ve got to have him if we’re going to get through this thing and have a chance to play after this weekend, we’ve got to have him.”
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