Potential Starter’s Injury Opens Door for 2 Freshmen Hogs on the Mound

Ben Bybee, Arkansas baseball
photo credit: Arkansas Athletics

FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas is keeping sophomore Ben Bybee off the mound this weekend as a precaution, head coach Dave Van Horn revealed Monday afternoon.

The right-hander from Overland Park, Kan., is dealing with a minor hamstring injury that he originally “tweaked” over the summer. It apparently bothered him some over the fall before it really flared up again over the holidays.

He started the Razorbacks’ third preseason scrimmage, which was last Monday, but called the trainer out to the mound and was pulled mid-at bat after only 1 2/3 innings. He appeared to point to his leg, which Van Horn confirmed in an interview with reporters following a Swatter’s Club meeting.

“We’re not throwing him this weekend,” Van Horn said. “He’s a little irritated with that. He wants to pitch. We (told him), ‘Well, we don’t need to throw you. We need to get healthy.’ … I’m just hoping it’s one of those things that once he gets over the hump, it’s done.”

It’s certainly an injury to monitor because Bybee is firmly in the mix, if not the front-runner, to start Arkansas’ fourth game against James Madison on opening weekend and then be the midweek starter.

Although he struggled last season, posting a 7.24 ERA in 27 1/3 innings across 15 outings that included seven starts, Bybee has seemingly turned a corner this offseason.

Van Horn said he has added to his pitch arsenal while also adding strength and commanding the zone better. That improvement started in the California Collegiate League this summer, when he posted an incredible 1.38 ERA and 0.83 WHIP with 40 strikeouts and only seven walks in 32 2/3 innings for the Santa Barbara Foresters.

Bybee wasn’t as dominant in the fall, as he unofficially had a 7.84 ERA in 10 1/3 innings, but he still had a solid 1.16 WHIP and didn’t issue any free passes. That has led to consistent praise from the coaching staff and put him in position to potentially be the Razorbacks’ fourth starter in 2024.

Filling the Void

If Ben Bybee isn’t ready by the start of the season, Arkansas could turn to a freshman as its third starter. Two possibilities are left-hander Colin Fisher and right-hander Gabe Gaeckle.

Gaeckle is the more heralded of the two, as he was the No. 51 overall prospect in the 2023 class, according to Perfect Game, and is generally considered one of the best freshman pitchers to make it to campus.

He threw 2 2/3 innings in Saturday’s scrimmage inside the Fowler Center and gave up a couple of runs on four hits, according to stats provided by a UA spokesperson. (Indoor scrimmages are closed to the public and media.)

That stat line isn’t overly impressive, but Dave Van Horn said it was a bit deceptive because he was dominant through the first two innings before finally giving up the runs in his third inning of work. That’s especially notable because he was facing the lineup full of Arkansas’ projected starters.

Fisher, on the other hand, started opposite of Bybee last Monday and threw two perfect innings with four strikeouts. However, he got knocked around a bit this Monday, giving up four runs on two hits and two walks while striking out three in 2 2/3 innings.

The walks really hurt him because they came with two outs and he promptly gave up a 417-foot home run to Peyton Holt. The only other blemish on his day was a leadoff double in the second inning, which eventually came around to score on a sacrifice fly. Fisher ended his day strong, though, striking out both batters he faced in the third inning before reaching his pitch count.

Possible Redshirt for Arkansas Freshman

One pitcher who didn’t see the mound at all the first weekend of preseason scrimmages was freshman Tucker Holland.

During his talk to the packed house at Mermaids Seafood Restaurant, which hosts the monthly Swatter’s Club meetings, Dave Van Horn revealed his absence was because of an injury and that he could redshirt this season.

Asked about it afterward, he was hesitant to reveal too much detail, but did say it was a “bone issue.”

“It’s not a surgery,” Van Horn said. “It’s a bone issue that is bothering him. It might just be a situation where we have to let that heal for a while. There’s no reason to try to rush him because he could really get hurt.”

The Fayetteville, N.C., native is a 6-foot-6, 235-pound lefty who was ranked as the No. 87 overall recruit in the 2023 class by Perfect Game.

Despite those accolades, he struggled mightily in the fall. He issued 14 walks and gave up nine hits in 8 2/3 innings, resulting in a 9.35 ERA and 2.65 WHIP. Perhaps the injury had something to do with his performance.

It’s not a particularly devastating injury for the Razorbacks, as they still have plenty of pitching depth and left-handed arms available for the 2024 season.

Developing Chemistry Up the Middle

One of the top questions surrounding Arkansas baseball entering the preseason was how well shortstop Wehiwa Aloy and second baseman Peyton Stovall would adjust to playing with each other as a double-play combination.

Aloy is a transfer from Sacramento State who didn’t arrive on campus until last fall, while Stovall is a junior who missed the fall as he rehabbed from offseason shoulder surgery that ended his 2023 season.

That meant the first time they got to work together was when the team reconvened following winter break – and it took a small nudge from their coach.

“When we came back (for the) first day of practice, Aloy was playing catch with Jared Sprague-Lott, who’s his roommate,” Van Horn said. “So I went up to Peyton and I said, ‘Hey, you’re going to play catch with that guy.’ Then Aloy, I said, ‘You’re going to play catch (with Peyton),’ so now that’s a strong partnership.

“They just need to know each other. They need to have a feel if they’re going to flip it or backhand it. They just need to know each other, and know the spin of the ball, everything.”

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Watch Arkansas baseball coach Dave Van Horn’s full interview with reporters following Monday’s Swatter’s Club meeting:

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