What Issues Arkansas Must Shore Up Down Season Stretch Run to Get to Omaha

Kendall Diggs, Arkansas baseball
photo credit: Baumology

Before the 2024 college baseball season kicked off in February, everyone who follows the sport – especially the SEC – earmarked Arkansas vs Florida at Baum-Walker Stadium as one of the premier national matchups. According to D1Baseball, the Gators were preseason No. 2, while Arkansas was No. 3, and both featured preseason All-Americans in Hagen Smith, Jac Caglianone and Brandon Neeley. On paper, it was a regular-season matchup for the ages.

Then the real baseball games were, and continue to be, played.

Despite its star-studded lineup and a roster filled with promising athletes, Florida’s journey this season has been a rollercoaster ride. From their preseason No. 2 ranking, the Gators have now slipped to an unranked position, with a record just above .500. Florida (23-21, No. 18 RPI) is not alone in its struggles. Other preseason top 10 teams – like Wake Forest (29-16, No. 14 RPI), LSU (29-17, No. 43 RPI) and TCU (26-16, No. 38 RPI) – have also failed to meet expectations. In contrast, Arkansas has been a beacon of consistency, spending a significant portion of the season at No. 1 and currently holding the No. 2 spot with the No. 2 RPI.

The series lived up to the hype despite Florida’s struggles this season. The Hogs captured the series on the strength of two one-run games. Still, Florida finally got the bats hot enough to grab the getaway game against a midweek starter in Ben Bybee (due to Mason Molina’s ankle injury) and a thin bullpen. For the first time all weekend, Caglianone did some serious damage with a grand slam, which ended up being the difference.

With the series win, Arkansas hits the stretch run tied with Kentucky for the overall SEC lead and one game ahead of Texas A&M in the SEC West. Red-hot Tennessee is also a game back of Arkansas and Kentucky for the overall lead and a game behind UK for the East. These four seemed to have separated from the pack, but Vandy, Mississippi State and South Carolina aren’t out of the hunt for a top-four SEC Tournament seed. All comes down to the final three weekends of the season and nobody has an easy path because of the strength of the league.

The Hogs appear to have the toughest sledding with their three remaining series at Kentucky, home against Mississippi State and at Texas A&M in Aggieland. If I had to give a slight edge to someone on an “easier” path to the No. 1 seed, it would be A&M with its remaining series at LSU, at disappointing Ole Miss and the Hogs at home. But there are no layups in any of the four teams’ remaining schedules. 

For the Hogs to finish strong, a few key elements need to round into the expected form.

Holes in the Arkansas Lineup

Everyone who follows even halfway closely knows Kendall Diggs (.241, 6 HR, 27 RBI) hasn’t had the junior season he or anyone else expected. Whether it’s a nagging injury compromising his swing, an overly analytical approach at the plate or just a plain ole slump…he’s under-produced. He’s in the range of hitting about .100 points lower than he should be at this point in his career. And the offense’s struggles driving in and scoring runs at times show it. 

From the outside, I think it’s all three scenarios above. I’ve caught some of his appearances on 103.7 The Buzz radio show, and when he talks about hitting, there are a lot of wheels in motion upstairs. It might help him clear his mind of all the swing analysis, pitcher tendencies, etc., and get in the batter’s box like in Little League. See the ball, hit the ball and hit it hard. It sounds simple, but athletes can get in their heads sometimes and benefit from a mental reset by returning to basics. 

But if he’s hurt and can’t produce quality at-bats, someone who’s healthy needs a chance.

The problem is…who is that? Fellow outfielders Ross Lovich, Ty Wilmsmeyer, Jayson Jones and Will Edmundson haven’t done much at the plate. The group is hitting a smoldering .231 on the season. Wilmsmeyer has gotten a lot of playing time due to his elite defense, but he’s now fallen below the famed “Mendoza line” at .189 (only .164 in SEC games).

Before Peyton Holt was placed in the outfield, the offensive output from whoever has played there was almost nonexistent. There has been no power, no RBIs and very few productive at-bats. Arkansas baseball coach Dave Van Horn has publicly stated he needs more production from the outfielders, and with only three weekends left in the regular season, he’s still waiting. 

Lineups with dead ends eventually catch up with teams, and someone will have to get hot for the Hogs to be a legitimate Omaha contender. Lovich is hitting a decent .286 and may need to see more consistent playing time to hit his stride. The outfield had been somewhat of a revolving door before Holt’s emergence, but that platooning style hasn’t proven overly effective. None of them have hit a hot streak to warrant more playing time, so the door keeps swinging.

The catcher position has also been challenging to figure out this season. Hudson White transferred in and is known more for his offense than his defense, but it’s been quite the opposite. That has led to platooning with freshman Ryder Helfrick and veteran Parker Rowland.

White is far and away the best offensive threat and has done a solid job behind the plate. Helfrick has provided some power, but not much else, while Rowland has struggled in the batter’s box, which was an issue when he was the primary catcher in 2023. Perhaps giving White more reps would heat his bat up and add depth to the lineup.

Solidifying the Postseason Bullpen

Another concern over the last few weeks has been Will McEntire’s lack of effectiveness. Up until a perfect inning against Missouri State, he had been hit pretty hard in his previous few outings, dating back to the Alabama series. McEntire’s ability to throw long relief or close a game, combined with his experience throwing big, important innings, is crucial for the Hogs to make a serious postseason run. 

SEC hitters seemed to have either dialed into the scouting report on McEntire (cutters galore) or that pitch isn’t showing the same action as it did earlier in the season when he dominated opposing hitters. Once again, I suspect both are playing a role in his recent slump. Hopefully his outing on Tuesday helped him fix those issues because he will undoubtedly play a significant role on the road to Omaha.

The good news is Van Horn has other arms to turn to if McEntire can’t right the ship. Flamethrower Christian Foutch should have gained a huge confidence boost after closing Game 2 against Florida. Velocity has never been an issue for Foutch. Location and a dependable second pitch have led to some inconsistency in effectiveness. He came into a mess created by Cooper Dossett on Tuesday night, gave up a seeing-eye RBI single, and drilled a Missouri State batter before recording two strikeouts to wiggle out of the inning. 

Freshman Gabe Gaeckle has been outstanding, especially in SEC play. His six saves on the season are only one behind SEC leader and A&M bullpen ace Evan Aschenbeck. Gaeckle hasn’t looked like a freshman and is poised to be a go-to guy through the end of the season. But fans will recall Gage Wood had similar success as a freshman last season, then hit a wall during the season’s final third and wasn’t much help in the postseason. Gaeckle’s pure stuff and makeup seem to be a click above Wood’s, and the Hogs can’t afford for him to falter. 

Speaking of Wood, a little more consistency out of him would be huge, as he’s shown flashes of being as dependable as he was for the first half of last season. But he’s also gotten hit hard in some outings, and the coaching staff is a little gun-shy to use him in a high-leverage situation. He looked great against Missouri State on Tuesday night with three shutout innings during his first career start, and that should earn him some time this weekend in Lexington.

Based on my observations, Wood’s switch to a tighter, firmer slider this year instead of his true curveball has not been the best move. Much like McEntire’s cutter, a slider finds a lot of barrels when it’s not breaking or is not as sharp as it should be. If he can find a consistent, effective secondary pitch, Wood can help shore up the postseason bullpen.

Lefty specialist Stone Hewlett has four saves on the season and has gotten some huge outs in very short stints. He may need to see more opportunity than a hitter here and there, especially with McEntire and veteran Koty Frank struggling. The coaching staff doesn’t like him facing right-handed hitters, if possible, but Hewlett is a veteran who seems to handle the moment well.  

What’s Ahead for Arkansas Baseball

Arkansas baseball should be a national seed and host a regional unless a significant collapse happens — like not winning another game the rest of the season. They do need to finish strong to stay in the upper half of the seeds and retain that home-field advantage through Omaha. Even with a loss at home last Saturday, a run of 27 straight is remarkable, as is being 31-2 at Baum-Walker Stadium.

As we’ve seen in the past, hosting at Baum isn’t a lock for Omaha, but it sure does help. This team seems to favor playing there more than others. The venue will play differently in May and June with warmer weather as the ball tends to fly out of the park a little more. This 2024 edition hasn’t boasted the power numbers of recent Razorback offenses, but that can change.

Still, let’s not fast-forward to postseason play quite yet, as the Hogs have some work to do with an SEC West and SEC overall championship in play. As important as those things are, I’d bet Van Horn would like to see some of the above struggles trend upward so this team could hit peak performance when it matters. He would agree that this team hasn’t played its best baseball yet, which is pretty scary considering its record and ranking.

Winning the whole deal isn’t necessarily who has the best team, especially in baseball. It’s about who gets hot at the right time, stays healthy and catches a break or two along the way. The Razorbacks are set to have a good run in Omaha if they can make it there. Charles Schwab Field plays big and favors teams that can pitch and play defense at an elite level. The Hogs have that and couple it with an offense that, so far, has done just enough.

Kentucky and Texas A&M’s fields play especially small, which will be quite a contrast, but that is one of the many nuances of baseball: different pitchers every game, quirky ballparks and so on. This stretch run should be quite interesting to see how the pitching holds up in hitter-friendly ballparks against some high-level offenses. Maybe the Razorback offense finds its groove in a hitter-friendly environment. 

If so, I’d bet Kendall Diggs is in the middle of things. Expect Will McEntire to be charged with getting some critical outs. Both are great Razorbacks with many significant moments on their respective resumes already. These guys have been through the battles, and each knows what it takes to make the run to Omaha.

That starts in earnest this weekend in Lexington.

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Brent Birch is a contributor to Best of Arkansas Sports who pitched for the Razorbacks from 1990-93 and is still on the UA’s all-time top 10 lists for games started and innings pitched.

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