Diggs’ Fiery Postgame Message Caps Much-Needed Performance + More from Game 1 vs Kentucky

Kendall Diggs, Arkansas baseball, Arkansas vs Kentucky
photo credit: Arkansas Athletics

Even in today’s polarized society, there is near unanimous agreement that this Arkansas baseball team needs Kendall Diggs to hit if it’s going to reach its full potential.

Mired in the worst slump of his career, the veteran slugger showed signs of life with a pair of hits and four RBIs in No. 2 Arkansas’ 10-3 series-opening win at No. 8 Kentucky on Friday.

The first of those hits was a two-run double that broke a 1-1 tie in the sixth inning. It snapped Diggs’ streak of 15 consecutive at bats without a hit, including a strikeout — his eighth over that span — and ground out earlier in the game.

“The past couple of weeks have been tough for me at the plate as far as just producing, knowing what I‘m capable of,” Diggs said. “It was really good to come through for the guys.”

Even Diggs admitted to knowing how important he is to the lineup’s success.

“At the end of the day, it was never ‘poor me, poor that,’ but I know I need to and really want to produce for the guys on the team,” he said in an interview with Hogs+ immediately following the game.

Diggs’ slump extends much further than his recent hitless stretch. His season batting averaged dipped all the way down to .238 before that hit and he entered the day hitting just .190 in conference play — an almost unimaginable number for Arkansas’ lone preseason All-SEC position player.

It’s even more bewildering when you consider he was hitting .352 through the first four weekends of the season. The drop of 100-plus points can at least partially be blamed on a nagging shoulder injury suffered in the McNeese State series, which led to him getting some midweek games off, but the Razorbacks have stuck with him in the most important games.

Despite a growing segment of the fanbase calling for him to be benched, Diggs received encouragement from the coaching staff at practice and was shown confidence by being one of four Arkansas baseball players to start all 22 SEC games, along with Peyton Stovall, Ben McLaughlin and Wehiwa Aloy.

“I was talking with Coach (Bobby) Wernes the other day, I was telling him this is the most challenged I’ve been for the longest period of time,” Diggs said. “Obviously, you’ll have a bad weekend here and there but definitely the longest stretch there. Just kind of go back to the roots and credit Coach (Nate) Thompson and Wernes, they’ve been awesome. Just telling me a lot of positive things, looking through some video. It’s all come together, couldn’t happened at a better time as well.”

The only thing that’s changed for Diggs has been where he’s hit in the lineup. After having him in the top four spots for most of the first half of the season, Arkansas baseball coach Dave Van Horn has dropped him down some lately and had him slotted in the 7 hole against Kentucky.

He said his hope was he’d get some RBI opportunities and that’s just what happened. Even though his 0-for-15 stretch included 10 at bats with runners on base, many of whom were in scoring position, Diggs delivered twice Friday.

After his go-ahead double in the sixth, Diggs helped blow the game open with a two-out, bases-loaded single that drove in two more runs.

“We needed him tonight,” Van Horn said. “That’s the way I look at it, just throw all the other stuff out the window and let’s just move forward. All that really matters is what’s in front of us anyway. I think he’s been really mature about it and done a great job.”

Now the question is whether or not he’s completely dug out of his slump and can sustain that level of play down the stretch as Arkansas chases an SEC title and eyes a deep postseason run.

“At the end of the day, it’s taking a deep breath and going back to my roots,” Diggs said. “For me, it was the biggest thing. Just taking a deep breath and believing in myself. I felt really good. I had two knocks today. In every at-bat, I felt a lot better. Hoping to build on it.”

He’ll have a chance to build on it in Game 2 of the Arkansas vs Kentucky series — a game for which he had a simple message when presented with the gorilla doll as the team’s offensive MVP.

“Let’s kick ass tomorrow,” Diggs told his teammates.

Hagen Smith Sensational Again

This just in: Hagen Smith is really good at baseball.

The left-hander further asserted himself as the best pitcher in the country by allowing only one earned run on three hits and two walks while striking out 14 in six innings.

It was his 10th quality start in 12 tries this season and his school-record ninth game with double-digit strikeouts.

“Hagen’s stuff was amazing, especially from about the third inning on,” Arkansas baseball coach Dave Van Horn said. “He ramped it up a little bit. He was amazing.”

Smith said he threw a few changeups in the first couple of innings, but went away from that pitch and leaned almost exclusively on his fastball and slider — two elite pitches — for most of the game.

The result was his highest strikeout total since his historic 17-strikeout performance against Oregon State on Feb. 23. Despite his coach’s praise, Smith didn’t speak quite as glowingly about his outing.

“It definitely doesn’t compare at all to that night,” Smith said. “Stuff-wise, I felt I threw alright today. Hudson White called a great game and the defense played really good behind me. My stuff wasn’t bad, but it certainly wasn’t my best I’ve ever thrown.”

That one run Smith allowed probably shouldn’t have scored, either. After retiring the first eight batters of the game, he gave up a two-out infield single to Kentucky 9-hole hitter Devin Burkes.

The inning should have ended when Smith picked him off. Even though the throw beat him by several steps, Burkes managed to avoid Peyton Stovall’s tag and slide into second for a stolen base. On the very next pitch — in a 1-2 count — Ryan Waldschmidt crushed an RBI double off the wall in center to give the Wildcats a 1-0 lead.

Kentucky got a runner past first base only one other time and that was in the fifth inning when the game was still tied 1-1. Nolan McCarthy drew a leadoff walk, moved to second on a sacrifice bunt and stole third during the ensuing at bat. Smith didn’t let him go any further, striking out Burkes and Waldschmidt to end the threat.

“What I saw was a guy who was determined to not let them score,” Van Horn said. “I brought the infield in and I don’t bring the infield in like that very much. I just had the feeling like if they did make contact that they were going to get jammed and I just didn’t want to give them a cheap run. There was a possibility they’d get a cheap hit. But he didn’t need his infield. He just needed his catcher.”

Smith said that inning gave him some added confidence going into the sixth and he used it to strike out the side after another leadoff walk. He got Mitchell Daly to look at his 101st pitch of the night for strikeout No. 14.

Through 12 starts, Smith has an incredible 1.36 ERA and 0.82 WHIP while averaging 17.05 strikeouts per nine innings. The single-season DI record is 16.79 set by Houston’s Ryan Wagner in 2003.

His 125 strikeouts this season are tied with Isaiah Campbell’s total in 2019 for sixth on the UA’s single-season list — which is topped by David Walling’s 155 strikeouts in 1999. He also continues to inch toward Nick Schmidt’s all-time record of 345, as he now sits at 324 for his career.

“He did to us what he’s done to everybody else,” Kentucky baseball coach Nick Mingione said. “Quite frankly I thought we’d have better at bats than that, but he got us 14 times in six innings. … His stuff is just really good — the fastball command, the fastball movement and the slider is a really good pitch.”

McEntire Back on Track?

Another player critical to the Razorbacks making a deep postseason run is right-hander Will McEntire.

Once looking like arguably the best reliever in the country, the veteran had struggled mightily in five straight appearances in which opponents hit .457 against him.

He threw a perfect inning of relief Tuesday against Missouri State to end that stretch and then followed it up with two more scoreless innings against Kentucky.

Arkansas had already put the game away and was up 10-1 when he entered the game, but it was still encouraging to see him put up a couple of zeroes. McEntire retired the Wildcats in order in the seventh and then worked around a leadoff walk and one-out single in the eighth.

There were a few times he showed some frustrations on the mound, but the Bryant native also notched three strikeouts. One of those was against the hot-hitting Ryan Waldschmidt, who had homered five times in Kentucky’s previous seven games and hit the RBI double against Hagen Smith.

“He came in and pitched like the game was tight, and that’s what I liked,” Van Horn said. “I liked the way that he attacked it knowing that we had the game in hand if we just didn’t give them anything. I think that’s where his frustration came from is that he got behind in the count a couple times and he also walked a hitter, but I think he always pitches with a little bit of emotion. He wants the ball when the game is on the line. He wants the ball any time.”

McEntire threw only 39 pitches and probably could have closed the game out by pitching the ninth, but Van Horn said they got him out because they’d like to have him available to pitch again either Saturday or Sunday — a role he held earlier in the season before his recent struggles.

Breaking the Game Open

It took a while, but Arkansas finally broke through against Kentucky starter Trey Pooser in the fifth inning. That’s when Hudson White and Peyton Stovall hit doubles off the right-hander, with the latter of those driving in the game-tying run.

Once they got into the Wildcats’ bullpen, the Razorbacks blew the game open.

Pooser’s otherwise solid outing ended with back-to-back walks and reliever Cameron O’Brien’s first strike was hit to the right-center gap by Kendall Diggs for a two-run double. Ross Lovich added a two-out RBI double on a flare that found turf and bounced over the right fielder’s head.

Arkansas’ big seventh inning was sparked in a similar way, as a leadoff walk by Jared Sprague-Lott, single by Ben McLaughlin and HBP by Peyton Holt loaded the bases for Diggs’ second two-run hit. Hudson White followed with an RBI single of his own, but the Razorbacks’ next three runs came courtesy of two bases-loaded walks and a wild pitch.

“I just think guys were patient, tried to wait him out a little bit,” Van Horn said. “The key when you put together an inning like that, you have to get some help. They usually make an error or walk and we got the walks.”

It was Arkansas’ highest scoring SEC game of the season, edging out the nine runs it scored against Missouri (March 17) and South Carolina (April 20).

Up Next for Arkansas Baseball

The Razorbacks can clinch the series with a win in Game 2, which is scheduled for 1 p.m. CT Saturday. However, there is rain in the forecast that could potentially alter the start time.

Right-hander Brady Tygart (4-1, 2.68 ERA) is scheduled to start for Arkansas and Kentucky will counter with left-hander Dominic Niman (7-3, 5.00 ERA).

Like all three games this weekend, it will be streamed online on SEC Network-Plus.

Other Arkansas Baseball Tidbits

  • Despite it being a top-10 showdown between the SEC’s two division leaders, Game 1 of the Arkansas vs Kentucky series had an announced attendance of only 4,742. The listed capacity for Kentucky Proud Park is 5,000 and the Wildcats averaged more than 7,000 fans for their series against Tennessee a couple weeks ago.
  • With the win, the Razorbacks moved into sole possession of first place in the overall SEC standings. They also have a two-game lead in the SEC West after Texas A&M dropped Game 1 of its series at LSU.
  • This is the seventh straight full season (not including the pandemic-shortened 2020 year) that Arkansas has won at least 40 games. That is the longest active streak in the SEC. Tennessee owns the second-longest such streak and is two wins shy of hitting that milestone for a fifth straight year.
  • Peyton Holt reached base in each of his first four plate appearances Friday night, notching an infield single, two walks and a HBP. It would have been five straight, but right fielder Patrick Herrera made a great diving catch to rob him of a hit.
  • Arkansas pitchers combined for 18 strikeouts Friday night. Prior to this season, that would have tied the UA single-game record set five times previously. However, the Razorbacks have exceeded that total four times this year — 25 against Oklahoma State, 23 against Oregon State, 20 against Murray State and 19 against LSU. That means five of the 10 best single-game strikeout totals in school history have happened this season.
  • The last of those strikeouts was recorded by Dylan Carter, who pitched the ninth inning. He gave up two earned runs, but was pitching in the pouring rain and one of those runs wouldn’t have scored had it not been for defensive indifference allowing the runner to move into scoring position. “He gave us a chance to save our bullpen,” Van Horn said. “He’s still building up. I told him he’s going to pitch in some leverage situations before this season’s over and we appreciated him getting us through that inning.”

Arkansas vs Kentucky Highlights (Game 1)

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Postgame Interviews

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Arkansas vs Kentucky Box Score (Game 1)


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