LSU Becomes Latest Victim of Diggs’ Late-Game Heroics + More from Game 1

Kendall Diggs, Arkansas baseball, Arkansas vs Mississippi State
photo credit: Craven Whitlow

FAYETTEVILLE — Kendall Diggs has a knack for delivering in the clutch for Arkansas and he came through again Thursday night.

As he has several times throughout his career, the junior smacked a huge three-run home run to give the No. 1 Razorbacks some much-needed insurance in the eighth inning of their 7-4 win over No. 8 LSU at Baum-Walker Stadium.

The swing proved to be the difference in Arkansas improving to 21-3 overall and 6-1 in SEC play. Meanwhile, the defending national champion Tigers dropped to 20-7 with a surprising 2-5 conference mark.

After a pair of walks sandwiched around a strikeout, LSU reliever caught too much of the plate with an 0-2 fastball and Diggs made him pay by crushing it 381 feet to right. It was that strikeout, for which Ben McLaughlin was the victim, that actually set the stage for the big swing.

“They used the same sequence they did against McLaughlin — two breaking balls and then try to sneak a fastball by McLaughlin, and they did, he took it,” Arkansas baseball coach Dave Van Horn said. “And then the exact same sequence they tried, it looked like, to use on Diggs, and he caught the fastball and hit out of the park.”

Even though it was his team-leading sixth home run of the season, Diggs was in the midst of a slump when he stepped to the plate with runners on first and second and one out in the bottom of the eighth. He was just 2 for his last 23 dating back to the final game of the Missouri series, causing his batting average to dip just below .300.

“It felt really good coming through for the guys,” Diggs said. “The past couple of series and games, I wasn’t super happy with how I was producing for the team. But that’s how it goes. Just got to keep moving on to that next at bat.”

In Thursday’s game alone, Diggs was 0 for 4 with two strikeouts and was in serious danger of going 0 for 5 after falling behind 0-2 against Guidry. Luckily for the Razorbacks, he broke out of it with a big swing.

“It doesn’t surprise me a bit,” Van Horn said. “Obviously, we need him. One of our best hitters, most experienced hitters. He wasn’t having a great night, but we always talk about, ‘You still have time. You can still help the team.’

“To me, he had a great night. He drove in three runs. That’s all I’m looking at here, is that he drove in three runs. I don’t care what else he did. Just took one swing to flip his night and hopefully get him rolling.”

At the time, Arkansas was clinging to a 4-3 lead and had a seemingly tiring Will McEntire on the mound, with Gabe Gaeckle getting loose in the bullpen.

By pushing that lead to four with Diggs’ home run, the Razorbacks were able to stick with McEntire to start the ninth and avoid using their closer in the series opener.

“We might have changed the way we pitched it, we might not have,” Van Horn said. “We might have just given him a hitter or two, or run a closer out there. But with him hitting that three-run homer, four-run lead, it’s a lot better than one. It’s a lot better than three. That four-run lead is kind of special, but yeah, it changed the way we were thinking in our dugout.”

The fact that it was a three-run homer was notable, too, because one-third of his career home runs — seven of 21 — have now driven in exactly three runs. That list includes his walk-off homer against Ole Miss and seventh-inning go-ahead shot against Auburn in 2022, plus an eighth-inning go-ahead long ball against Army last year.

Bullpen Closes it Out

It wasn’t the smoothest outing of the year for Arkansas’ bullpen, but it got through the final three innings with the lead still intact.

As expected, right-hander Will McEntire was the first guy out of the bullpen. He struck out five of the first six batters he faced, working around a one-out double in the seventh, but then he ran into trouble.

Tommy White started the rally with a single and then Hayden Travinski battled back from down 1-2 to draw a walk — just the fourth of the year issued by McEntire. That set up an RBI single by Jared Jones, which pulled the Tigers within 4-3 and put runners on the corners.

McEntire got out of the jam, though, by striking out Michael Braswell III. Despite it being a huge moment, he showed no emotion as he calmly walked off the field.

“I was just kind of mad of myself cause I walked a guy,” McEntire said with a laugh.

Even though he was at 43 pitches, McEntire came back out in the ninth and struck out Mac Bingham before issuing another walk and giving up a double to Steven Milam. A wild pitch brought home a run before McEntire struck out pinch-hitter Brady Neal on his 62nd pitch of the night.

“The cutter and fastball and then I flipped in a couple of curveballs,” McEntire said. “Kind of lost command there at the end and over-amped myself for that moment. I can learn from that and grow from that.”

LSU may have lost, but McEntire not being as efficient as he usually is may impact the rest of the series. It’s unclear if Arkansas will use him again, but he probably won’t be available in Game 2, at a minimum. He threw 62 pitches while allowing two earned runs and striking out eight in 2 2/3 innings.

That’s significant considering he owns a 2.01 ERA with 40 strikeouts and only five walks in 31 1/3 innings across a team-high 12 appearances.

“McEntire’s been a winner,” LSU baseball coach Jay Johnson said. “He’s got video game reliever numbers. We set up the table, got him to (62) pitches. Hopefully he won’t be able to come back this weekend.”

With a runner on third, two outs and the tying run on deck in the form of Tommy White, the Razorbacks called on Stone Hewlett, their dependable left-on-left specialist, to try to get Josh Pearson.

The Kansas transfer quickly fell behind 3-0 with three straight breaking balls well off the plate, but responded with three straight fastballs in the zone to notch the strikeout and earn his first save of the year.

“I liked the way he didn’t get all uptight about it and just basically did what we wanted him to do, and that was throw the ball over the plate,” Van Horn said. “If they hit it, they hit it. But you don’t want to walk him with White on deck, who seems to be swinging the bat extremely well right now.”

Hewlett now has at least one strikeout in all 10 of his appearances, even though six of them — including Thursday — were for only one out. He has 13 strikeouts in 5 2/3 innings, with 10 of those coming in 12 at bats against left-handed hitters.

“It’s funky,” Diggs said. “That slider is spinning. Slider is sharp. It moves differently too. It’s not very consistent but it’s always moving a lot. The fastball is coming back in on you too, so there’s a lot of this tunneling that way. At least for me, I’ve known Stone forever, I grew up playing with him, facing him, so he’s had my number since we were about 13, 14 years old.”

All nine outs recorded by McEntire (8) and Hewlett (1) were via strikeouts.

Hogs Punch Back

As it did time and time again in its Game 2 win at Auburn last weekend, Arkansas immediately answered when LSU took the lead Thursday night.

The Tigers hit back-to-back home runs in the top of the fourth to go up 2-1, but the Razorbacks got a one-out solo home run from Jack Wagner to tie it up before a two-out RBI single by Peyton Stovall put them up for good.

It wasn’t too shocking to see Stovall deliver in the clutch, but Wagner’s ability to hit the ball out of the ballpark has been a pleasant surprise this week. On the team level, it was a big swing because it swung the momentum back in Arkansas’ favor.

“It changed the attitude in our dugout a little bit, honestly, because you’ve got one of your better pitchers on the mound and you could see the way they reacted when they scored those runs,” Van Horn said. “It was a really big swing.”

On a more personal level, Wagner went more than three weeks without playing because of a foot injury suffered in practice. He finally returned to the lineup Tuesday against Little Rock and hit a home run. That was enough for Van Horn to keep him in the lineup again and he rewarded him by hitting a 1-2 pitch into the Hog Pen in his first SEC game.

“One of the best teammates I’ve ever played with,” Diggs said. “He wasn’t getting in there a whole lot but you would never be able to tell with just the way he acts and how he cheers on all the guys. Really, really good player but also a really good locker room guy all around.”

The Razorbacks also scored in the bottom of the eighth, thanks to Diggs’ home run, after the Tigers scored a run in the top half.

Assessing Hagen Smith’s Start

He wasn’t as dominant as he has been in a few other outings, but Hagen Smith was still very good in Game 1 of Arkansas vs LSU.

The left-hander gave up a season-high five hits and allowed two earned runs — both on solo home runs — while notching 10 strikeouts in six innings. He also didn’t issue any walks for the first time this season and finished with 97 pitches.

“The amazing thing is, he keeps his stuff,” Van Horn said. “The last inning he was still pumping 95, 96. He could have gone out another inning. We’re just trying to take care of him a little bit. That pitch count’s built up. But his stuff was real good. I’ve seen him great. Today he was real, real good, but I’ve seen him great.”

LSU broke through against Smith in the fourth inning when Tommy White got just enough of a pitch to send it into the left field bullpen for a 344-foot home run. On the very next pitch, Hayden Travinski got ahold of a fastball and hit it with a 105 mph exit velocity, resulting in a 368-foot blast off the Hunt Center in right.

“I can’t say what was going through my mind, but that was the first time I’ve ever given up back-to-back home runs,” Smith said. “It’s just part of the game. Home runs happen. Especially against a good team like that. A good lineup. There’s a good approach. Just kind of have to forget about it.”

Luckily for the Razorbacks, it didn’t seem to bother Smith much. He ended up retiring eight of the Tigers’ next 10 batters, with a couple of singles mixed in with five strikeouts.

Smith touched 96 mph on his 92nd pitch of the night and finished with double-digit strikeouts for his third straight start and fifth overall in seven outings.

“Solo home runs can beat you every now and then, but they don’t beat you a lot,” Van Horn said. “I didn’t see Hagen getting uptight. Even though he gave up back-to-back, they were solos. … There’s the experience he gained early in the season and there is the experience he’s gained over the last two years. That’s why he is so good.”

According to a UA spokesperson, there were “at least” 19 scouts in attendance for Smith’s start and he made quite the impression on LSU baseball coach Jay Johnson.

“He’s a lot to deal with,” Johnson said. “I don’t like that we had as many strikeouts as we did, but that’s what he does to everybody. He’s really good. He’s one of the best pitchers I’ve ever faced in my entire career. I hope we get to face him again at some point. That would be good for our team.”

Up Next for Arkansas Baseball

The Arkansas vs LSU series will continue with Game 2 at 7 p.m. CT Friday. It will be nationally televised on SEC Network with Tom Hart and Kyle Peterson on the call again.

In a small change, the Razorbacks will start left-hander Mason Molina (3-0, 2.57 ERA) instead of right-hander Brady Tygart (3-0, 1.59 ERA), who had been their second starter the first six weeks of the season. Dave Van Horn said the move was made to give Tygart an extra day to “get right” after issuing nine walks over his previous two starts.

The Tigers have ace Luke Holman waiting in the wings after deciding to keep him on Friday rather than move him up to stay in the Game 1 slot. The right-hander is 5-1 with an SEC-leading 0.78 ERA and 56 strikeouts to only eight walks. Opponents are hitting just .157 against the Alabama transfer.

A case could be made that LSU was intentionally pitching off against Hagen Smith, but LSU baseball coach Jay Johnson was adamant after the game that is was to keep him on normal rest after pitching last Friday against Florida.

“He threw (104) pitches and we’re not a very good team if he’s not pitching for us, so we need to keep him on full rest being that he threw 104 pitches last week,” Johnson said. “That’s the only reason, and we’d already moved him up once this year.”

Other Arkansas Baseball Tidbits

  • The announced attendance for Game 1 of Arkansas vs LSU was 11,027. It’s the third time the Razorbacks have cracked 11,000 at Baum-Walker Stadium this year, but the first two were Saturday games against Murray State and McNeese State.
  • Hagen Smith is now alone in fourth place on the UA’s all-time strikeout list. With 10 on Thursday, he’s up to 271 in his career. The left-hander entered the night tied with Scott Tabor. Up next: David Walling with 283.
  • As a staff, Arkansas pitchers combined for 19 strikeouts on Thursday. That would have been enough for a single-game school record before this season, but the Razorbacks have struck out 20-plus opponents three times in 2024.
  • On the other end of the spectrum, LSU pitchers — seven of whom saw the mound in Game 1 — combined to walk the Razorbacks 11 times. That’s a season high for Arkansas.
  • Here are the metrics — distance, exit velocity and launch angle — of the two home runs hit by the Razorbacks:
    • Wagner: 364 feet, 100 mph, 37.7 degrees
    • Diggs: 381 feet, 101 mph, 27.2 degrees

Arkansas vs LSU Highlights (Game 1)

Postgame Interviews

Arkansas baseball coach Dave Van Horn, as well as players Hagen Smith, Will McEntire and Kendall Diggs, met with reporters following Game 1 of Arkansas vs LSU.

Arkansas vs LSU Box Score (Game 1)

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