Jim Schlossnagle had seen it on TV before, but he had a front row seat to Kendall Diggs’ heroics for Arkansas baseball Wednesday afternoon.
The second-year Texas A&M coach watched from the opposing dugout as Diggs led off the 11th inning with a walk-off home run that lifted the Razorbacks to a 6-5 win over the Aggies at the SEC Tournament in Hoover, Ala.
It was the first walk-off home run at the event since Georgia’s Cam Shepherd did it in 2019 — also against Texas A&M.
“Arkansas plays a lot of day games during the week, so we’ll have the games on as we’re getting ready to play or getting ready to practice, and Diggs is one of those guys that he’s just a clutch player,” Schlossnagle said. “Just when you think you’ve got him, he shows up to play. He’s gotten a lot of big hits for them. I’ve seen them rip his jersey off a few times this year.”
When Diggs stepped to the plate for the sixth time Wednesday, the score was tied 5-5. The Aggies had tied it up with a leadoff home run of their own in the ninth inning and Arkansas had just squandered an excellent scoring opportunity in the 10th inning.
He took a strike and two straight balls to get into a 2-1 count and then crushed the next pitch 398 feet to right field. It left the bat at a 20 degree angle and had an exit velocity of 105 mph.
“I didn’t want to jump on something that really wasn’t over the plate,” Diggs said. “Wanted to make him come to me, and he did with that first-pitch fastball. Next two were really good pitches, probably maybe a ball down, so 2-1 count. I knew he was going to challenge me with something, just trying to get the head out, and it was good.”
With the heart of his order coming up behind Diggs, Arkansas baseball coach Dave Van Horn felt good heading into the 11th and even laid out a blueprint for the win — but his star sophomore went off-script. Not that he’s complaining, though.
“I just made the comment to the guys, ‘Let’s get three singles in a row and get out of here,’ and I guess they did not take my advice, decided to hit a homer,” Van Horn said. “It was great. When it left the bat, I thought it was a double, (and then) uh-oh, it might go.
“I was begging it to get out of the park. We were running out of players. We did not want to use any more pitching. You think about it, first game of tournament, and we’ve already played 11 innings, so we all were ready to go, and I was super excited to see that ball disappear.”
Diggs is no stranger to big moments.
He hit an 11th-inning walk-off double to beat Illinois State in a midweek game back on March 1. Last year, his three-run walk-off home run took down Ole Miss to even the series. Diggs is believed to be the first player in the Van Horn era with multiple walk-off home runs at Arkansas.
The swing also gave him 57 RBIs, extending his team lead in the category. Throw in the fact that he’s slashing .478/.657/1.043 with runners in scoring position, it’s abundantly clear that Diggs is better than most when it matters the most.
Asked about his “clutch” performances after the game, Diggs initially brushed it off as simply just trying to help the team win, but he eventually admitted there might be something to it.
“It’s also like you’re put in a situation, like it’s now or never,” Diggs said. “I think subconsciously you might lock in a little bit more in those moments or you know what you need to do and what you want to do. I’ve been blessed to be put in those situations, and I take any of our guys in those situations, as well.”
The mental side of things is certainly a big part of it, but Van Horn also had a technical explanation for Diggs’ ability to deliver in big spots.
“I think he’s a clutch hitter because I don’t think he gets too uptight and he knows strike zone a little bit,” Van Horn said. “The biggest pitch at that at bat, besides the ball left the yard…but the pitch before was a borderline strike. But he didn’t like it and he took it, and it was called a ball. He’s up 2-1 in the count, like he said, he knew he was going to get a good pitch to hit, and he got a fastball and he got all over it.”
Jared Wegner is Back
Kendall Diggs would have never been in position for those 11th-inning heroics had it not been for another big swing by a teammate four innings earlier.
Texas A&M jumped out to a 4-0 lead, aided in part by the Razorbacks stranding six runners over the first three innings, and it was still 4-1 before Arkansas finally put together a big inning in the seventh.
It started with a leadoff walk by Parker Rowland and, after an error and another walk, the bases were loaded with one out for Jared Wegner. He jumped on the first pitch he saw from reliever Brandyn Garcia and sent it well over the wall in left for a go-ahead grand slam.
“The previous two at bats I was kind of late on a lot of fastballs and they were attacking me with fastballs,” Wegner said. “They brought in Garcia who has velo, and was kind of hunting a fastball middle in and got it off on that first pitch.”
A broken thumb suffered in a midweek game against Little Rock on April 11 caused him to miss about half of the SEC slate. At the time of his injury, Wegner was arguably the Razorbacks’ best hitter, leading the team in home runs and RBIs.
In his first weekend back, the Creighton transfer went just 1 for 11 with five strikeouts at Vanderbilt. By game No. 4 of his return, though, Van Horn said he had been looking better in practice.
“He’s had certain at bats where he didn’t look the same, and…the last couple of days during batting practice, his swing started looking a little more normal,” Van Horn said. “So I’m feeling a lot better about that.”
After such a long layoff, it’s understandable that Wegner’s timing might be off. Despite striking out in nearly half of his at bats against the Commodores, he still hit a couple of balls extremely hard. He had a double off the top of the wall for his lone hit and had a scorcher (117-118 mph exit velocity, per Van Horn) snagged by the third baseman to rob him of another hit.
The power is clearly still there, despite the thumb injury, and he showcased it with the grand slam.
“Coming back off the injury it’s been a struggle kind of getting my timing down,” Wegner said. “After that swing I feel confident.”
It didn’t result in a hit, but Tavian Josenberger also showed signs of breaking out of his slump at the plate Wednesday afternoon.
Even though he went 0 for 5, two of his outs came on hard-hit balls to left that Jace LaViolette tracked down.
“(I’m) feeling a lot better about him barreling up some balls, and he’ll battle you, usually take a walk,” Van Horn said. “He didn’t walk today, but he usually sees a lot of pitches, so that’s a good sign.”
DVH Defends Decision
One of the more head-scratching decisions of the day came in the 10th inning, when Arkansas had runners on second and third with one out, meaning the winning run was just 90 feet away.
With Parker Rowland due up, it seemed like an excellent spot to pinch hit with Ben McLaughlin. It’s a move Dave Van Horn has made before, as Rowland is hitting just .180 this season, compared to McLaughlin’s .343 average.
Instead, he stuck with his catcher. It turns out Van Horn had an excellent reason to do so: Hudson Polk, the backup catcher, had been up all night throwing up and had to get an IV, so he was unavailable to play.
If Rowland came out, the Razorbacks would have to turn to emergency catcher Peyton Holt, which would also mean finding another second baseman.
“If I pinch-hit for him, I’ve got to bring in another catcher and I get that, but if I pinch-hit for him, then I don’t know what they’re going to do,” Van Horn said. “We had runners at…second and third. My thinking at the time was they’re probably going to walk him if I bring up my best pinch hitter and then taking a shot with one out also sets up a double play. Let’s just bunt him in and go home.”
Unfortunately for Arkansas, Rowland didn’t execute the squeeze. He popped his bunt up and the pitcher, Ty Sexton, was able to field it and get the out at the plate to extend the game.
With runners on the corners, Tavian Josenberger grounded out to end the inning.
Morris, McEntire Combine for Nine
As big as the swings by Jared Wegner and Kendall Diggs were, the story of the day was the performance of Arkansas’ bullpen.
Starter Cody Adcock failed to record an out in the third inning, so the Razorbacks’ reliever ended up needing to throw a full nine innings — and they did it with only two arms.
The first guy out of the pen was left-hander Zack Morris. Although he inherited a bases-loaded situation and allowed all three to score, the team captain shattered his previous career highs for innings and total pitches.
“All four of my pitches were working, especially the fastball,” Morris said. “The split and the curveball were all good early in the game, and I kind of found my slider towards the end. So I thought I mixed really well today.”
Prior to Wednesday, Morris had never thrown more than 3 1/3 innings — which he did against TCU way back on Feb. 18 and against Oklahoma State in last year’s Stillwater Regional — or 62 pitches (against OSU).
He breezed past that, scattering three hits and one walk across five innings in which the Aggies scored just one run. That required 85 total pitches.
“Honestly he was just keeping us off balance, mixing his fastball, slider (and) changeup, both sides of the plate,” Texas A&M second baseman Austin Bost said. “Obviously give credit to him because he just did a great job, went out there and shut us down, just filled up the zone.”
Over his last four outings, Morris has been nearly unhittable for the Razorbacks. He’s given up just the one run on three hits and four walks while striking out 17 batters in 17 innings.
That’s a stark contrast to how he pitched for much of the year. In fact, at one point during the season, Morris went to the coaches and asked them not to give up on him. Luckily for Arkansas, they never did.
“It seemed like right after that, we gave him the ball and he had a pretty good outing, and he’s just gotten better and better, so we have a lot of confidence in him,” Van Horn said. “Going forward, it’s big having that veteran lefty in the pen that knows how to pitch.”
The Razorbacks had freshmen Christian Foutch and Parker Coil getting loose in the bullpen, but needing six more outs to close out what would have been a 5-4 victory, Arkansas turned to Will McEntire.
Although he blew the save opportunity to allowing the aforementioned leadoff home run in the ninth, the right-hander was still very good. That was one of only two hits he gave up. He also walked one batter and had three strikeouts while throwing 60 pitches across four innings.
McEntire has now pitched in three of Arkansas’ last four games, combining for 10 1/3 innings in which he’s allowed only one run on four hits and two walks with 11 strikeouts. Over that seven-day span, he threw 145 total pitches.
Pitching that frequently is a bit of a new development for the Razorbacks, but McEntire has been very good since shifting to the bullpen in the Texas A&M series.
In 28 innings since then, he’s allowed only 10 earned runs on 19 hits and eight walks while striking out 34. That equates to a solid 3.21 ERA and very good 0.96 WHIP
High Praise for Dave Van Horn
When his team visited Fayetteville about a month ago, Texas A&M baseball coach Jim Schlossnagle had great things to say about the atmosphere at Baum-Walker Stadium.
His respect of the Arkansas baseball program extends beyond its fan base, though. He is also a huge fan of its veteran coach, Dave Van Horn.
“I said this here the other day and I’ll continue to say it: I think Coach Van Horn — if he’s not the best coach in the country, he’s in the top one or two,” Schlossnagle said. “They just play outstanding baseball. They don’t screw the game up.
“They can beat you in a lot of ways, and the job they’ve done this year with the injuries they’ve had and just the next-man-up kind of mentality, that’s exactly what we’re trying to get going in College Station.”
Those kind of feelings likely played a large role in the league’s coaches voting Van Horn as the SEC Coach of the Year after the Razorbacks won a share of the regular-season conference title with a 20-10 SEC record.
Up Next for Arkansas Baseball
With the win, the Razorbacks move into the winner’s bracket of the SEC Tournament and will face 3 seed LSU at 4:30 p.m. CT Thursday. The game will be televised on SEC Network.
It will be a rematch of a series in Baton Rouge back in March, when Arkansas won the opener in extra innings before getting swept in a doubleheader the next day to lose the series.
“It’s going to be super fun,” Kendall Diggs said. “Really fun. I think it’s going to be a great game. They have an amazing team so it’s going to be a battle, but just looking forward to it.”
Both teams will be pitching their ace, with sophomore left-hander Hagen Smith on the mound for the Razorbacks and junior right-hander Paul Skenes starting for the Tigers.
Skenes is considered the best pitching prospect since Stephen Strasburg and will likely be a top-two pick in this summer’s MLB Draft. He is 10-1 with an incredible 1.77 ERA and 164 strikeouts in 86 2/3 innings this season, while limiting opponents to a .161 batting average.
Smith has been a starter and closer this season and is a potential first-round pick in the 2024 MLB Draft. He is 8-1 with two saves, plus a 2.56 ERA with 93 strikeouts in 63 1/3 innings. Opponents are hitting just .191 against him.
They were the two first-team All-SEC starting pitchers on this year’s team, which was announced Monday.
Other Arkansas Baseball Tidbits
- This was Arkansas’ first extra-inning game at the SEC Tournament since 2013, when it pulled out a 2-1 win over Ole Miss in 10 innings. That game ended when Brian Anderson score on a wild pitch.
- He went just 1 for 5, but Brady Slavens’ seventh-inning single extended his hitting streak to 11 games and on-base streak to 21 games, both of which are the longest active streaks on the team. The latter is the second-longest of the season for Arkansas, trailing only Kendall Diggs’ 34-game streak.
- When Parker Rowland threw out pinch runner Travis Chestnut trying to swipe second to end the 10th inning, it was the 10th runner he’s caught stealing this season, which leads the SEC. That number doesn’t even include his three pickoffs.
- Kendall Diggs appeared to reach via catcher’s interference in the seventh inning. It was called as such by the SEC Network crew, but it was officially ruled an error on the shortstop. That’s because Diggs still put the ball in play and, after a brief bobble, Hunter Haas never threw it, so Arkansas opted to take the result of the play. It would have been the third time this season that the Razorbacks reached on a catcher’s interference.
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Arkansas vs Texas A&M Box Score (SEC Tournament)
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