Arkansas vs Illinois State: Early-Season Moment of Truth for Struggling Senior

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Zack Morris, Arkansas baseball, Arkansas vs Illinois State
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FAYETTEVILLE — It is still very early in the Arkansas baseball season, but Wednesday feels like it could be an inflection point for Zack Morris.

The senior was voted a team captain by his teammates and is supposed to be one of the Razorbacks’ top bullpen arms this year. Instead, he’s struggled mightily through the first two weeks.

In an effort to jumpstart the left-hander’s season, head coach Dave Van Horn is giving him the ball to start Arkansas’ midweek matchup with Illinois State. First pitch is scheduled for 3 p.m. CT and the game will be streamed on SEC Network-Plus.

It will be just the third start in 47 career appearances for Morris, who posted a 2.31 ERA in 35 innings last season. That includes getting the Razorbacks out of a ninth-inning, bases-loaded jam with the season on the line in Omaha.

He’s been unable to carry that momentum into 2023, though. After struggling through the fall and preseason, Morris did give Arkansas a solid 3 1/3 innings against TCU, but did allow a couple of runs at the tail end of the outing. Since then, it’s been a disaster.

In relief appearances against Grambling and Eastern Illinois, Morris threw a combined 2 innings and was charged with six earned runs and allowed a seventh run that was unearned because of an error he committed.

Opponents are 10 for 24 (.417) against him so far this season and he has a 13.50 ERA in what is still a small — but growing — sample size. After his most recent appearance, Van Horn was asked what’s been different for Morris this year compared to 2022 and his frustration was evident in his voice.

“You’re gonna have to talk to him about it,” Van Horn said. “I don’t know what’s going on. I guess from the side, it looks like his location is not very good.”

The Razorbacks could really use the Morris from last season because their bullpen has faltered a couple of times early on. They lost a big chunk of innings when projected ace Jaxon Wiggins went down before the season and it seems like they’re still trying to figure out who they can rely on when SEC play rolls around in a couple of weeks.

Van Horn said he has “maybe four and a half” pitchers he’s confident in right now and that some older guys need to “step it up a little bit” in order for Arkansas to avoid the bullpen collapses seen against TCU and Eastern Illinois.

Morris is the most obvious candidate to do just that and getting a start in a midweek game is a classic Van Horn move to figure out if a pitcher is up to the challenge. Just last season, Will McEntire used a few midweek starts to vault himself into a key role in the postseason, while Mark Adamiak faltered in his midweek starts and never pitched in SEC play.

When there are 55 games in the regular season, it’s hard to put too much importance on any one game, but Wednesday’s Arkansas vs Illinois State matchup could go a long way in determining the trajectory of Zack Morris’ senior year.

Arkansas vs Illinois State Series History

Illinois State isn’t known as one of the top mid-major programs in the country, making only two of the past 27 NCAA Tournaments, but it has given Arkansas fits in recent years.

In fact, the Redbirds handed the Razorbacks their first season-opening loss since 1994 last season. They dropped the next two games in the series, but they also won a midweek game in the pandemic-shortened 2020 season, so they have split the last four matchups.

Back in 2007, Arkansas had to rally from a 7-0 deficit to force extra innings before winning the rubber match of another three-game series against Illinois State.

LIVE UPDATES — Arkansas vs Illinois State

Pregame Tidbits

This is the fourth of seven straight games Illinois State is playing in the Natural State. The Redbirds took two of three from Arkansas State in Jonesboro over the weekend and head to Conway this weekend for a three-game series against Central Arkansas.

Illinois State will counter Zack Morris with right-hander Thomas Harper, a freshman from Wisconsin. It will be his second midweek start of the year, as he allowed five hits and five walks in four innings against SIU Edwardsville last week, but limited the damage to only two runs. That came after he threw a perfect inning with two strikeouts against Austin Peay on opening weekend.

With regular radio play-by-play man Phil Elson already in Greenville, S.C., for the SEC Women’s Basketball Tournament — Arkansas plays Missouri at 11 a.m. CT Thursday — the Razorbacks have called on Chuck Barrett to pinch hit in the Illinois State game. He held the full-time role for Arkansas baseball from 1992-2014 before stepping away to focus on his football and men’s basketball duties.

The 10-run mercy rule is in effect.

T-1st: Illinois State 1, Arkansas 0

Morris got off to a great start by striking out Rasmussen, but Cheng followed by ripping a double to right. Bohrofen tried to run it down, but he couldn’t get to it in time. Nichols flied out to center to bring up Flores with two outs. He delivered an RBI single to give Illinois State the early lead. Kubo worked the count full and fouled off a couple of pitches before drawing a walk. Morris got out of it, though, by getting Pacella to fly out to center. It was a 25-pitch inning.

B-1st: Arkansas 3, Illinois State 1

After Josenberger flied out to the warning track in right, Bohrofen was plunked and Wegner gave Arkansas the lead with a 433-foot blast. Slavens – much like Josenberger – worked the count full before drawing a walk. After going hitless with four strikeouts in his eight at bats since returning from injury, Stovall finally got a hit with a line drive into center.

That put runners on first and second for Diggs, who walked to load the bases and prompt a mound visit by Illinois State’s pitching coach. There is also already action in the bullpen. An eight-pitch at bat by Cali ends with a walk, giving him his first RBI with the Razorbacks, chasing Harper from the game and making it 3-1.

The new pitcher is right-hander Jayson Hibbard. He got Rowland to pop out in foul territory on the first pitch he sees – with the shortstop making a nice play to catch it – and Bolton grounded out to third on the second pitch he saw. So Hibbard needed only three pitches to get out of the bases-loaded jam with no further damage.

T-2nd: Arkansas 3, Illinois State 2

In his second inning of work, Morris gave up solidly hit balls to the bottom three guys in Illinois State’s lineup. Olson and Stenger singled, sandwiched around a rocket double by Swarmer. Stenger’s hit was an RBI single to pull the Redbirds within 3-2 and chase Morris from the game. The new pitcher is right-hander Koty Frank.

Frank got out of the jam unscathed thanks to a tremendous play by Josenberger and Rowland. Rasmussen hit a fly ball into center that looked like it’d be a game-tying sacrifice fly, but Josenberger came up firing and made a perfect throw to the plate, allowing Rowland to tag Swarmer as he slid into home. Cheng then grounded out to short on the first pitch, so Frank got out three outs on three pitches against two batters.

B-2nd: Arkansas 3, Illinois State 2

Arkansas had an unconventional 1-2-3 inning in the home half of the second. Josenberger reached on a HBP, but was caught stealing. That came after Bohrofen flied out to right, but before Wegner grounded out to third.

T-3rd: Arkansas 3, Illinois State 2

Illinois State got the leadoff man on again thanks to an error by Bolton, but it couldn’t do anything with in. Frank struck out Flores and nearly erased the base runner with a 5-4-3 double play, but the relay to first wasn’t quite in time. Instead, he got Pacella to fly out to left.

B-3rd: Arkansas 3, Illinois State 2

Hibbard has shut down the Razorbacks since coming in. He got Slavens and Diggs to fly out to center sandwiched around a groundout to first by Stovall. It was a 10-pitch inning.

T-4th: Illinois State 4, Arkansas 3

For the third straight inning, Illinois State’s leadoff man reach. This time it’s an infield single, as Cali couldn’t cleanly field a sharply hit grounder to third. Swarmer followed with a single through the left side. Stenger moved them up a base with a sacrifice bunt, setting up a two-run single by Rasmussen. That puts the Redbirds up 4-3. Rasmussen then stole second and tagged up to third on a fly out by Cheng. That’s where he was stranded, though, as Nichols went down swinging.

B-4th: Illinois State 4, Arkansas 3

Arkansas failed to punch back in the bottom of the fourth. Rowland reached on a out-out single, but Cali, Bolton and Josenberger flied out to center. The center fielder has made five of the last six outs for the Redbirds.

T-5th: Illinois State 5, Arkansas 3

Frank is still on the mound and got a couple of quick outs, getting Flores to ground out to short and Kubo to fly out to center, but then gave up a two-out bomb to Pacella. He ended the inning by striking out Olson.

B-5th: Illinois State 5, Arkansas 3

Bohrofen struck out to start the inning, but Wegner followed with a single up the middle. Slavens nearly grounded into a 4-6-3 double play, but it was too slow of a grounder for Illinois State to even try the throw to first. The force at second was close and even required a replay, but Wegner was out. Stovall flied out to the warning track in left to end the inning.

T-6th: Illinois State 5, Arkansas 3

Right-hander Cody Adcock is in to pitch for Arkansas to start the sixth. He gave up a leadoff single to Swarmer – making the 8-hole hitter 3 for 3 – and then Stenger moved him up with another sacrifice bunt. Adcock responded by striking out Rasmussen, battling back from a 3-1 count, and getting Cheng to ground out to short.

B-6th: Arkansas 5, Illinois State 5

Diggs leads off the sixth with a line drive off the wall in right. It was 105 mph off the bat and resulted in a double, giving Arkansas a runner past first for the first time since the first inning. Cali followed with a 110 mph line drive, but it was right to the left fielder for an easy out. That prompts a mound visit. Rowland pokes a ball that stays fair down the left field line for an RBI double, pulling the Razorbacks within 5-4.

That’s the end of the line for Hibbard, who turned in a great outing. The new pitcher is right-hander Erik Kubiatowicz, who has yet to allow a hit or run in 6 2/3 innings this season. However, his first pitch is singled up the middle by Bolton. Because Rowland is slow, though, that put runners on the corners. Josenberger came up swinging at the first pitch, too, but the first baseman snagged it. He got the force at second, but they couldn’t turn the double play, so it gives him the game-tying RBI.

Josenberger successfully stole second and then Bohrofen drew a walk (despite ball four appearing to be strike three), bringing up Wegner. However, he grounded into a fielder’s choice to third to end the inning.

T-7th: Arkansas 5, Illinois State 5

Adcock threw up a zero after his teammates tied it up in the bottom of the sixth. He did issue a two-out walk, but bounced back by getting Pacella to ground out back to him. That ended the inning and kept it tied.

B-7th: Arkansas 8, Illinois State 5

After yet another fly out to the track, this time by Slavens, Arkansas finally broke it open. Stovall, Diggs and Cali went back-to-back-to-back with solo home runs to put the Razorbacks up 8-5. A new pitcher then struck out Rowland and Bolton to end the inning.

T-8th: Arkansas 8, Illinois State 7

Right-hander Brady Tygart comes in to pitch in the eighth. He got a pop out to start the inning, but then plunked Swarmer and gave up a two-run bomb to Stenger, which pulled Illinois State within 8-7. However, he bounced back by striking out Rasmussen and getting Luke Lawrence – a defensive replacement – to ground out to second.

B-8th: Arkansas 9, Illinois State 7

The Razorbacks get an all-important insurance run after a leadoff single and stolen base by Josenberger. That set up Wegner’s RBI single. Wegner also stole second, but Slavens and Stovall flied out.

T-9th: Illinois State 9, Arkansas 9

Nichols leads off the ninth with a home run that just stayed fair and got over the wall in left. That cuts the Hogs’ lead to one. Flores followed with a ground out to short. Tygart got ahead 1-2 against Kubo, but ended up walking him. With the tying run on base, Hobbs visits him on the mound.

Pacella hit a grounder to short and Bolton tried to throw off-balance to get the force at second and possibly start the double play, but his throw was wild. It allowed Kubo to come all the way around and score the tying run and it put the go-ahead run on third in the form of Pacella. Olson goes down swinging for the second out, bringing up Swarmer, who has reached all four times he’s come up.

During Swarmer’s at bat, Tygart called the trainer out to the mound. He was shaking his arm in pain and has to come out. Right-hander Dylan Carter in to pitch now. He gets Swarmer to ground out to end the inning.

B-9th: Arkansas 9, Illinois State 9

Diggs grounded out to second to start the ninth. Cali followed by working the count full and thought he had ball four, but was called out on strikes. Rowland also looked at strike three. This game is going to extras.

T-10th: Arkansas 9, Illinois State 9

Carter is still on the mount for Arkansas. He struck out Stenger before Rasmussen and Lawrence grounded out to short on a couple of nice plays by Bolton.

B-10th: Arkansas 9, Illinois State 9

Bolton goes down swinging to start the home half of the 10th. Josenberger hit a pop up in foul territory that looked like it was going to get out of play, but it just stayed in and the third baseman made a nice grab. It should have been a 1-2-3 inning, but Bohrofen reached when the second baseman botched a grounder. Wegner walked to move the winning run into scoring position. Slavens hit it hard, but the second baseman fielded it and tossed to second for the force to end the inning.

T-11th: Arkansas 9, Illinois State 9

After a ground out by Nichols, Flores hit a blooper into center for a single. Sokolove flied out to center for the second out and Pacella grounded out to third. Nice work by Carter.

B-11th: Arkansas 10, Illinois State 9

Stovall leads off the inning with a double to the right field corner. The winning run is once again in scoring position, this time with no outs. Illinois State’s outfield was playing way in and Diggs hit a long fly ball that landed on the track for a walk-off double.

FINAL: Arkansas 10, Illinois State 9 (11 innings)

BOX SCORE – Arkansas vs Illinois State

Starting Lineups — Arkansas vs Illinois State

Illinois State BaseballArkansas Baseball
1. Auggie Rasmussen – RF1. Tavian Josenberger – CF
2. Luke Cheng – SS2. Jace Bohrofen – RF
3. Greg Nichols – 3B3. Jared Wegner – LF
4. Adrian Flores – 1B4. Brady Slavens – 1B
5. Shay Kubo – 2B5. Peyton Stovall – 2B
6. Daniel Pacella – LF6. Kendall Diggs – DH
7. Connor Olson – DH7. Caleb Cali – 3B
8. Dylan Swarmer – C8. Parker Rowland – C
9. Blake Stenger – CF9. John Bolton – SS
Pitching: Fr. RHP Thomas HarperPitching: Sr. LHP Zack Morris

Arkansas Baseball Schedule This Week

Wednesday — vs Illinois State — 3 p.m. CT (SECN+)

Friday — vs Wright State — 3 p.m. CT (SECN+)

Saturday — vs Wright State — 3 p.m. CT (SECN+)

Sunday — vs Wright State — 1 p.m. CT (SECN+)

Accountability Check — 2023 Arkansas Baseball Predictions

Best of Arkansas Sports managing editor Andrew Hutchinson published his week-by-week predictions for the 2023 season just before the Razorbacks opened the year at the College Baseball Showdown. Those predictions can be read in full here, but we’ll also be doing weekly “accountability checks” in this space.

Prediction: 3-0 over the weekend / 5-2 on the season

Eastern Illinois is the first of three OVC teams Arkansas is set to play. It’s a familiar foe, having visited Fayetteville for a weekend series five times from 2014-20. The Razorbacks won 14 of those 15 games and lead the all-time series 32-2, but the Panthers have played them tight several times.

Ryan Ignoffo is a force to be reckoned with at the plate, hitting .395 with 14 home runs and 58 RBIs last season and now back as a super senior, but I see the Razorbacks taking care of business with a sweep.

Actual: 2-1 last week / 5-2 on the season

The Razorbacks were in position to finish off the sweep, leading Sunday’s game 3-1 through five innings and 3-2 through six, but the bullpen collapsed and they dropped the finale 12-3. However, our season prediction is still on track because we picked them to win only one game in Arlington and they won two.


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