Molina Turns In Stellar Bounce-Back, Streak of Zeros Ends + More from Missouri Sweep

Mason Molina, Arkansas baseball, Arkansas vs Missouri
photo credit: Craven Whitlow

FAYETTEVILLE — Poor starts have been rare for Arkansas this season, but when they’ve happened, the encore has been pretty spectacular.

Mason Molina was the latest pitcher to follow this trend, carrying a no-hitter through five innings to help the No. 1 Razorbacks complete a sweep of Missouri with a 9-1 win on Sunday.

Even though he lost the no-hit bid with a leadoff single in the sixth, the left-hander still received a standing ovation from the Baum-Walker Stadium crowd when he was pulled after recording just one out in the inning.

It was a stark contrast to the week before, when Molina was lifted with the bases loaded in the fifth inning and the game still hanging in the balance against McNeese State. All three of those runners eventually came around to score, resulting in him being charged with four earned runs — the most by an Arkansas starter this year — in four innings.

That made his outing against the Tigers all the more important and he bounced back in a big way, scattering five base runners (one hit, three walks and one HBP) across 5 1/3 innings while racking up 10 strikeouts.

“Obviously you don’t want two in a row,” Arkansas baseball coach Dave Van Horn said. “We knew we had a bullpen full of guys ready to go, but you want your starters to get their work in and get ready for the next week. Stay built up as far as pitch counts and all that.”

The only other time an Arkansas starter has given up more than two earned runs this year was in the season opener against James Madison, when Hagen Smith lasted only one inning and gave up a three-run homer in frigid temperatures. He followed that up with arguably the most impressive start of the season in all of college baseball, striking out 17 in just six scoreless innings against Oregon State.

Smith’s outing overshadowed an impressive start by Molina two days later, when he threw five hitless innings against Michigan in the Razorbacks’ final game in Arlington. That means Sunday was the second time he’s opened a game with five hitless innings. Through five starts, opponents are hitting just .122 against Molina.

“He’s hard to hit,” Van Horn said. “He throws that carry fastball and he’s got a good changeup. He’s just kind of effectively wild a little bit. Kind of keeps them off balance.”

Of course, the downside of being “effectively wild” is an inflated pitch count and that got to Molina against Missouri.

In addition to issuing three walks and plunking a batter, the Texas Tech transfer also recorded four of his outs from a full count. That contributed to him needing 97 pitches just to get through a season-high 5 1/3 innings.

“We’ve seen that since he got here,” Van Horn said. “He’s going to go 2-2, 3-2 on a lot of hitters. He’s got a knack for throwing that strike when he really, really needs it.”

At this point, though, critiquing Molina’s tendency to throw a lot of pitches is almost nitpicking. As the Razorbacks’ third weekend starter, he is now 3-0 with a 2.74 ERA and 43 strikeouts in 23 innings.

On most Division I teams across the country, Molina would be the unquestioned Friday night ace. However, Arkansas also has Hagen Smith (3-0, 1.57 ERA) and Brady Tygart (3-0, 0.73 ERA) in the rotation.

That trio combined to throw 16 scoreless innings in which they allowed only four hits and eight walks while striking out 27 against Missouri this weekend.

“The two guys that are in front of me, I haven’t really seen anything like it,” Molina said. “You can compare it to Wake Forest last year, but there’s still a lot of the year left. At the same time, it’s not like we’re reinventing the wheel. We’re just making pitches and the guys have good stuff.”

Dominant Pitching Overall

It wasn’t just the starting pitchers that carved up Missouri’s lineup. Arkansas’ bullpen was almost just as effective this weekend.

In fact, the Tigers didn’t even score a run until Thomas Curry hit a leadoff home run in the seventh inning of Game 3, snapping the scoreless streak at 24 innings to open SEC play.

Freshman Colin Fisher was guilty of allowing that long ball, doing so on the first pitch he threw. The left-hander got through the inning after giving up only one more hit, but at least two of his three outs were well struck.

Luckily for him, Arkansas was already up 8-0 at the time and his uncharacteristic outing didn’t really hurt, giving him his first taste of SEC baseball in a low-pressure situation.

“I think it’s good to get it under his belt and move on,” Van Horn said. “He didn’t throw as good as he normally does obviously. Throwing the ball down the middle of the plate instead of the corner. They jumped on him, but that’s over with. He can get ready for next weekend.”

Everyone else was almost flawless. Koty Frank got back-to-back strikeouts after inheriting a two-on, one-out situation in the sixth, Gage Wood induced a double play ball to wipe out a leadoff walk in the eighth and Gabe Gaeckle got three groundouts in a perfect ninth inning.

That was indicative of the Tigers’ offensive showing all weekend. As a team, they slashed just .096/.219/.157 with 37 strikeouts in 97 plate appearances. Missouri baseball coach Kerrick Jackson gave Arkansas some props for that, but also said his team had something to do with it, as well.

“We did a lot of getting ourselves out this weekend again and again and again,” Jackson said. “They have some good arms, but we didn’t make it tough on them. You saw what they did when our pitchers made mistakes. They didn’t miss. When their pitchers made mistakes, we were passive and missed.”

Nickel-and-Dime Offense

After back-to-back games in which it heavily relied on the long ball to get things going offensively, Arkansas put up its most runs of the weekend with only one home run Sunday.

Instead of hitting the ball out of the park, the Razorbacks pounced on Missouri’s mistakes by finding the gaps for doubles and getting the ball into the outfield with a runner on third and less than two outs.

That method led to Arkansas scoring in five of eight innings, even though the most it put up in a single frame was three runs in the sixth.

“I like big innings, but I also like putting some pressure on every inning — two here, one there, three there,” Van Horn said. “That’s how you kind of put it away. You just keep the momentum away from them and get it to the point where they’re thinking, ‘Man, this is too big a hill to climb.’ It’s kind of what we did today.”

It started immediately, with Peyton Stovall hitting a leadoff single to start the home half of the first inning and Kendall Diggs driving him in with an RBI double. A wild pitch then moved Diggs to third, setting up a sacrifice fly by Ben McLaughlin.

The exact same scenario played out in the fifth, but this time it was Ty Wilmsmeyer with the leadoff single and Stovall bringing him home with a double — which he smoked down the right field line with an incredible 111 mph exit velocity. He then scored on Wehiwa Aloy’s sacrifice fly after moving to third on another wild pitch.

It was a great day for Stovall, who swung the bat even better than his 2-for-5 stat line indicates. His aforementioned single had a 100 mph exit velocity and he also flied out to deep center with a 101 mph exit velocity. In seven games since recovering from a broken foot, Stovall is 9 for 28 (.321) with nine RBIs.

“I’d have to say he’s been amazing, really,” Van Horn said. “For a guy that’s got 20 at bats, it doesn’t look like it. It looks like he’s got 120.”

Sandwiched between those two-run frames was a solo home run by Ben McLaughlin in the third inning.

The rest of Arkansas’ scoring followed a script similar to those other innings, with an error extending the eighth and allowing Aloy to drive in two more runs with a single. With three more on Sunday, he has a team-high 19 RBIs and his batting average has climbed from .167 following the games in Arlington to .243.

“He’s got a knack for driving in runs,” Van Horn said. “Even when it wasn’t going well for him, I left him up there in the order, because that’s what we need him to be. That’s what I feel like he is.”

The Razorbacks tacked on one more run in the seventh, with Hudson White smacking a two-out RBI double off the wall.

Up Next for Arkansas Baseball

For the last time until May, the Razorbacks don’t have a midweek game before next weekend. However, that series will start a day early, with Game 1 at Auburn scheduled for 6 p.m. CT Thursday. It’ll actually be televised on SEC Network.

Entering the week, the Tigers were ranked No. 18 in the D1Baseball poll, but they’ll likely drop — if not fall out entirely — after getting swept at Vanderbilt this weekend. They are now 13-6 overall.

Speaking of dropping, on Monday Arkansas ended up falling in RPI from No. 1 to No. 2 despite the dominant sweep of Missouri. That’s primarily because two-loss Clemson was able to beat No. 6 Duke on the road over the weekend:

Other Arkansas Baseball Tidbits

  • The announced attendance for Game 3 of the Arkansas vs Missouri series was 9,867. That brings the three-game weekend total to 30,410. For comparison sake, the Tigers’ single-season attendance record, which was set last year, is 37,133 — and that was for 26 games.
  • The Razorbacks now lead the all-time Arkansas vs Missouri series 36-33-1, according to the Missouri baseball media guide, which dates back further than Arkansas’ records. Since 1997, though, the Razorbacks own the series with a 20-4 record. That includes winning five of six series since the Tigers joined the SEC.
  • In the second inning, Mason Molina retired Missouri in order with three strikeouts — all of which were looking. His other seven strikeouts came on a swing-and-miss.
  • After hitting only 11 in its first 13 games, Arkansas has now homered 14 times in its last six games. That total includes eight long balls this weekend, only one of which was hit Sunday: a two-out solo shot by Ben McLaughlin in the third inning. Here are the metrics — distance, exit velocity and launch angle — of that home run:
    • McLaughlin: 351 feet, 102 mph, 27.0 degrees
  • Missouri center fielder Jeric Curtis is a transfer from Texas Tech. That means in his first two at bats, the pitcher (Mason Molina), catcher (Hudson White) and hitter (Curtis) were all former Red Raiders and were teammates last season. Curtis struck out his first time up, but then broke up the no-hitter with a single in his next at bat.
  • Just like he did last week, Mason Molina picked off a runner in the first inning. It’s actually the fourth time in five games that Arkansas’ starter has done that, with Colin Fisher doing it against Oral Roberts and Hagen Smith doing it in the first game of the Arkansas vs Missouri series on Friday.

Arkansas vs Missouri Highlights (Game 3)

Postgame Interviews

Arkansas vs Missouri Box Score (Game 3)

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