FAYETTEVILLE — Pace of play has been a hot topic across all levels of baseball and the SEC has made a few adjustments in an effort to speed up games that Arkansas baseball fans might notice in 2023.
In addition to limiting the time between pitches, at bats and innings, the league has adopted a mercy rule that can end conference games as many as two innings early in blowouts.
If a team leads by 10-plus runs through seven innings, the game will end. It’s a rule similar to what teams have always had the ability to agree to for non-conference games, but now it’s mandated in SEC play.
“I guess the way I look at it is, if I’m up 9 I’m going to try to score, try to save some pitching,” head coach Dave Van Horn said. “If I’m getting it handed to me, if you get beat by 10, let’s get ready for tomorrow and not waste any pitching.”
The SEC has also expanded the availability of the international tiebreaker, making it an option for all conference games. Previously, it was only something that could be used on the final day of a series.
However, both coaches have to agree beforehand to use the rule, which involves a runner starting on second base in extra innings. Van Horn got a taste of it when he coached Team USA one summer and it’s safe to say Arkansas won’t ever use it as long as he’s the coach.
“Are you playing for one or are you going to try to score more? Because I’ll tell you this, you probably better score more,” Van Horn said. “(With) one, you’ll probably end up tied again because they’re going to score. I mean, I’m not going to say I want to do that. I want to play regular baseball.”
There will still be two minutes between each half inning and the 20-second pitch clock will continue to be used, but there have been modifications to the latter at the NCAA level.
Pitchers must begin their motion or make a pickoff throw to avoid a violation, with only one step-off or fake throw to a base per batter. Unlike previous years, there will be no warning — if the clock expires, a ball will be added to the count.
In the SEC, there will also be a 30-second clock between batters in conference games.
Weekend of Rest for Jaxon Wiggins
Projected weekend starter Jaxon Wiggins was held out of this weekend’s scrimmages for precautionary reasons because he was experiencing soreness, according to a UA spokesperson.
The Razorbacks scrimmaged inside the Fowler Center on Friday, as the ice and snow that hit the area hadn’t fully melted, and then outside at Baum-Walker Stadium on Sunday and Monday.
Considering it is less than two weeks away from Opening Day, that is a notable development for a pitcher in the running for not only a starting job, but the Friday night role. Wiggins was the most dominant pitcher on the team during the fall and Dave Van Horn even said he had earned the right to start the first weekend of the season.
Now armed with a breaking ball to complement his elite fastball, the right-hander from Roland, Okla., posted a 0.75 ERA and 0.58 WHIP with 22 strikeouts in 12 innings during the intrasquad scrimmages attended by the media.
He was expected to be joined by right-hander Will McEntire and left-hander Hagen Smith, in some order, in the opening weekend rotation. However, the first sign that something was up with Wiggins came Monday afternoon, when Van Horn indicated Hunter Hollan might start the first weekend.
He told reporters that the two lefties threw “really good” in Friday’s scrimmage, which was closed to the public, and added that the Razorbacks were “probably going to get an opportunity to start those two guys first weekend somehow.”
It is also worth noting that Wiggins threw only one inning in his start last weekend, while the other three starters worked into at least the second inning.
Building Team Chemistry
With a roster consisting of 26 newcomers between the freshman class and transfer additions, Dave Van Horn admitted that he was concerned about how quickly his 2023 squad would mesh.
Much to his delight, it sounds as though those worries have been put to rest. In fact, Van Horn said it may be one of the team’s strengths at this point of the year, even with two-thirds of the roster being new.
It helped that the Razorbacks have a state-of-the-art facility in the Hunt Center, where they could easily hang out together. The ping pong table, in particular, was key to the development of that chemistry.
Van Horn said the ping pong battles were intense and that the team even held a tournament when they got some time off on consecutive days. Of course, the fact that most of them are neighbors also didn’t hurt.
“They’re kind of in the same area because we had a little bit of an issue finding housing this summer, helping them,” Van Horn said. “A lot of these guys are from out of town, so they all end up kind of living by each other in duplexes and stuff. They’ve told me they just kind of leave their backdoor open and those guys will come in. It’s kind of neat.”
As previously reported by Best of Arkansas Sports, the current Arkansas baseball roster lists 39 players, but only 36 can be active during the regular season. That means three will be designated as redshirts in the very near future.
A leading candidate to fill one of those spots is catcher Cal Kilgore, the transfer from New Mexico State. He was limited for much of the fall because of injuries and Van Horn indicated he was still banged up.
The race at catcher seems to be between Oklahoma transfer Hudson Polk and JUCO transfer Parker Rowland, so between being third in the pecking order and not fully healthy, a redshirt year makes sense.
Freshman right-hander Cooper Dossett appears to be trending in the opposite direction. The highest-ranked pitcher who made it to campus from the 2022 singing class, the Springdale Har-Ber native was dealing with some arm issues that followed him from high school and didn’t pitch much at all during the fall, leading to Van Horn mentioning the possibility of a redshirt.
That could still be in play, but he pitched in one of last weekend’s scrimmages and then again on Monday. Although he issued a pair of walks, Dossett showed promise by not allowing a hit and striking out six.
“His first outing was pretty good,” Van Horn said, a few hours before his second outing. “It was one inning. … Like all the righties, he’s throwing the ball 93, 96 and there’s more in there. And he’s got a good breaking ball.”
Arkansas Baseball Monday Scrimmage Tidbits
It was very windy, but otherwise a beautiful day for early February on Monday, with temperatures in the 60s. Dave Van Horn saw that in the forecast, so he decided to make the team’s NCAA-mandated day off Saturday, pushing the Razorbacks’ final two scrimmages to Sunday and Monday.
Best of Arkansas Sports was at Baum-Walker Stadium for the last of those scrimmages, which saw the starters (Red) rally for a 5-4 win over the reserves (Gray).
Perhaps the most encouraging part of the scrimmage was Will McEntire’s outing as the Red team’s starter. The right-hander worked into the fourth inning and was even better than his final stat line (3 1/3 IP, 3 H, 1 ER, 0 BB, 2 K) indicated.
Kendall Diggs was the first batter he faced and it was a length battle, as the sophomore fouled off several pitches. McEntire never gave in, even when he got what would have been a routine fly out on a day with less wind. On the 11th of so pitch of the at bat, he got Diggs to ground out to first.
Despite the next batter reaching via error on what should have been a first-pitch groundout, McEntire erased him by inducing a 4-6-3 double play by Ben McLaughlin. He followed that up with a quick, perfect second inning.
In the third, McEntire ran into some trouble — to no fault of his own. He got Parker Rowland to hit a fly ball that should have been a relatively easy final out, but the wind got ahold of it and nearly blew it back into the infield. It was too long of a run for center fielder Tavian Josenberger and shortstop John Bolton never saw it, so it fell to the ground and had to officially be ruled a double.
Diggs followed with a sharp grounder that just got past a diving Brady Slavens at first base for an RBI single, giving McEntire a tough-luck earned run. When he struck out Harold Coll to end the inning, it seemed like his outing might be over, but he went back out in the fourth. McLaughlin lined a single into center to start the inning and McEntire nearly erased him with another 4-6-3 double play, but Jayson Jones just barely beat the throw at first.
That was the final at bat of McEntire’s performance — which was vintage McEntire and likely more of an indication of what to expect from him this season than his fall, when he struggled to a 6.75 ERA in scrimmages attended by the media.
Here are a few other quick tidbits from the Arkansas baseball scrimmage…
- Speaking of Diggs, he had a pretty solid day at the plate. The aforementioned long at bat in the first inning was the only time he failed to reach, as he finished 2 for 3 with a walk. In addition to the RBI single against McEntire, Diggs also had an RBI double later in the scrimmage. It’s worth noting that he was previously projected to start at third base, but he’s been working as a corner outfielder so far this preseason and could be a candidate to start at DH.
- The Razorbacks’ best hitter throughout the spring has been Caleb Cali. After leading the team with a .419 batting average in the fall, the JUCO transfer has notched multiple hits in all four public scrimmages this preseason. His 3-for-3 day at the plate Monday, which included a pair of doubles and two RBIs (plus a walk), makes him 10 for 15 with five extra-base hits in those scrimmages. He looks like the real deal.
- Second baseman Peyton Stovall did not run during Sunday’s scrimmage because he rolled his ankle in a pregame drill, but it doesn’t appear to be anything serious because he was running fine on Monday.
- Freshman Jayson Jones is known for his bat, but he managed to have a decent day despite going 0 for 3 at the plate. He flashed a good glove at first base, despite being a natural third baseman, and also made a great read on a ball in the dirt, taking second base after reaching base via a walk.
- After the fall, BoAS projected Harold Coll to start at shortstop, as he’s more of an offensive threat and has been capable of making very good plays in the field, but it might be time to accept that Austin Peay transfer John Bolton has the lead in that battle. He was more consistent in the field than Coll, which is something Van Horn prioritizes at the position, and also had a great day at the plate, going 3 for 4. Bolton perfectly executed a hit-and-run with an opposite-field single right at the spot the second baseman had vacated to cover the bag and had a double to the right-center gap on which he took third base when Mason Neville bobbled it on the track. Even his out was a solidly hit line drive to center.
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